Primate Diaries: A change of scenery and pace (Days 62

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is an account of my experiences with the Macaca Nemestrina Project in Perak, Malaysia. Since, I don’t have great internet connection, each blog post will be an ccount of 3 days. I will try to explain biology jargon and/or provide links for them. But I’m pressed for time as internet is precious and I use Starbucks’ wifi (shoutout to Starbucks for all the caffeine). Excuse the atrocious spelling and grammar. I’m using a tablet and I miss MS Word pointing out my errors. Photos are more difficult to upload and hope that my words are enough to paint a picture.

If not- follow me on twitter @mad_megs or instagram-meghamajoe for some images and videos.

Please read the previous posts for context. Feedback and questions are appreciated. Curiosity drives us. It drove me to this adventure

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CONTEXT: We were all invited to hear Nadine and others talk at an event organised by the Malaysian Cultural and Heritage Society in KL and of course we couldn’t pass up on the opportunity.
Summary 17-22 March 2017
17th March, Friday: Anna and Michele went in the morning for a few hours. Vino is staying at home so she hitched a ride with Nadine. We left at around 2. Guess what- buses to KL are always booked well in advance. Luckily we could at least get a bus for 5:30 pm. Kuala Lumpur, like all other cities looks creepy at night and has shady characters around.

18th March, Saturday: We met up with Vino and trusted her knowledge of the public transport of KL. It’s pretty good, though a bit pricey. We attended the talk and came to know about some amazing work in conservation, public awareness and cultural heritage of Malayasia. We also met Leo and Lea, the two new French volunteers who had arrived in KL a few days ago. We had dinner with a research group that is studying human-longtail conflict and had amazing discussions about science, culture, international politics and religion. My kinda people always make me happy I guess.

19th March: A contact of Nadine has a rescue centre which she pretty much manages with herself and one other student. We visited her and helped clean and arrange things. It was tiring but rewarding and we again had some amazing conversations over some good food.

20th March: Vino, Michele, Leo, Lea and I got the bus to Manjung while Anna left to Singapore for her visa run (after her bus got cancelled and she had to get a different bus). We got to Manjung and disembarked only for Vino to realise her wallet was probably in the bus. Luckily her dad was in town to meet her on the way to a meeting so they were able to make a quick run to Lumut to retrieve the wallet. We got basic grocery and got back home. Vino and I were still not tired so we decided to take a stroll on the beach in the hopes of seeing some bioluminiscent plankton. No plankton but warmish water and gentle waves.

21st March: We finally decided to go to Pangkor. It’s a 30 minute ferry ride from Lumut. Leo was swarmed by Malays who wanted to take a picture of themselves with the tall white dude. At least Michele and Lea were spared because they were inside. We got to the island and hired ne of the bright pink taxis which took us to all the major sights of the island, including one dilapidated Dutch fort, a Taoist temple and after the wonderfully weird thing that is roti ice-cream (google it), we were dropped to an amazing beach. I had resolved to not swim but the day was amazing and the sun shone bright on the high waves. And none of us could resist. One after the other, we were all drawn though we got pecked at by some transparent jellyfish. We had a brilliant time and then got some local sea bass (3 rasa) along with other dishes because the lunch we brought wasn’t enough. Michele had turned completely red and is horribly sunburnt. We sincerely hope her pain was worth the tan she wishes for.

22nd March, Monday: Back to work
We needed to go look for AMY, vacation over! We taught Leo basics of riding the bike. Too bad he couldn’t practice properly because the bike had a flat tyre again and our morning was spent was spent getting a new cooking gas cylinder and borrowing a pump (Ours is with the helpful villager Saufi who unfortunately lives too far away, closer to the forest).

Vino and I reached the plantation which looked incredibly busy. The plantation workers were all over, harvesting and collecting the oil-palm fruits. It was quite chaotic and the heat was terrible. We had to stop for water breaks and we realised the monkeys wouldn’t be outside. We had seen VOLDEMORT (the non-habituated pigtailed macaque group with the noseless alpha male- Voldemort). The heat was stifling and we were having no luck so we decided to g back and persuaded Michele and Lea, who were on the way, to turn back and come later. They did go later and when they too had no luck, Vino and I went back for a second time. We waited till 6:30 pm but in vain. I reminded them not to be disheartened, Anna and I couldn’t find them for 3 consecutive days when I first arrived. We all I’m sure, silently prayed that wouldn’t happen.

23rd March 2017, Thursday: There you are!

The day started with a rain and seemed cloudy. I wondered if that is the reason we couldn’t find AMY yesterday. Could they perhaps be in the swamp? At Nadine’s suggestion, we were planning to also search some trails going into the forest this time in case waiting around in the plantation at checkpoints wasn’t yielding much. Lea and Michele went in the morning. Meanwhile Vino and I instructed Leo on riding the second bike, not that he needed to much input.

There was still no news of AMY. Leo and I reached the plantation at around 1:30 and I enquired to Michele’s whereabouts via walkie-talkie to be greeted with “We found them, near the clearing!”. It is this weird feeling- relief, when it washes over you. And it is weird in scenarios when YOU aren’t even the one who achieved and succeeded at finding them. It’s a testament to our dynamics as a team and our commonality regardless of country of origin, culture and ideologies.

Lea and Michele had found them around an hour ago. So after transfering the tablet and relaying basic information, they left. AMY left soon too and we followed them into the forest, slowly progressing toward the hill. It had rained and the individuals were wet and difficult to distinguish. It definitely didn’t help that they were also avoiding coming to the ground- because it was wet or because they saw a new human in an orange t-shirt. We followed them closely and I identified individuals as time passed and the fur of the macaques dried up and they started being less wary of us (I wonder if they missed our presence- we haven’t tailed them for 6 days). I also gave Leo tid-bits of information about each individual attributing personality to them (some would consider that animal-behaviour faux-pas, I would too but anthropomorphising a little makes it easier to remember them) and filling him in on vocalisations and how to recognise them, when you are lucky enough for them to call of course. Biru’s swell has grown considerably larger than before an she is now being courted by the beta-male Oliver…A LOT. I pointed out Casimodo, Phoenix with his spiralling tail, Anakin obviously puckered at us unnecessarily and the juvenile jumped around to investigate being cautious enough to not come too close. We slowly moved forward so we could be more in the centre of the group and also so we could see the females.

AMY was climbing higher and we were climbing up mossy rocks and clambering through gaps in fallen trees, holding on to exposed roots. But it was at least much cooler in the forest thanks to the rain. Leo just finished 6 months doing work with marine birds on mostly remote islands off the coast of Victoria, Australia which was actually quite cold so he had some adjusting to do of course- to the weather and the terrain. But he seemed to be okay. Vino arrived at around 3 but AMY started moving further down soon after we had given her our co-ordinates. Well, good for us and Vino I thought. A lot of soil had come loose so climbing down was easy but I’d take that to climbing uphill in a heartbeat. Vino arrived and we hoped AMY would be fine with 3 people. We decided not to cowd them too much so we stayed away from each other and also them. They stopped moving for a while and we finally had some respite after their constant movement before. Also, even though we were only away for a week, I already felt like I had lost my energy and was sweating like a pig. Didn’t help that the post-rain sun was shining harder and the humidity thanks to all the evaporation from all this greenery was apalling. AMY started moving again, going in the same direction Leo and I had just come from. We reached a clearing on a slope, a place from where you could see a lot of the trees below and then it hit us.

It had been going on for a while now. The lost calls. At first we thought it must be Pippi or Brienne or even Chewbacca, they get lost quite often. But we saw that all of the females seemed to be emitting the call, even GOLDIE- the alpha female. Emma, the old female who we had just witnessed tearing up a nest and devouring the ants seemed to be making an effort to call. What was happening? And now their zig-zagging and going back and forth made sense. Perhaps they were looking for someone. I was relieved to find that Putih and Chewbacca both had their infants. I had not seen quite a few juveniles, but it is always difficult to spot and recgnise juveniles. Could it be Gollum, Goldie’s kid that was missing. I hadn’t seen her and it might explain why all the females seem invested perhaps; it wasn’t the same when Febe lost her baby (but we did miss what happened at night- maybe they called out the same way). The calls were haunting and loud and so many of them were calling. The males were grunting while juveniles screeched and played. The forest was filled with these sounds, a novelty even for Vino and me as we have never heard so many of them making so many sounds. They started moving around half an hour later after they had seemingly exhausted this area for their seach. It was 5:15 and a look at the GPS said that we had basically retraced our steps. And now we assumed we were taing the route AMY had taken this morning before we foud them. They stopped and we realised that they had stopped calling. So either they found whoever they were looking for or gave up.

They had begun the pre-sleep ritual which involved males grunting, the “trrr-trrr-trrr-huh-huh-huh” call from one of the bigger males while juveniles played and hummed in response to the males call and the females’ hoooo-s. I decided that we should stay at least till 6:30. And it was good decision because while we let our guard down, they moved again. After some panicking because we didn’t see where they went, we found them in the plantation. They hadn’t actually travelled a large distance in the last 5 hours and the plantation was bereft of any ripe fruit as the workers had harvested them yesterday. But AMY decided to hang around the plantation for what seemed like a long time. Especially because we were keen to go back- we had made plans to go try out one of the villagers- Saufi’s resturaunt (He personally invited Michele and Lea when he they met him yesterday). I decided that this time, we stay till at least 7:30. it was growing dark and we were sure AMY wouldn’t travel too much beyond the forest edge.

We got back and had a surprise awaiting us. Nadine had found a helpless stray kitten at the beach and brought it to us. Anna is back from her visa run after a lot of misadventures and immediately decided to save it. She is a bit of a cat-whisperer. After figuring out that he won’t drink milk unless fed through a syringe (sense of survival-zilch), we decided to go have some Nasi Goreng udang (Shrimp fried rice) and Char Kuey Teow with shrimp and cockle and had a relaxing time fuelled with great conversation.

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