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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Days 24-26:Primate Diaries

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 but I’ll figure out a way to do it later, and hope that my words are enough to paint a picture. 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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7th Feb 2017- Rain on my parade
I was concerned that I wouldn’t remeber where Michele and I had left AMY last night. The location was already difficult to access and everything looks different in the dark, by the light of the head-torch. It wasn’t the ideal route to have taken (tons of muck and spines) and I was afraid I had misjudged the sleeping site because Anna was unaware of AMY ever having slept there before. To my relief and Anna’s surprise, pigtails were around, evidenced by the diverse vocalization by the juveniles, the hoots from the females and the short low almost-growl grunt of the males. And Mina’s currently huge butt doesn’t lie. We made ourselves comfortable as we had a clear view of some individuals and could follow them if they moved. We were just getting tired of waiting when we realised that we may have to wait a bit more thanks to the rain percolating down to the trees and which would soon be too heavy to ignore. It had rained a bit last night and again this morning, stopping just before we left so we thought we’d had our quota of rain for the next 24 hours but weather doesn’t work that way.

So we sat on our haunches, cautious of Bertum spines and wishing for more cushioning on our behinds while we discussed the recent squirmishes and confrontation amongst the males. Both Mimi and Anna despise my bae Norbert, the alpha because he displaced and ousted both their favourite males Vince (the old alpha) and Matze (the old-beta) respectively. And apparently without too much visible struggle which is classic Norbert. He doesn’t need to fight though he cuts a big, shaggy intimidating figure. Anna wished Jisuaf, the instigator of most of the recent fights ( and who Vino later said reminded her of Scar from Lion King) to take over Norbert’s position. We were discussing the power struggle and social order of Macaca nemestrina when the rain stopped. As AMY made a move to go into the plantation, we could appreciate the sunlight now streaming into the previously unlit patch. The rain had touched most surfaces and the droplets stayed on all the tips of spines. For once it was a joy to be amidst so many spines, and the shining sun meant the drops glistened while they hung on to the pointy spines. Yet another fight had broken out and I probably wasn’t going to have the time to practice doing a focal today before the end of my shift. So I did scans and kept up with the drama and romances of Mina and Pippi.

It was sometime before I saw my bae Norbert. Although he usually is late, gallavanting in after the whole group has reached, it was weird that he wasn’t around Mina. Nevertheless, I was glad to see him….until he happened to come close and I saw that he had blood on his right cheek. Thinking about Anna’s wishes this morning and couter-wishing that future, I proceeded to follow AMY back into the forest. We made two stops along the way. At one rest-stop Casimodo and Phoenix were woken up from deep meditation and slumber by yet another tussle that they unenthusiastically joined-barking a couple of times before sitiing back down. In the eye of the storm was Biru, calm and collected. She saw Anakin and decided to groom him after he had finished his barking quota. It is always interesting to note how many individuals seem unaffected when such a fight breaks out. And the fights too seem quite short, mostly solvedd by a few barks, some crazy lunges and vigorous branch-shaking. A pacifying ‘puckerace’ and probably an affiliative mount, and that’s that.We wondered if the pig-tails had the cognitive capacity to enable forward thinking and vindictiveness anyway. Though there are instances where punishments have been meted out to liars and cheaters in studies conducted on chimps and meerkats among others but it’s an interestin avenue to pursue, if only a thought experiment. Barbie, the female was being groomed by Curli, a juvenile. Anna and Nadine are concerned at the fast rate at which Barbie’s health has detereorated and how skinny she has become (befitting her name). Anna decided to do Baabie as a focal soon because other females who started growing thinner and miserable looking were soon missing.
AMY was quite high on the rocks when Mimi and Michele arrived at the plantation. AMY had steadily moved down and seemed to finally be heading to Checkpoint 3. I left to go down while Mimi and Michele went up to Anna and AMY. I got back and finally had the time to read ‘1984’, which probably means I am forgetting some chore I was supposed to do. Well, tomorrow is another day. Tonight we go to the city for emergency internet use- which means many emails, messages, and instagram and blog updates.
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8th Feb- Bogged down
It was Anna and me this surprisingly hot and windy morning. We had arrived at the sleeping site marked by Anna, Michelle and Mimi yesterday but AMY had apparently climbed higher up a hill afterwards. But no harm no foul- Casimodo and Mina were around to welcome us. We had barely had time to sit down when we heard loud grunting and shuffling. Anna and I got up immediately. Sitting with your back to a group of panicky wild pigs is not a great idea. We clapped and snapped and shushed and the noise died down. It was peaceful again, all too peaceful- the macaques hadn’t responded to the noise. Was the shuffling sound actually them moving? How fast did they move? Can Mina even move that fast with her humongous swelling? Actually at this point I have come to expect the unexpected from AMY. We climbed up further as it was the easiest way to climb down without going through rocks and spines. There were still spines of course but we persevered, moving so quickly downhill, jumping over fallen logs, through rotting leaves and fighting more Bertam on the way down. Finally, we got to a point where we could see them but couldn’t follow them as closely as we would have liked because unlike us, they have agile bodies and arboreal habits and they can solve most travel problems by swinging and jumping while you are still figuring out the spiny obstacle course.

We were heading downhill yet again and I was taking out some more spines and dry leaves from my hair when Anna looked up at me and pointed to my shoulder. “You have a…..” and I quickly brushed away whatever it was with an intense fear not waiting for Anna to complete the sentence with-“butterfly”. Wait what! I looked down. There was something yellow- “Oh thank goodness it’s just a dried leaf…..with a body and eyes when you bend down to examine it- yep Ijust killed a big yellow butterfly”. I’m always complaining that butterflies never sit on me, even though they love sweaty people but my sweat probably doesn’t contain enough minerals to replensih them (Google ‘mud-puddling’ to understand the concept of butterflies and sweat). But I didn’t have too much time to mourn the butterfly I had brutishly killed because we had to keep moving. Amy was going into Checkpoint 3 and not showing restraint and turning back like they did yesterday. And they kept on moving. Anna’s usually stoic face fell when she saw where we were headed…”The swamp” she exclaimed in defeat. Vino and I had experienced a very small part the swamp at checkpoint 1 and that swamp was considered bad but ‘The Swamp’ at checkpoint 3 was said with reverence that can only come for impassioned fear and dislike. In these moments you take quick decisions and the priority almost always is AMY who doesn’t give you too much time to reflect and make calculated decisions. We took a deep breath and followed as closely on their heels as possible. They were in the trees and steadily moving. Their hoots, more vocal and often was the only proof of their presence. The wind had picked up and it had become hotter. Was there a cyclone warning we didn’t know of? Is that why they were moving so fast- to seek respite- But why move closer to the sea than if you were on a hill? These are the times when you wish you could just ask one of them and they could answer. We had passed tall trees and were approaching a mucky area but there was dead wood without spines and we could step on them to get across. Not too bad. But I had spoken too soon. We were going through more mucky and slippery areas with water almost upto the part of the calves where my rain boots ended and the trees or plants we could hold on to for support were progressively getting spinier till we couldn’t hold on to them any longer, and the bushes were getting thicker till we couldn’t kick and stamp our way out anymore. I now understod why this was ‘The Swamp’.

I like mangroves as much as the next person….okay maybe a bit more than the average person- the pneumatohphores, the prop roots, the leaves that exude excess salt giving them a silverish hue and all those wonderful creatures the ecosystem supports. These positive thoughts were the only things that kept me going through this intense bog that was ‘The Swamp’. We were trying to avoid spines and much simultaneously albeit not successfully. And this was a relatively dry time in ‘The Swamp’. But the frustration was getting to me. In such times of hoplessness I look to a higher power….Anna. She’s calm and quiet and her resolve is commendable. But she too seemed defeated, though not for long. It was time to bring out the machete. We were quickly well as quickly as possible, hacking our way. Mimi and Vino had been informed of the dreaded location but we hoped AMY would be in the plantation by the time shifts changed. But it did not seem like it at this point. I decided that AMY was preparing me all these days, to lead me here. This was a big test. So I might as well enjoy it. I finally started to take notice of the pattern of the spines, contemplate the purpose of particular leaf-shapes, be amazed by intricated spider-webs I haven’t had the chance to accidentally destroy by snorting or ingesting it. Finally, we reached a clearing. The muck wasn’t as much and we were once again surrounded by tall trees and two huge trees that had fallen provided an ooportunity for AMY to finally sit and walk instead of swinging and avoiding us. It always amazes me, the sudden relief and warmth that floods through when you see them so close and so relaxed. Mothers were restraining their infants who were sick of hanging on for so long. . Males were in the distance, grooming themselves or just looking on. Emanuel and Reggie were playing when a juvenile long-tail decided to join them and a Emanuel pulled on its tail while Reggie, the litle one tried hard to keep up. We smiled amusedly at this interspecific harmony. All was well. However, it was soon time to move. We marvelled at the fact that we hadn’t managed to lose them till now though it would have all too easy although all credit for this feat of perserverance must go to Anna.

AMY had stopped again, this time we were quite close to the edge and it was close to 1 pm. We did some inter-observer reliability tests while we waited and right on time, just as I was finally almost out of the swamp, I placed my leg in the wrong spot and put my leg in a hole, filled with water. I wrung my sock out with Brandi the juvenile intently watching me squeal and curse.. Some subadults chased to Giant squirrels up a tree before realising it was too much stress, and abandoning the plan. Mimi and Vino had the co-ordinates and parked the car near checkpoint 3 but had decided to come here through another bit of ‘The Swamp’ with Mimi being the official machete wielder. Which meant she had fallen in spines and muck and gotten drenched on the way here and was not a happy camper. But the persistence and will-power of field-biologists and volunteers is the foundation upon which biological research rests. I took leave, got out without too much hassle and destroyed only one pretty web with yellow silk on the way.

Turns out AMY finally went into the plantation and stayed there till the end. Some friendly villagers noticed that our field-car (A Cambara) had a flat tyre and went to fix it. We decided to believe that all our trials today were so that Anna, Mimi and Vino didn’t get stuck with a flat tyre in the dark on the way back.
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9th Feb- So close
After a anxiety filled early morning bike-ride- with me driving and Michele at the back (don’t know who was more terrified), we had arrived at the planation, relieved that AMY had slept quite close to the plantation. Although most of the individuals were out in the plantation, calmy foraging and grooming, no one was on the ground. Norbert has moved on officially from Mina and onto Pippi so we watched their dalliance for a bit. After an hour and a half though, they suddenly starting to travel back in, and quite quickly at that. We were following them but were always only close enough to hear the juveniles whimper and females call. But that’s still a good sign. I was quite proud of my newly heightened senses though I still don’t know the forest well enough to choose the path with least resistancein terms of spiny Bertum and Rattan.

AMY was climbing uphill quite fast, actually it was overwhelmingly fast and we were struggling to climb up thr rocky outcrops. Soon we couldn’t see them and I was panicking. For once though, they were being vocal, probably because even the juveniles were confused and disoriented. We followed them but soon were only following the contact calls made by the females which now seemed to be coming from farther and farther away. We met Norbert, Pippi and Casimodo along the way but they seemed to be in no mood to let us pass to get to the centre of the group. Michele stepped on a branch and startled Casimodo who panicked and jumped too close toward us before changing his mind. After that almost heart-attack, we were more wary though we coudn’t afford to be as AMY seemed to be climbing higher and faster than we could. So we huffed and we puffed and broke vines and stems and climbed. And then we could at least hear……nothing. One hopes that this pregnant pause which fills you with doubt and fear is broken asap by a small hoot or a whimper or at least some rustling but no. Finally I could see Joey and Phoenix and Oliver.

Though they were taking their own sweet time to head in any particular direction and following males is always a risk because they might have decided to leave the group . If pig-tail macaque groups are nomadic, the males are vagabonds. But we had no option. We followed the sub-adult Joey who seemed most keen to find the group . Though he has no concept of personal space as he sat there and moved closer to us, albeit puckering intensely when we looked at him. But we followed protocol (distance of atleast 3-5 m) and finally were relieved to find Scarlet and Mina. Females is a good sign and Scarlet is the most reliable sign of AMY there is. But they were in an area filled with Bertam and we couldn’t sit anywhere. We realised we hadn’t sat down even for a bit. As soon as we realised AMY was climbing down we followed them. Soon we could hear the babbling of the brook nearby. AMY was relaxed now and we finally had eyes on many individuals at close quarters. Fefe was finally free of Febe’s clutches and gazing at us while attempting to intimidate us with the cutest puckerface we had seen. We too finally relaxed and found the time to wolf down our late breakfast at 12:15 pm. We could finally do scans at leisure and recorded some interesting behaviour. But we realised a bit too late that we had fallen behind yet again. It was bad. We finally found Pippi and Norbert and followed them, that is until the heavy set Norbert climbed a steep rock and disappeared and Pippi did too.
We tried hard to climb up and use the same route as Norbert. But we couldn’t. It was almost the end of our shift and so close to the end, we had lost them!!! Ughhhh. Mimi and Anna were here and luckily we had reception so I could relay the bad news. And then we saw Joey agin. We followed him till we lost him and after some misadventures finally found Mimi and Anna who had come through the other side. We left, feeling defeated but hopig that AMY was still nearby as Mimi and Anna had seen Joey and Curli. And to top all of that, we fell , not badly but still. This probably strengthened Michele’s resolve to learn to ride the bike because it would be easier to control my weight and the bike thanks to her longer legs (and probably higher strength).

Mimi informed me that AMY had been found soon after we had left and they had spent a long time in the plantation. Tim was super-involved in the group and was sitting and hanging out extremely close to Mimi who realised that this also reduced Anakin’s wariness of Anna and Mimi and he didn’t pucker as much. Our relationships with the macaques chnage everyday and who knows who will be my bff tomorrow?