Primate Diaries: 6 days of work to go

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



3rd April 2017, Monday (6 days left): Anticipation and wishful thinking

I accompanied Leo and Michele to Manjung. Michele wanted to revisit the hospital and I wanted to exchange some currency in lieu of my upcoming trip to India. Leo and I then went to Sitiawan so i could help him get to the shop where we had found our rain boots. And when we couldn’t find his size, we needed to look around a bit till we found them. The rainy spell seems like it is in no mood to stop and boots also protect against leeches who seem to love Leo, so we were glad we got something done.

We reached checkpoint 2 for the afternoon shift at around 1:10 to see Lea sitting by herself. The macaques weren’t around…neither was Anna. Turns out Anna and Lea had become separated about an hour ago. Not before they saw a snake in the forest which refused to budge. They had briefly been able to contact each other via walkie-talkie but the reception was terrible. Luckily, unlike when Vino was lost, Lea had a working GPS and had with some diffculty and another snake encounter, managed to get to checkpoint 2. Anna and us were still under forced radio silence. Lea’s track showed us that Anna and AMY were close to getting out onto the main road near checkpoint 3. This meant they were either close to getting out or already in ‘THE SWAMP’. I was really hoping I didn’t have to go to ‘THE SWAMP’ in my last week but AMY had other plans I guess. When we got to checkpoint 3 we could at least hear Anna better. Leo and I reached her co-ordinates and I asked her the dreaded question I really didn’t want to know the answer to. “Do you think they will cross the road and go into the swamp?”. And she tried her level best to be honest without deflating my spirit. “Sometimes they just turn a shap left and get out from there if you are lucky…really lucky, otherwise..”. I closed my ears. I didn’t want to hear the words said out loud. We bid her adieu and began our shift.

We completed the id-check because Lea had the tablet. Anakin was missing (Anna informed us later that he’d had an injury on his nose. Anna had witnessed Oliver, the beta chasing him and Goldie on separate occassions when they were mating. Maybe Anakin got it pretty bad from Oliver one time). We moved a bit so we weren’t with the males. Goldie’s swell was still on the rise. She seems to be the only one swelling as of now which meant she was quite popular. Norbert puckered at her but she ignored him. They were at the forest edge and Norbert suddenly jumped across the small moat of water and onto the road. And then…he just sat there staring at Phoenix who was on the electric wire. ON THE OTHER SIDE. I really hoped it was just Phoenix and some other males who were on the other side but feeding from the palms on the edge of ‘THE SWAMP’. Most of the females we were sure were still on our side. “Good girls, stay here with the juveniles”. My theory is that one strategy they use to decide which way to go is to contact call and see where most voices come from- and then head in that direction. This excess of females on our side gave me hope. Atleast until 2 minutes later when Goldie crossed over. Norbert was still in the middle of the road and only the rumble of a humongous truck roused him from his deep thought…enough to nudge him over to the edge…of ‘THE SWAMP’. By this point I had steeled myself to get ready for some epic betam and rattan spine fighting and to get drenched pants and soggy feet. Leo and I marvelled at our timing- he had shiny new rain-boots, just in time to enter ‘THE SWAMP’.

The one good thing was that we could see and I could point out each individual and their specific traits to Leo as they crossed the road, mostly on foot into ‘THE SWAMP’ side. Though we were still at the edge, most individuals had already climbed up and abandoned their terrestrialialty for arboreal means of travel. We walked into some mucky bits and I had already begun being super-cautious of dangling spines of death- the rattans. We kicked some bertam and stamped over a tangle of dried shrubbery- with spines obviously. Weirdly, I noticed that AMY still hadn’t begun going into the swampy bits of ‘THE SWAMP’ yet. They were travelling paralelly to the main road and TOWARDS checkpoint 4, which I thought was VOLDEMORT territory and unusual for AMY. But hey, as long as we weren’t super deep in the mangrove, there was hope that they would get out and not go in. We watched Febe get groomed, Mina slinking about and Tiga puckered at us. We kept going.

After a while, most individuals were up in the trees, making them difficult to identify and the few juveniles splashin about in the water had we fur making them also difficult to identify. Luckily we knew it was Dani, Charli and Curli. We watched them for a bit and finally found a place to sit down. It was becoming more swampy now. We realised that we couldn’t hear females anymore and panicked for about a minute but I remembered Anna’s adage and promise “we never lose them in ‘THE SWAMP’. I hope it applied to where we were and followed the 3 juvies we did have. We were reunited with the core of AMY soon enough. The rest of the time was comparitively boring-proof that we were technically NOT in ‘THE SWAMP’. We moved on to observing the rattan fruits and their patterns, writing letters in water with a stick and talking about the system of arranged marriages and the possible reasons for its existence in Indian society (Lea and I had started this discussion yesterday and she was flabbergasted enough to tell Leo who had follow up questions). We then moved on to superhero cartoons and movies and Dr. Who before it was 6:00 and we hadn’t moved in quite some time. The GPS told us what we knew. We were quie close to checkpoint 4 and AMY had never slept here in recent history. But I guess there’s a first time for everything. We stayed till 6:55 just to ensure they wouldn’t move. It was a different terrain, there was muck, mangrove plants but also huge boulders. We came back and informed Anna who too was surprised at the location for today’s events. Leo missed his chance to see the actual ‘SWAMP’ but I told him he mustn’t despair. He’ll have his chance.

4th April 2017, Tuesday (4 working days to go): Expected

Couldn’t deny strong feeling that what was left undone yesterday would occur today. I was glad I wasn’t doing the morning shift alone. Lea and I drove directly to the access point near yesterday’s sleeping site. We were there by 7:25 but unfortunately today of all days was bright and sunny and it was pretty obvious to us that AMY had moved. They were gone without a trace and no one was more disappointed than I. All we could hear was the loud swoosh and flapping of the wings of hornbills and their cacophony of calls which in different circumstances would have been amazing (okay…more amazing). Searching for AMY is frustrating and physically and mentally taxing as you might know if you have read the multiple entries from all the times we have lost AMY. We decided that we would have to start the search at checkpoint 3 and might as well go with the bike and park it there. Enroute when we saw them, or some pig-tails. At first we thought it was VOLDEMORT as the individuals seemed to be running away from us. But they were calm after a while, the bike’s noise had perturbed them. And guess where they ran to- the official trail leading up to THE SWAMP. I had anticipated this for hours now and had my big machete ready for some spiny plant sap.

We entered the swampy bits sooner than I remembered having entered the last time. AMY was always around, hidden by the tangled mess of overgrown rattan and bertam palms, and classic mangrove pneumatophores stuck out for air in the murky water we waded through with difficulty. I had already begun swinging the machete with all my might when I realised we were in the middle of THE SWAMP already. A place where there doesn’t even exist a trail according to the GPS. Probably because there is no way you can avoid the water. I was contemplating my next step when the choice was made easier for me as my foot sank and got stuck in mud. So much for navigating so that my legs were dry. Who was I kidding. My boots, both of them were filled with water soon enough and this made it difficult to lit my feeet to stomp on the bertam barks to clear a path. I was just about to be sick of it when I saw something sticking out. This time it was not a water monitor lizard (true story) but a machete sticking out of the mud. I went to retrieve it and almost fell over and lost MY machete but no harm no foul. This was the second machete (though a bit more rusty) lost by those before me, that I had retrieved . This meant both Lea and I could hack some vines and palm stems like there was no tomorrow. In after what seemed like an eternity but was probably a distance of hardly 20-30 metres, we came to an opening. We could actually SEE more individuals now. I recognised this place. It was the little island of non-swamp inside THE SWAMP. The monkeys did seem to prefer this area and so did we. We actually finally sat down on a dry-ish, non-spiny tree bark and I could finally empty my boot yet again and wring my socks and hang them to dry for a bit. The macaques seemed more relaxed. Norbert was cleaning his paws and scratching himself while Febe groomed Felicia. We saw that Pippi had begun to swell again and Goldie’s swell was larger though not large enough to have Norbert follow her everywhere. The juveniles played quite close to us and Tiga tried to pucker and intimidate us. It was cute!

After about 40 minutes we began moving but not in the direction I hoped they would go. They seemed to be turning back albeit using another route which somehow involved less water and spiny palms so we didn’t exactly complain. At around 11:30 we reached a spot I liked a lot. It’s main feature was a gigantic fallen tree we formed a bridge over a swampy bit. It was frequented by long-tails too andled to beautiful inter-specific grooming and play with the pig-tails. Plus, it was open and less-spiny though surrounded on all sides by spiny plants and muck. Though we had no visual confirmation of their location anymore, I knew they were on the other side of that gigantic fallen tree. I was right. Febe foraged quite close to us and I was again relieved to see Emma. Casimodo slept in a branch diagonally above us while Pie, Lori and Pryde played behind us as we sat down and I emptied my boot again, this time to empty water and remove spines before they got lodged deeper into my foot. We talked about various topics, studies, family, important life decisions and anxiety about making the ‘right’ choices etc.AMY seemed to be in no mood to move anytime soon. We were pretty close to getting out of THE SWAMP but it was 1 already and we still hadn’t moved much. And then Anna’s voice crackled through…barely. While we tried to talk AMY decided to suddenly disappear without warning. Finally we heard a small sound and I relayed our co-ordinates to Anna. She got there really fast. Turns out WE were indeed quite close to the edge of THE SWAMP and not through swampy bits. Lea and I were more than happy to hand over the responsibility of AMY to Anna. We hoped for her sake that AMY was finally ready to leave THE SWAMP and head out (spoler alert- they did) and never come back ever again (probably overreaching here). We got back without incident and I slept my exhaustion off as best I could.

5th April 2017, Wednesday (3 days to go): Slippery

I panicked and got up this morning when I heard the sound of rain pattering down hard on our roof. Luckily, it was only 3 am but this also meant the road was going to be more muddy and the forest too. Anna went to attend to the rat traps (we take out any left over oil-palm fruits in the mroning so the monkeys don’t take them and manhandle the traps they associate with easy food source). I had Anna’s instructions and the co-ordinates of the sleeping site. I had been warned that this was the place where AMY had often been lost because they tended to move quickly, often into checkpoint 3 if not THE SWAMP. It had happened the first time I went to THE SWAMP with Anna though I was hoping today was different because they are usually slow to start the day when it has rained. I blundered through the bushes and fell down twice in mud when attempting to climb up the predictably slippery hill. I finally got to the sleeping site and panicked before I heard two females. They were to my left somewhere and higher up. Anna was on her way up. Her GPS had lost satellite reception but obviously she reached my location with ease and without so breaking a sweat. Badassery at its finest right there and we must all aspire to be like that (apparently it takes more than the number of days I’ve been here).

We were just cutting and stomping through the bertam to get closer to the sounds when the rain began. At first I was so busy hacking away that I thought it was just the sound of crackling palm stems and the wind. We were actually protect by the tangled mess that was this thicket of bertam so we decided to take cover under it. We stayed there till 9 when the rain finally let up. The sound, just one female now seemed distant and we clambered to catch up. I had already found 6 leeches on me by this point and was glad to be on the move again. Though to where was the question. Even Anna was flummoxed. We decided to first go up and then down. Turns out going up was harder than we thought. After I broke through yet another ‘bertam-barrier’ we were facing a giant rock. We went all the way around it and reached the top, a place I did not recognise. AMY was not there. Second rain happened and we stayed for a bit before going down (mostly sliding and slippin on my part) to checkpoint 3. We were on our way to checkpoint 2.5 when we heard the gnarly kind of lost call I have heard both pig-tails and long-tails make. It was coming from ‘THE SWAMP’. Not again, I thought as we heard for more clues and decided to go in. We soon heard the male ‘trrr-trrr-trrr-hugh-hugh-hugh’ sound made by large males, both pig-tail and long-tail though. We stayed till we saw that there were a lot of long-tails so it was hopefully not AMY making the noises. It began to drizzle as we got out of THE SWAMP.

We walked to checkpoint 2 and were heading to the ‘clearing’ when we saw them. They had probably just climbed downhill and been at the plantation the whole time while we had spent close to 3 hours looking for them. Yep. it was 10:45 when we “Found” AMY. I immediately began to start doing the id check. Except most of them were still wet and in the trees making my job very hard. I had spotted Emily and Anna began a focal on her while I marvelled at a hornbill flying past repeatedly to feed its partner and chicks at a tree hole in my line of sight. This occupied me for a while till all the individuals came trickling back onto the plantation. And soon enough AMY was on the move. The sun was shining bright and soon it would get really hot. We reached deeper in the plantation. I saw Goldie eating a small rat, pulling on its innards with all her might. Would help to have canines like Norbert’s but teeth won’t stop my girl. I stalked her for a bit and collected her faeces. I had spotted Dani and Charli playing earlier and called Anna so she could focal Dani. I then walked over and hung out with Scarlet, Pamkin, Schatz and Goldie. Goldie had something in her mouth. Dark with its legs dangling out. Bent legs. And then she pulled it out momentarily just so I could confirm my suspicions. A frog of course (Got all Blues Clues there for a minute huh?). It was 12:30 when they crossed over the second moat into the next section of the plantation. I did another scan at 12:40 and bided my time till Michele arrived after her period of recuperation. I got back and took a nap because the heat got too much to bear and then got up to type this (I’m prompt with my entries now).


One thought on “Primate Diaries: 6 days of work to go

  1. Majoe April 14, 2017 / 4:16 am

    Eat the frog.
    Finally someone took the advice seriously.


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