Primate Diaries: An epilogue

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is an account of my experiences with the Macaca Nemestrina Project in Perak, Malaysia.  I am finally in a place with much better internet access. 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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EPILOGUE

 

It has been exactly a week since I left Malaysia. A lot of my important thoughts and experiences are chronicled already but I know that that’s easier to do. When my friends and family ask me to tell them ‘How Malaysia was’ I am overwhelmed with so many things to say and emotions and memories attached to them but seem uninteresting without context or a connected story. I find myself answering -“Awesome”, “Amazing”, “great” and “I loved it” which I guess is the jist of it and convenient to say because I can’t possibly summarise explain all of the things I experienced without prompts. Words are more important and lose meaning or change meaning over time. The pictures I took, so many of them, plastered across my social media- was amusing at the time and the most meaningful to me; to others who are bombarded with images everyday- it is but a small novelty, this passing moment of me reminiscing-and not well.

 

And yet I can’t help but reflect on what I experienced. I was anxious about jumping into a role where I believed my investment would never be as much since I was only volunteering. I was quite wrong. I thought living there would be filled with boredom and I’d be ‘slumming it’- it was more convenient than I thought. I thoroughly under-estimated exactly how physically strenuous the day can get and that I would eventually get used to it (I was wrong). I thought all this walking up and down and climbing would mean rock hard abs, killer thighs and brilliant upper body strength. I just have immensely calloused feet, a crazy tan and no perceivable physical changes. And yet I know that I am stronger- physically and mentally than I ever was before.

 

I thank anyone and everyone I ever crossed paths with. Most of all Dr. Nadine Ruppert for being open to experimenting- with people. That is how we all learn best. Trial and error. For all her support and her big-heart and jovial disposition. She has a vision and works on multiple projects simultaneously where she is equally actively involved and I hope to be able to do at least half of what she does. Anna, of course is my personal badass hero. She is silent and soft-spoken, so different from me- a different class of introvert. I have of course waxed lyrical about her enthusiasm for science, her speed of hill climbing and her uncanny ability to locate and keep track of AMY. Mimi of course has more similarities to me- a lot of it could be because of our cultures being similar and having similar problems but she is amusing as she is resillient and charitable. Plus she introduced me to paneram and minyak gamat and was my first guide into non-touristy Malaysia. Vino is my unlikely friend. This weirdo is the clumsy and fragile-looking but resourceful and brave. She watches creepy violent Anime and plays graphic videogames with tons of violence so you probably do not want to mess with her. And yet she is incredibly sweet and an amazing artist with an imagination that I can’t even imagine. Michele is most comfortable with her curiousity- about EVERYTHING. A trait she and I share despite our difference in opinion about many a thing. She is the yin to my yang. She is the most courageous of all the people mentioned above for coming all the way from the cold Netherlands, never having done this before, fighting her friends and family, even people at her University to prove that she is made of stronger stuff (SHE is). Leo and Lea- I of course didn’t spend as much time with them but they each add value to the project and to my life. Lea with her humble beginnings and big aspirations with a hint of practicality thrown in and Leo who is quite similar to me in his need to be wanting to analyse and be intellectually stimulated. And Ameer, who in close to 8-9 hours of interaction seemed like an interesting and passionate person.

 

Of course, I thank the macaques for bringing all of us together. Helping us discover things about each other and ourselves that we wouldn’t have done otherwise. We are all from different countries, educational and socio-cultural backgrounds but what binds us together is curiousity, passion and a hint of rebellion. The ability to critique societal norms. I am done with my adventure, my part in the story. But I hope each of us has been a useful addition to the story. As I contemplate my next step, I wish them all the best for their adventures to come.

Primate Diaries: Final stretch

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is an account of my experiences with the Macaca Nemestrina Project in Perak, Malaysia.  I am finally in a place with much better internet access. 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

____________________________________________________________________________________________

 
7th April (2 days to go): Good, Bad,Ugly

 

Anna had said the sleeping site was on the hill at checkpoint 1. “Well, that’s the smaller hill right?”. I was still basking in the glory of my feat of scaling the hill at checkpoint 2. “Well, yes” said Anna reluctantly “but the way is not as great so maybe we need to go slightly early. I mean, you do”. I said I’d manage. We had gone to watch Beauty and the Beast last night and Michele and I had had roughly 5 hours of sleep. And when I did finally reach the marked site after suffering a bruised knee and a throbbing head from having walked into a branch there wasn’t a peep, acoustic or visual-to signify the presence of the macaques. Michele was in the plantation, removing baits from the rat-traps and I needed to take a breather before anything else could be done. THIS MOMENT is crucial. You are tired, restless, anxious and disappointed all at once but also have to be hyperaware;cautious of every small sound or movement. And this panicky feeling is something I haven’t been able to rid myself of, even after almost 3 months of this.

 

Finally, I sensed movement in a clump of Bertam some 25 m higher up. Mina’s unmistakeable butt (Thank pig-tail gods for Mina’s permanently large swelling) peeked out. I stalked her obsessively till I spotted Curli. They were now moving to the highest point, a nice place albeit surrounded by ‘Bertam-barriers’ EVERYWHERE. Michele arrived after some confusion and a lot of adventures of her own I presume. ANd then we had some moments of calm and forced restfulness before she decided to follow and record Oliver’s behaviour. Luckily, he took his place on a rock just diagonally below us, thus giving us a great view. Michele identified the female grooming him as Febe, which in itself drew some raised eyebrows from us as Febe is not swelling and has only lost her infant about a month ago (they only start swelling about2-3 months after they lose their babies). We were hypothesising when Oliver, facing us and looking immensely relaxed decided to increase his pleasure by maturbating. We were both watching and noting it down when it seemed like he climaxed and also simultaneously attacked Febe who fell down the rock screaming all the way. After that seemingly unnecessary violence, Oliver resumed his previous poition, calmly licking semen off his hands and red penis. We watched the others for any reaction to the previous commotion- NOTHING!

 

After some time, AMY began to move down although quite slowly. We weren’t complaining. It could be quite dangerous to climb downhill fast. Goldie is still seemingly exclusively mating with Norbert. We went down the river after a while and AMY spent close to an hour there as well. When we did move again, the terrain had changed considerably and I had finally almost finished my id-check and catalogued some plants. My 10 leeces by 10 am had become 17 leeches by 12 pm possibly because I had been sitting near the stream. When we got close to the logging road, we reached a really difficult tangle of Bertam, rattan and spiny shrubs which meant we had to navigate through the weak spots. Michele had separated from me and the group while following Oliver and then had lost him and come face to face with wild pigs. I meanwhile was with Scarlet and Schatz grooming yet again which made me discover a hidden route to get out of the tangle. AMY and I crossed the logging road and Michele found us. SHe had decided to stalk Anakin but he was being even more jittery than usual. It didn’t help that Casimodo had sudenly decided to be extremely aggressive and eveeryone had become excited. Phoenix had snuck up on us and Michele decided to do him while we had time for our shift to come to end. I was just waching and celebrating Emma’s presence (I really don’t want her to ‘go missing’ while I’m here) when Michele cried out in excitement. FRANZI WAS BACK. The former “Heimdall of AMY” as I call him had become a rare occurance now, a peripheral, occasional presence in AMY like Jisuaf’s. Luckily for us, AMY soon decided to finally head out in the direction of the plantation, just in time for our shift to end. Leo and Lea were taking over, their first day together completely unsupervised by older volunteers and Anna.

 

We got back and had a relaxing lunch. Anna had had a not so relaxing day-off but we had got the Kembara back and decided to reduce her stress by accompanying her to set up the rat-traps for actual catching (three days before this was the pre-trapping period when we leave bait but the trap doesn’t shut on the rodent when the get the fruit. So they are moe likely to take fruit from the trap next time). Prior to that we thought we can go to the Segari Turtle Sanctuary, a place I’ve been meaning to go for so long. It’s quite easy to go from within the plantation but we realised that the Kembara keys were with Leo we decided to take the loong way around with the Ford. Anyway, we did have a good time at the turtle station. They have some Olive Ridleys and Green Sea turtles (these 2 species nest on the sea shores of Perak state) among others. Afterwards, we got to the plantation and set the traps so they actually close this time, which obviously took way longer than we had thought. And then we saw that an importnat piece that helps lock the trap was missing from one of the traps. Anna was crest-fallen. I volunteered to accompany her immediately with tools and wire to fix the trap asap.

 

On the way back home it had struck me that we actually had been extremely stupid. WE DID have another set of copies for the Kembara. The good news was, we could actually take the Kembara to fix the trap. We were on the way out of camp when Leo ad Lea arrived….a little earlier than expected. “Bad news. We had them the whole time, except they suddenly started to move at 6:40 down a really rocky hill and we lost them around 7”. We’d deal with this problem later, it is unlikely AMY would move far after this time. Indeed the WHOLE GROUP may not have moved. We reached the plantation at around 7:30, the light fading fast. We were so focussed on fixing the traps and staring at it through my head-torch’s light and that of our phones that we were a bit surprised when we were finally done (thick wire, two pliers and 2 very tired people). It was dark and other than the occasional firefly, every thing else was dark except the camp of the plantation workers in the distance. We got back to the car quickly before we could be even more creeped out by the eyes on the ground that belonged to animals larger than rats. Anna started the Kembara….or…..tried. Again, and again and again. We both looked at each other, “we had just got it back from the workshop, what the hell, it’s creepy here at night, aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah, oh f***” were some of the thoughts simultaneously running through our minds condensed into that look. I called Michele and quickly told her about our predicament though before I could tell her to come pick us up, my cell-phone reception was lost and Anna hadn’t had any to start with. This was the pits I thought before Anna pushed while I steered the Kembara into one to stay out of the way of tractors and trucks tomorrow. In order for any calls to be made, we would have to start walking so we thought-might as well walk towards exiting the plantation-towards home. Anna was glad I had volunteered, she really didn’t want to be in this situation by herself. Finally we reached a place where I called Nadine and Anna could leave a message on whatsapp in case Michele hadn’t heard the sheer panic in my voice when I called. We drowned out the eerie silence interrupted by frog and cricket sounds with useless banter and trudged on.

 

We were almost out of the plantation when we saw lights at a bend on the road. It was Leo and Michele on the 2 bikes and boy were we glad. It was close to 9 when we did finally reach. I have a morning shift tomorrow so I’m heading to bed hoping we can indeed find them at or near the sleeping site indeed.

 

8th March 2017 (LAST DAY OF WORK): Retrieval and farewell

 

Lea and I went upriver, climbing the dangerously sharp rocks slick with rain water and careful stepped on loose soil filled with bertam clumps. And the moment we got up with no breath left, it was immediately evident that AMY was definitely not here. But I wasn’t taking any risks. AMY can be super quiet. The rain this morning meant they might still be in the trees and in no hurry to make noise or wake up. But most of all I was afraid of not being able to see and follow AMY on my last day of work. Just then we heard faint sounds. OR we thought we heard sounds from downhill. But it could be longtails or just our imagination even. Eitherway, we went downhill, this time via a route I knew wasn’t as fraught with danger. At the river though, the silence was apparent. But we climbed to the hill on he other side anyway, a place they do usually sleep on in my short experience. We only had to reach a little high before I saw my first pig-tail for the day- a juvenile walking gingerly on a thin branch trying to get to the bertam nearby. After the relief, I immediately shared the news with the others back at camp and Anna and Leo who were stuck in mud with the car enroute to Nadine’s house (they did get rescued pretty quickly…relatively).

 

Lea and I had relaxed immediately and settled down for a bit of AMY-watching although on the edge of a wet cliff while monkeys are in trees is not the best condition to do so. We saw Oliver and both Lea and I exchanged tales of his masturbation (apparently Oliver had also masturbated MULTIPLE times later in the afternoon- good for you Oliver). Emma was alive and well and I was relieved yet again by her presence. Everything had grown quiet after around 5 minutes of activity. Luckily, I had the pregnant Scarlet in my line of sight and I wasn’t going to let her out of there. She swung from her sleeping tree on to another and then a third where she settled down. This tree, was big and on the stream’s bank, which meant the only way we could follow AMY was by climbing down the cliff (Damn our lost arboreality). Easier said than done. However, AMY didn’t seem to be going anywhere soon so we were able to climb down the path where I had retrieved the first machete from, with Leo. Indeed, the trees were quite tall and we followed AMY purely on sound for a while. We hadn’t stopped and rested much and I still wasn’t sure which direction the pig-tails intended to move in, and after the exhaustion from yesterday’s adventures, I was mostly running on ‘This-is-my-last-day’ juice. They moved a bit more and climbed up the same hill we had climbed this morning and stayed at the same site we had looked for them at this morning. “Don’t go to the checkpoint 3 swamp please” I prayed silently to the pig-tail god. They went into the large clump of Bertam and grew silent. It occured to Lea and me that we had both forgotten our machetes and this Bertam was thick and strong and entangled with other species of spiny plants. We kicked and pushed, got spines in our boots (Lea got one that pierced into her boot) and in our hair. Most times though we took advantage of our small statures (advantageous for once) and scraped by or crawled through the undergrowth like the pig-tails.

 

To add to all the drama, in last night’s confusion, Michele had forgotten to check if our GPS batteries were charging and now we were on our last bit of GPS power from the 3rd pair of cells. So we tried our level best to reduce our use of it. Lea had the GPS so I had no idea what was the closest place. We had come out of the bertam-barrier and were now on the other side of the hill close o the next stream with the checkpoint 2 hill on the other side. We had heard some individuals moving in his direction but now the sounds had stopped. I went ahead towards the stream but the source was revealed to be long-tails. Dusky-langurs spotted me wildy searching around for a sign of pig-tails while I panicked internally. It was so close to the end of our shift and my last shift. AAAAARRRGHHHH! But wait, Lea called out, there’s sounds closer to us. A juvenile- Felicia! and then Emily, Emanuel, Renate, Reggie and Febe. All going downhill. In our panic, we hadn’t realised how close we were to ‘The clearing’. Most of AMY was in the plantation and as if waiting for us (probably Febe and the others though), they began moving quickly into the plantation, at least 2 sections deep. And then I saw Franzi, the Heimdall of AMY and now rare-occurance. I silently went to ech individual and bid them adieu. They were the reason I had come here in the first place and despite my incessant cribbing, I was going to miss these monkeys. Anna and Michele came to take over and Lea and I returned home. I started my final packing- it wasn’t a lot of work. I met Ameer, the new volunteer who will travel across the country finding and collecting faecal samples of pig-tails for Anna. I got chance to learn about him and we all discussed where my farewell dinner was going to be.

 

Anna and Michele got back a little early and we decided to forgo our usual food-haunt for another one- a Malay sea-food place. Which unfortunately we couldn’t find but we went to another one and had some amazing fish (Siakap/sea bass), calamari fritters, tom-yam among other things. The Malay ability to eat so many things in such large quantities (like those of some people in Kerala too) amazes me still. It was bitter sweet, this meal and we were tired. I had done my last bit of work for the project and bought bright nail paint to mark the rats the project catches so they know they’ve done the individual if it gets caught again. We went to Tesco and I got some ready-to eat Laksa and pandan and normal Kaya for my family as ‘a taste of Malaysia’.

 

9th April 2017, Sunday: So long, farewell, auf wiedhersen, goodbye…ok now let me go…seriously

 

I got up early despite our late night because Anna was doing a full day today and wouldn’t see me before I left this afternoon. Goodbyes are weird. To me, even hellos are weird, or holding a conversation not related to work or studying or science or Harry Potter. But still, goodbyes are awkward and since I didn’t know how to put all my feelings into an eloquent cheesy poem, I hugged Anna and said “Thanks for everything”. She is a badass woman and I hope she knows that. I wished her all the best with everything and saw her and Lea off. After an hour, Leo and I went to the plantation to see if we had caught any rats. Unfortunately we hadn’t. I was hoping to process at least one rat but again this is a lesson about studying animals in their natural environment. No matter how well you have planned things, the animal is the one factor that you can’t control or manipulate and is also most crucial to you.

 

We got back and I sat around, washed my sheets and cleaned the hut, made sure the plant catalogue was complete or as complete as I could make it and dealt with my travel jitters by eating and keping myself busy. Soon, it was time for Michele and I to repeat the same goodbyes. Michele, being more expressive was also evidently sad. And that saddened me even more. We are both somewhat equally obstinate in our views, most are similar but some are very different and she and I have had some interesting debates. We wished each other luck and I saw her and Ameer off. Soon, Nadine came to pick me up and I rushed around to bid Leo and Lea adieu.

 

The drive to Penang took loner than predicted but I wasn’t too worried. I had received an email two days ago saying that although my class couldn’t be upgraded for the first leg of my trip (Penang-KL), I had now been upgraded to business class for my KL-Mumbai leg which is what I was also able to check in for. Nadine and I said our farewells. I could not have thanked her enough for the amazing opportunity I got, all the things I learnt, and all the networks she had set up for me in case I wanted to continue to work with primates. She dropped me and left for home. I entered and went to the counter and gave my ticket saying I wasn’t able to print the boarding pass. The lady looked at my ticket. “When did you book these tickets mam?”. “Well, a long time ago-obviously, maybe September or October”. “Actually mam, this flight has been cancelled. Didn’t you get an email day before yesterday?. And the other flight to KL just left, you should have coe earlier”. Now, I like to think that I am a calm person and can be assertive when I want to be. But such panic and dread means I squeaked and mumbled “What” a lot. I was surprised at how fast I composed myself and checked my emails. It turns out their records showed that I had got an email but my inbox and spam folder showed otherwise. And for once I was assertive. I was asked to wait. And I spent the end of my trip worrying whether I’s be able to leave that day. Luckily, the airline lady said they could put me on the next flight at 8:25, checking my baggage all the way through to Mumbai although it gave ME only 45 minutes to disembark, emigrate and get onto the next flight. I was moving in hilly terrain everyday and was at the peak of my physical fitness. It turns out that physical strain for 3 months was nothing- a fact I was made aware of when I rushed out of one plane to catch the other, emigrating on the way. The KL airport’s vastness and planning meant I had blacked out when I reached the gate H8 mentioned on the boarding pass I had been smart enough to print out in Penang. Only, I got there with 20 minutes till my flight to learn that the gate had been changed to G6. And if you though G and H gate should be close, you’s be wrong. They are in opposite wings. I ran as fast as I could- exhausted, my thighs and knees screaming with the surge of lactic acid. I did make it to the gate. People- definitely Mumbaikars were all crowded around the gate (No queue, lots of Marathi/Gujarati and talks about Mumbai traffic). I was relieved and annoyed to hear that the gate had changed thrice already when the gate just got changed a 4th time, to H10. So I went back to the same place I had run from, this time releived to be with people and not having missed the flight.

 

When we did get there, the gate had changed again. And this time, I didn’t have to get angry and fight. The Mumbai spirit did it for me. People refused to move and demanded to know what the hell was going on. They were sick of changing gates. The plane was supposed to take off in 10 minutes; a feat impossible if people aren’t onboard. We finally got hold of someone from the airline who informed us that the flight was delayed- by an hour and a half and then gave us the final boarding gate. I was glad my Business-class upgrade still stuck and I enjoyed some pampering for 5 hours to make up for my crazy day. I reached Mumbai at 2:30 am from the earlier 12:45 landing time. IT IS DONE- my Malaysia adventure.

Primate Diaries: Days-are you still counting? (55-58)

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.

_______________________________________________________________
10th March 2017, Friday: Stalking
Since Vino and I had managed to find and follow VOLDEMORT to their sleeping site, it only made sense if we could go hang out with them today. Of course, we can’t do it for the whole day but it’s important to have as much time with them as possible so they get used to us Orange-Oompa-loompas (Vino’s brilliant description of us).

Thus, Vino and I reached the sleeping site, a little late but at least we didn’t have to scramble through spiny shrubbery and Bertam in the dark. We reached the place where Voldemort had lunged at us but couldn’t hear anything. However, we had expected this. It would be likely that they went a little further around the hill. And as we predicted, we started to hear them better and even see them because of the lack of Bertum. This also meant that they could see us. The males were barking and support-shaking at each other, a morning ritual similar to AMY’s. I think it acts to reiterate or reconfiure social heirarchies- or is like exercising at the gym, one or the other, or even both (It’s all conjecture, might as well go all out). But upon seeing us, the males started directing the puckering and branch-shakes at us. That is till they realised they were quite high up (They usually climb onto high branches of strong trees for the morning ritual) and decided to go about their business. 2 individuals relatively close to us, seemingly male were mounting- a sign of peace-making amongst males- usually sub-ordinate mounts the dominant ones.

But only the males were here, the sound of the juevniles and females seemed to now be coming from further down. Well, it is good if they go down and into the plantation, we thought. We saw a swelling female on a tree and she semed to be going down. So we decided to follow her. Easy enough to say and do when you are not surrounded by thick entangles Bertum and bushes. This was an area we have never had to use. And that itself was exciting. As for the ‘chase’, it seemed not as exciting when all you were doing was trying your level best to catch a glimpse of a few individuals while they hoo-d and humm-ed all around you. In a way, we had aticipated this level of difficulty. The group is not used to us and we are unwelcome. VOLDEMORT has no reason to hang out with us. But the unnerving bit is that though you can’t see them, you know they can see you and they are watching you closely.

They were going further down and to the right. But since we were going downhill, our view of WHERE they were going was obscured by the trees. It could be one of thwo places now- further around the hill to get out onto the other plantation OR….’The Swamp’ at cehckpoint 3. We decided that it would be best if we got out of the forest to assess where they were going. Of course, getting out took some time and effort. We were always surrounded by pig-tail sounds though so it was all good.

We finally got out onto the road, not before we both got water in our boots and had to sit down to empty them and wring our socks. It was soon that we realised we couldn’t hear the monkeys anymore-just the garbled calls of long-tails. We walked all the way to the other plantation mostly because we weren’t confident we knew our way about ‘The Swamp’. In vain. We had managed to ‘follow’ them for an hour and 15 minutes. Same as yesterday. But hey, consistency is good. We should count this as success.

We did try to find them back, following the same protocol. Split up, look around, wait, return and repeat. We only needed to spend half a day with VOLDEMORT, which was an optimistic estimation by Anna and wishful thinking on our part. At least we got to see part of the forest we don’t normally see with AMY.

Turns out Michele, doing the afternoon shift had desperately tried to follow AMY but lost them in the swamp at check-point 1. A headache to be dealt with tomorrow. Could it be that both pig-tails were in two different swamps, AMY at 1 and VOLDEMORT at 3?

11-12-13 March 2017: Non-forest days, a summary

Made my visa run, from KL this time so had a good 4 and a haf hour bus ride before I got there. Maybe “volunteering for research on monkeys” wasn’t legit sounding to the emigration lady who hit me with the ominous “We’ll see”.

After having visited Medan in the cover of darkness, it was nice to see it in the light of day albeit fast fading. You”d think I had got enough sleep but oh how wrong you would be. I had a good restful sleep in a big-ish bed and woke up to a nice non-humid Sunday. I explored the vicinity a bit, saw a Sunday morning market and walked to a traditional mansion/museum that was, as it turns out- CLOSED. After contemplating my ethical dilemma in visiting a collection of taxidermied animals by a hunter, I decided against it. Mostly because it was too far away. After a simple lunch, I got back, lay in bed- caught up with my blog-writing and watched Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire back to back. Successful day I’d call it.

13th March: Checked out early in the morning (4 am train you’all). But this level of paranoia meant I was at the near empty airport quite early. People laugh at my insistence to be 2 and a half if not 3 hours early for an international flight. They haven’t seen the Home Alone movies I believe. Lack of people meant securiy was a breeze. Had to wait for immigration officers to actually arrive. This gave me an opportunity to get a free foot and leg massage from one of those fancy contraptions while I reclined in a plush chair. Needless to say, was first one when the emigration officers did arrive.
Got to KL- finally went to Pasar Seni, the old maret established in 1888 fo meat and fish but is now super-swanky and has clothes, souvenirs, handicrafts etc. An air conditioned bazaar of sorts. Visited an art-gallery, had to maek up for my lack of museum visits these past few months. Got out and went to the real market, and things I wanted to spend money on….food. Some good durian ice-cream and a short trip to 7-Eleven later (Major Australia nostalgia right there), I decided to head back.
This time, I didn’t miss my bus to Sitiawan. Unfortunately my plan to make up for lost sleep was thwarted by the toddler who screamed his heart out and decided he 5 hour bus journey was the perfect time to exercise his developing vocal chords. Just as I felt myself falling into a somewhat restful slumber, the bus seemed to be slowing down. We were stuck in a jam, IN SITIAWAN. We were almost an hour early. No big. I finally got a chance to sample the Pizza Hut where the bus stops while I waited for Anna. And yes, it seems like rip-off especially when you hardly spend anything on local dishes in outdoor cafeterias.
Well, we got back and decided that it seemed like a good night to walk to the beach. Full moon, low tide and luke warm water with a gentle breeze. We should do this more often. We were hoping for bioluminiscent algae (well- dinoflagellates to be precise) but no one seemed excessively disappointed.

Primate Diaries: Days 49-51

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.

______________________________________________________________
4th March:  Impending
I spent the morning lazing about. It was extremely hot and I was glad it wasn’t me who had to walk all the way to the forest early in the morning (Both bikes were in need of tweaking). Nadine and her husband came by to fix the bikes and it was almost 1 by the time I left but luckily AMY was in the plantation. Michele was nursing her newly formed blisters while Anna was yet again looking for the elusive Putih, who is master of sneaking around with her baby Pumeluff attached to her. I spotted her and yelled for Anna who came running to conduct her focal.

Anna and Michele left and AMY too decided that they had had enough. The thunder sounded threatening and strong winds were blowing. It is the sign of a storm brewing and I would be happier in the forest too when it started to pour. But AMY lingered on, spending time grooming and drinking from puddles in the buffer-zone at the cusp of the plantation and the forest. Norbert sat there, in all his magnificence and made some grunting noises in response to or as a stimulus for the juveniles’ humming. I had my eye on Pippi who is swelling again. Brienne, it turns out is definitely not pregnant and is now hanging about the periphery of the group to solicit some mounting. I followed Febe, through the access point at Checkpoint 2. Inside, it was cosier and I already felt protected from the wind. But soon, the sun was streaming through. False alarm about the rain then. Though the thunder seemed unrelenting and growing louder. AMY hung about for a while before starting to climb up.

Yet again, Casimodo and I had a stand-off. He puckered at me and moved toward me while I decided to stand my ground till he was too close. Waving your arm like I do to get the juveniles when they get too curious is not avstrategy that works. Plus, Casimodo is a pretty big male. Luckily, he got distracted and decided that was more novel than I. We were steadily climbing for what felt like a half-hour. A lot of it was obviously me just being paranoid about losing them and climbing too fast without realising my foot was placed in lose soil. When I did reach flattish land, my view was obscured by all the Bertums. I could only hear the pig-tails yet again ravishing, what Nadine claims is a rather bland snack.

We seemed to be going along the same route Anna and I had climbed the hill up yesterday. But at least we seemed to be going downhil.. Maybe they were going back into the plantation since it didn’t rain after all I thought. I leaned against a tree to rest my weary legs. I had a good view of Pippi puckering at Pie who dutifully came to groom her mother while Lori was in a Bertum clump in my line of sight too. And then I felt a drop, and then another. But it didn’t feel like rain. I could see a pig-tail’s behind and I quickly jumped away. I just got peed on. I had heard this happens and it had almost happened on two-three separate ocassions but….ah well, at least it wasnt a full shower onmy face I thought. But I now had a good view of the perpetrator-of-pee. It was my new nemesis Tiga, the soon-to-be sub-adult who has been skittish and puckering a lot at me off-late. However, I saw what he was doing. He was actually scooping out and drinking the water that had filled up in a stump on the tree. SO it was water, that explains why it wasn’t warm and continuous. Close call but I’m guessing my initiation into getting peed on will happen one day or another.

I didn’t have to wait long before AMY began moving once again. This time in the direction of checkpoint 2, I hoped. I was not ready to deal with the swamp at checkpoint 1 by myself. The thunder was louder and the wind was strong enough to shake the trees inside the forest as well. Plus, this was the same hill where Michele and I had become confused thanks to the longtails, yesterday and I knew they regularly hang out there. And right I was. AMY was currently sprinkled with long-tails. Tiga bullied Curli into giving up his nice tree-bark with a lot of potential insects while a juvenile I couldn’t identify, played with a juvenile long-tail….for quite a while. And the long-tail, after giving an alarm-call and realising that his playmate and playmates troop didn’t care, realised that I probably wasn’t a threat and guessed that I probably couldn’t climb up a tree anyway. They mock-bit each othe, swiped at each others tails and swung aboutwhile holding the other in a tight embrace. It was adorable. I moved a bit ahead thinking that soon we would be in the plantation. We were so close after all.

But I waited and waited. Pippi groomed Putih for a solid half hour and the huveniles were playing and calling. Putig groomed a female for quite some time and I realised it was Pamkin, who we recently hypothesised is probably one of the three highest ranking sisters’ trio, and quite aggressive too. Norbert had returned again and fulfilled his seemingly minimal and obligatory duty of grunting in return to all juveniles’ hmmms and getting a hoooo…back. Maybe that’s how they also keep check to see if all the individuals are present, though the males don’t usually care I would think (Males leave the group, females form the core permanent group- google Female Philopatry in primates). I was really getting worried about being rained on. Luckily I had reception and was able to tell people at camp to come pick me up slightly early.

It was surprising how close they were too the plantation, but how difficult this place was to access, thanks to the water I would have to cross, and the horribly tangled mass of lianas interspersed with clumps of Bertum. I finally got out though. Anna had just arrived and eveerything looked bone-dry. I felt silly but Anna was understanding. She said she wouldn’t have taken the risk either. Plus, AMY hadn’t moved for an hour and had gone through the sleep-time ritual already so we felt more confident. We went to the city, earlier than we had ever gone before. It was weird! Anna ‘s standing fan had breathed its last, we attribute it to one most terrifying thunder strike the other day. I also needed to run some errands before my next trip to Indonesia so we spent a precious couple of hours in the city and got back at a somewhat decent hour. Ok I’m lying, it was 12 when we reached home. But, we tried.

5th March 2017, Sunday : The sun’ll come out tomorrow

I woke up to the sound of thunder, but the air smelt dry. Anna and I headed out, me hoping that AMY had indeed stayed at what I had marked as the sleeping site, considering how early they had seemed to be done for the day yesterday. We were on the tarred road when we felt the drops turning into an ominous drizzle. “Do you want to stop so we can put our rain jackets on?” Anna asked. “I don’t care as much, but the tablet in my bag needs to be protected” I replied. We quickly covered all the equipment and protected ourselves as best we could. But when the real rain hit, it didn’t matter. It was pouring so hard and the wind was blowing. It was still dark and the rain meant Anna couldn’t see where we were going “We can get to Nadine’s house, I think it’s not too far” Anna suggested. Atleast we’ll know where it is because there will be light. Since their house is built in the traditional Malay architecture, it’s on the modern version of stilts, so there’s the space underneath that doubles up as garage, workspace and bike shed. We got there at around 6:55, already wet thanks to the storm. We sat at the kids’ arts and crafts table and talked to while away our time. In order to allay any fears of thieves that Nadine’s family might have, we sent her a message explaining that we were under their house perse and not home invaders.

Half an hour later, the rain seemed in no hurry to stop or slow down. Nadine was up and offered us some warm tea and coconut bread. Might as well we thought. And then she warmed our damp spirits when she asked us “Did you see the cats, the babies I mean?”. And then she brought them out. 5 little itsy-bitsy kittens in our laps and we were almost glad for the rain. Their mother, a silky ginger cat was hanging around with another female ginger who is also pregnant. “So many kittens”, I breathed into the ear of one who was trying to snooze on my thigh while her 2 siblings clambered over her to investigate their surroundings. Anna and I reluctantly got up to leave. the rain had definitely slowed down to a drizzle and we anticipated the monkeys to have moved. When it rains for too long, even if it’s heavy, AMY moves sometimes, as if they get bored of waiting or they look for better shelter. We reached the plantation at 9:15 am, expecting to have to look for AMY, a laborious task but I thought might as well try the sleeping site first. Yes it took time to get there. It’s a weird place though quite close to the plantation. We were pleasantly surprised to find that AMY was still there, waiting for us. “Aww, you guys”, I exclaimed as if hoping for some response from them. But it was Anna who spoke- “They are going to the plantation, we have to go there really fast, we will lose them otherwise”. What, to me it seemed like they would take some time, but Anna seems to correctly guess a lot of things about AMY so we got out as quickly as possibly. They were nowehere near the buffer zone. Anna ran further into the plantation while I wondered why AMY would so deep into the plantation so fast. But there they were, moving from one plot to another. We ran crossing the moat with some difficulty. Soon enough we were amongst them.

Anna began her focal, again starting with Putih and her babay Pummeluff, while she could and I started with the ID check and entering ad-libitum events. These behaviurs, usually interactions between individuals-aggressive, affiliative or sexual help us form ethograms and matrices to establish the heirarchy and social relations. After watching Phoenix chase the little independent infant Reggie, I wandered towards Scarlet. She is my favourite female, always calm, mostly grooming her juveniles Tiga and Schatz. Off-late, Tiga-probably on the cusp of sub-adulthood is acting like a human teenage brat and starting to be skittish and invade our personal space. Scarlet, thanks to her pregnancy which is great, is unfortunately also becoming very squirmish though Anna swears it wasn’t like this when she was pregnant with Schatz. And thus, when I went close to her to see if I could get Phoenix’s faeces, she alarm called and screamed till I went away. A little deflated, I decided to hang out with the swelling females, who become a little more bold- you have to be to get non-alphas to mount you without running helter-skelter. A lesson Pippi and Jane still haven’t learned, they run too quickly away after a male mounts them sometimes.

I came across Emma and at a good time too- Anna was looking for her to do a focal. She suggested I look out for Anakin, so i did and then she said I should look out for and keep an eye on Mina-next on the focalling list. We didn’t have to try too hard. Anakin was following Mina, who is sweling again. He puckered and mounted, puckered and mounted again and then they separated. So I foloowed Mina, watched her sexual trysts and recorded them. Passed both Norbert and Oliver on the ground, looking up expectantly at other individuals foraging. There are I think many reasons the big males, who ususallly tend to be higher ranking, don’t climb trees often:
1) They have a great view of the females swells from underneath and can also spot any sneaking around if they decide to stick to and guard one female.
2) They are usually too big and it might be difficult to get their humongous lumbering forms up and across most trees plus their callosites seems pretty small in proportion and the handicap (google Zahavi’s handicap principle) that is the ball-sack is not a great thing to have to sit upon.
3) Most importantly and probably to put in anthropomorphic terms- they sustain themselves by mooching off the food that fell down when others- females, smaller males and juveniles dropped things, usually while stepping on a weak part of the bark, they also can use their superiority and physical strength to snatch food.

Just as I was thinking this, I saw evidence of the last point. Phoenix was looking for insects or other creatures, moving around prying the bark open when we heard a squeal. A rat had fallen down. Before anyone could react, Oliver had already expertly gripped the rat and beheaded it with his canine. I forgot about Mina, and so did he – he was just puckering at her a moment ago (refer to point 1). This is yet another thing we put in ad-libitum. It helps establish whether the pig-tails are actually controlling the population of rodents, a big pest of oil-palm plantations, rather than the pig-tails that are considered to be. Anna decided that she would rather do a focal on Oliver- she needed to do him next anyway. We saw him expertly turn the rat inside out to get to the flesh without bothering with the fur and skin. After being grossed out by the goriness, I decided to get back to Mina, and let Anna deal with Oliver. I realised we had been in the plantation for quite a while. I didn’t want to leave Anna alone- especially because we feared another rain- the sun still wasn’t out. But I was exhausted somehow and Anna said she’d manage. Additionally, she wanted me to leave asap so i didn’t have to drive in the rain, if it did rain. So I wished her all the best, hoped for good weather and non-swampy terrain. Not that it mattered, the moat crossing today had already filled her boot with water. She is looking forward to her day off tomorrow to hopefully dry her things.

6th March 2017, Monday: It’s lonely at the top

We were still functioning with one bike which means, since Anna had her day off I had to go with Michele in the morning, just to bring the bike back, so I could go in the afternoon shift. The logistics management is a skill I wish was something I could formally put in my CV. I came back, almost got creeped out by a turkey, near the house that didn’t seem to know it’s boundaries (Check out my instagram for proof). You’d know if you know how weird Geese, swan and even chickens can get sometimes- especially if they decide to mob and/or chase you. Had a good breakfast and read a book. The weather seemed okay, much better than yesterday.

I reached the reserve at around 1:30, AMY had just reached the plantation. They were still hanging out in the buffer zone. We swiftly made the exchange of GPSs, i collected the tablet and Michele was on her way, I watched as some Scarlet and Schatz foraged a little distance away from me. I sat down to record any interesting exchange. I didn’t have to wait long. I heard a tussle rght above me. Pippi, who is starting to swell was minding her own business around 5 m away from Norbert (Who was on the tree today), was suddenly viciously chaed and bitten by Goldie-the female we believe is the alpha. Pippi almost fell off the last bit off the palm and ran to another tree nearby. Goldie calmly started grooming Norbert, weird as her swell is definitely going down. But we have seen even Pamkin and Scarlet grooming him, when they are not swelling, and he lets them- probably has something to do with their social standing (They are possibly the highest ranking females-probably sisters). A while later, Norbert had moved to the other tree and so Pippi got chased by Goldie again. Poor thing can’t catch a break.

Surprisingly, AMY decided that they had had enough and were goig back into the forest, after spending only an hour in the border of the plantation. Well, AMY is full of surprises. Better not question it- no time to anyway, considering how fast they were moving. Not even hanging out at the forest border like they usually do after their plantation visits. I waited in the plantation for a bit and I’m glad I did. I got to witness Mina get mounted by Phoenix twice. I turned around to see if Putih had finally gone in and when I turned back- holy hell- PHOENIX WAS GROOMING MINA. A male grooming a female is a rare occurance and I was sad I couldn’t record it on my phone. Best ad-libitum recording ever- although probably an outlier of male to female affiliative acts. I finally reached inside, watched as the last of the males came trickling in. Casimodo and Anakin sat almost huddled together as they each got presented to by Pippi and Mina, neither of whose offers they seemed to want to take. I watched as Febe followed Putih in the hopes to groom her only to have those hopes dashed when mina lunged her into running away and up a tree near me. We were quickly climbing up now. I was a little surprised at the steady movements with little time for breaks but Anna said they did the same yesterday after their day at the plantation.

We were reaching a part of the hill I detested all the spiny Bertums, clumps of them as far as the eye can see. Mostly because the eyes can’t see too far BECAUSE of the Bertums. I remembered that I had forgotten to take the Machete from Michele. Too late now! Well, AMY was still moving and it was becoming more difficult to see them. And unlike the last time, they didn’t seem too interested in feeding on Bertum fruits. They climbed up and down, up and down. I tried to keep up and was successful except for a few scares here and there. Once, i was with just a juvenile in sight whigh was Lori as I figured out and it was just Lori, Pippi and Pie. not a good combo as they are closely related, and Pippi seems to get lost quite a bit. Her lost call wsn’t filling me with confidence. But then the others came over and I was relieved.

We were heading to an area I wasn’t familiar with and I reckoned we were quite high up already. I thought we might be near the vantage point that boasts great views of the ocean when the sun sets- according to Anna. Well, maybe I’d finally get to see this amazing sunset over the ocean. We were climbing quite high now and the Bertums were making things really difficult. It was like in the swamp-I could only hear the pig-tails from time to time. And then we reached a place with less of an incline and fewer Bertums. Finally I can sit and drink some water I thought. Having a snack was out of the question at the rate AMY was moving. And then I realised why there were fewer Bertum- It was filled with huge boulders and mossy rocks. I saw Mina and Brienne disappear to a much clearer are to my left. All the males were hanging out to my right and juveniles had already climbed up via the spiny bertums that were around. I went left after where I’s seen Brienne and Mina disappear to. I’d just go up and wait for all of AMY to get up there.

I followed the clear path. It turns out, after the first bend, there was a rather steep climb and ofcourse I fell on my face, onto Bertums. But I got up there eventually, with scratches and spines sticking out; I’d had to go through some more clumps of Bertum and was really regeretting not getting the machete. I was sweating and hungry but a small breeze blew and I relaxed a bit. I still couldn’t hear AMY. Seeing them was out of the question. After waiting for close to 5 minutes I started moving about, AMY wasn’t coming, I realsed in horror and I was filled with dread. I went up further, I was almsot at the top. Some more Bertum, there was a sense of urgency now that I needed to desperately find them. They would have had to have gone up- why would they turn back and go down? Why were there so many Bertum- what was that sound? THEM? Nope. The wind here was stronger and I could hear eagles at close range. There was a nest up here. The GPS showed that I had reached the pinacle. I could see the ocean. It was difficult because of all the bertum but yes it looked nice. It was only only 4:55. And I was here, in a part of the forest I wasn’t familiar with and AMY wasn’t here with me. When you are with the pig-tails, it doesn’t matter if you are the only person around. It is safe. But right now and here, it was a little unnerving. I breathed a bit, drank some water, realised I was sweating like a pig and that the GPS had lost satelite reception. Luckily my phone hadn’t and so I made the call I really didn’t want to make.

I called Michele, explained things to her and then to Anna. Michele said she’d come pick me up. I wanted an hour, one because I didn’t really know the way back down and two, I hoped I would find AMY on the way. It was difficult, going down. Luckily at least the GPS was working. But I spent some time always chasing every sound I thought I heard only to realise my way was blocked by huge cumps of bertum and that I was afraid of veering of the already dis-used trail which was probably relatively better than other areas. It was 5:45 and I was still in an area I wasn’t too sure I had been in. I wasn’t sure if the GPS was showing me the right direction. I was disoriented. I sat down, breathed deeply and opened my eyes after a few moments. I knew this rock. I’ve been here before. I’m definitely on the right track, it’s just from a different angle. After some confusion, I finally got out after a bit of back and forth with Michele over walkie-talkie abbout how far I was.

I got back feeling quite dejected. It’s really sad when you lose AMY because looking for them means spending time you could have been observing and collecting data. Anna asked to see my track. “At least I saw the beautiful view” I said. She looked at my track intently, saw where I’d marked “AMY LOST”. “Wait, you actually went all the way up the hill looking for them?, It’s so high. The beautiful viewing point is far below this” she gasped. Seriously, so I’d gone and lost them and didn’t even see the beautiful viewing point? What a pathetic tragedy. But Anna was appreciative of my resillience and saw my anguish. I just wanted to curl up in bed after taking a shower. But we had to go into town run errands and pick up Vino who comes back from KL. I decided that I needed to splurge and feel good about myself. And thus today, I had some good Chicken claypot Biryani. Anna insisted I take my day off tomorrow even though I volunteered to help her, Michele and vino look for AMY. I think I need the break. But AMY will be there tomorrow and so will we.

Primate Diaries:Days 46-48

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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1st March- The bliss

So it turns out that the thieves came back when we went to the city for emergency internet and finished the job-raiding the fridge. Now that we have little food left, we doubt we will be hit thrice in a row. And that is exactly why I spent a large portion of my day trying to sleep. It was my day off and i intended to make the most of it. But sleep eluded me no matter how hard I tried. So I gave up and decided to have an early breakfast of cramelised banana and cereal while reading up on some pig-tail macaque literature. That is after I had a run in with a particularly bold long-tail who has been hanging about our kitchen for the past few days. He is fearless in manner and unwavering in spirit (yes I tried saying “shooo shoo” while moving toward him menacingly)

Though the day wasn’t sunny, it was sultry and I did get an hour of siesta time before Michele returned after her shift. We are still running on a single bike which like yesterday, meant Michele would have to go pick Anna up at Checkpoint 2 at 7 pm. Michele quickly got busy working on her research proposal while I read a few more papers. It’s been quite a few months since I’ve read science-y things continuously for more than an hour and anyone who has been out of touch will tell you how difficult it can be to get back into the reading. So I was happy I’ve still got the ability to read, understand and critique papers without falling asleep or getting too distracted all the time (Facebook and instagram being too slow are probably a contributing factor).

By 6, the temperature had dropped considerably and it had started to drizzle. Michele had just fed the cats when she received a message from Anna “If you guys get this, can you please come pick me up earlier. It will not stop raining and I am in the swamp”. Oh no! So the rain was worse there than it was here. Michele left as soon as she had adequately covered herself against the rain. I sat at the table outside sipping warm tea and petting Mieza, the cat who had decided to shelter himself against the rain and sit on my non-drenched, relatively warm thighs (Yes, he is sort of spoilt by us). But soon, the storm hit. The wind picked up and the rain was lashing against every surface, dripping or spraying through eveerywhere. I had to run with the folder of papers, my phone and the notebook. Miezer soon followed- my room was better sanctuary, and he was soon curled up against the curtains near the desk. Michele and Anna got back without me even realising, because I couldnt hear the bike through the raging storm.

After getting the low-down from Anna, we realised we would have to buy basic provisions to last us through the week. So after the rain had eased up a bit and Anna had treated yet another faeces sample, we went to the supermarket, discussing possible security measures to enforce around the kitchen. And people say you don’t learn any skills when you volunteer as a field assistant on a biology research project!!

2nd March 2017,Thursday: Loss

Anna and I took the logging road to get to the swamp. Turns out AMY was at the swamp at checkpoint 1 and not ‘The Swamp’ at checkpoint 3. Still, it wasn’t easy to get there, what with all the swampiness, now increased thanks to last night’s mini-storm. We could hear AMY long before we could ctually get to them and I had spines in my palm while Anna had water in her boots before we even got there. We really hoped they went immediately into the plantation, me more than anyone. Apparently AMY had spent a better part of yesterday, deep in the plantation, that is before they suddenly realised the rain was about to hit and sought refuge in the swamp, strengthening my confidence inAnna’s hypothesis that they spend the night in the swamp when the rain is going to be particularly harsh.

So there we were, removing leeches left and right. I had one in my hair and when Anna spotted and removed it, there was blood on her hand. Mine. And here we were, thinking hair would protect us. Such naivete. Emma was the only one on the ground….foraging. Big surprise! Jisuaf was here and I saw Norbert chase the swelling probably-alpha female Goldie and her probable sister, close in rank- Pamkin. We decided to follow Emma on her foraging trail, at least we know she won’t forage on the ground in areas that are too wet and swampy. We saw that she had found a fruit, opened it to reveal a transluscent-white flesh and was enjoying her loot. After photographing the fruit and debating which tree it might have come from Anna said she must look for Febe to do a mother-infant focal on her and Fefe, her daughter. And if Emma is around, Febe should be nearby. And then Anna spotted her monitoring the area, from a tree near us. “Wait, where’s her baby?” Anna exclaimed. “What, do you mean, are you sure it’s her?”. ANd then she gave out this loud wail. We had been hearing the lost call for close to 10 minutes now. This was not a godd sign. Anna looked worried. She had seen this many times before. The infant mortality rate was very high, especially considering the rain, the deep water. And considering Fefe was too small to go anywhere on her own, the only possibility is drowning. I considered the possibility that she was with Emily, but Febe’s cries were desperate and Emily wasn’t around. She would come if she heard Febe. The sound of Febe’s call was haunting and deep-well scientifically it makes sense- a low pitch sound probably carries really far. At that moment, in the stillness after the rain, it was disturbing and sad. And, no one else seemed to be visibly upset by it. Not even Febe’s moher Emma.

Febe stopped after a while of calling from different directions. It is possible her baby was gone last night during the rain, she just was resting her chords before calling again at regular intervals. Anna decided to do a focal on the only visible individual easy enough to track in the swamp- Emma. She was foraging for a bit before climbing on a low hanging branch. I sat down on a relatively dry trunk to remove my 4th leech for the day- I had 12 the last time I was in this swamp, we were just getting started. Emma was getting groomed by her 1 year old Emanuel, who was only trying to get to her nipples so he could drink milk.

But Emma was having none of it. She turned away and then after he kept pestering her she seemed aggressive, holding him and pulling his ear. Finally, when none of the tactics worked, she just climbed down and went away. Febe had started calling again. AMY seemed to be in no mood to move. We realised it was 11 already and they weren’t going anywhere. So we whiled away our time by talking-shop, discussing experimental designs peratining to Anna’s project and if research needs to necessarily have a purpose that is not “satiating need for knowledge”. Yeah, we were bored and couldn’t even do Inter-Observer Reliability tests because the individuals were so hard to see amongst the canopy anyway. I waited till 12:30 while Anna sat drying her socks and feet, before I got out after a bit of a struggle and got back home. Michele had Anna’s co-ordinates and went to the forest.

I decided that I should do something productive after having spent some hours trying to take a nap after lunch. So I finally decided that it was getting un-sunny and cool enough to sit outside. After feeding the cat and making myself some ginger tea, I decided that it was time to type out yesterday and today’s events. The rain started soon, as you may have guessed and I worried about making the journey with the tablet to my hut. I heard the gate open. Michele and Anna were back at…6:30 pm- just like the good old days when I first arrived and it rained all the time. Through the crashing rain and thunder, we screamed out the basics. AMY had finally come out into the plantation and stayed till 4 before going back to the swamp. Then, I got to the desk, opened my window and sit here, typing this as a mighty thunder strikes and the winds rage. I am watching the same sugar-canes in the unused field outside my window but I don’t know how long even their sturdy looking stem can withstand the storm’s strength.

3rd March: Recovering

Michele and I left early in the morning, reaching the sleeping site after some confusion (the forest does look very different early in the morning as Michele realised). Last evening’s rain meant Michele and Anna had left earlier than usual but we didn’t expect AMY to have moved much. The long-tails were around and so were the duskies. And bless-my-heart I could hear the Gibbons…well GIBBON! This male had quite a voice, it echoed through the forest and I forgot for a moment to be sad that he was looking for a female who wasn’t responding. The gibbons’ duets are apparently a treat to the ears. We sat there silently, listening to the booming melody. We climbed up a little higher because the ruckus being made by the climbing long-tails was making it hard to heard the muffled sounds by the juveniles. And then a lost call. “Must be Febe”, I said, still in mourning about her lost baby although apparently she didn’r cry after her morning session. But maybe, she remembered again that she used to have a baby.

We waited for a half an hour, but AMY didn’t seem to have any plans to move. And they didn’t go to their morning male-bark ritual or the female-juvenile contact calls. But then it hit us- we needed to have visual confirmation immediately that wasn’t the one male on the tree far below that we could see or the juvenile we thought we saw in th tree nearby. And we went up a little further to have a better view from the hill. By the time we had begun moving a little bit, we had both silently begun to think “AMY lost” without wanting to say it out loud. ANd they were so close to the plantation too. How come I never get a day when AMY just spends all their time in the plantation?

And since we were growing weary without a clue where AMY could be- we went home. Sometimes it good to quit so you don’t feel too mentally exhausted. And the funny thing is that we definitel feel more tired when we are not following AMY even though we don’t necessarily walk through difficult terrain. Since we are functioning on 1 bike since the other one has a flat wheel, Anna and I decided that the two of us would go. They probably went uphill really fast and without much warning or contact-calling according to Anna. Apparently, they have a tendency to do that. Sneak off up a hill, or even down without so much as a peep. Which means they would have to be in the plantation sometime in the early afternoon.

We got there around 2:15 and separated to find the pig-tails. We knew they would have to be close to checkpoint 1-2.5. So I was walking at the edge of the plantation, the buffer zone to the forest when I heard and saw some pig-tails. Some juveniles were going in and a male looked at me without puckering. “Found them Anna”, I said through the walkie-talkie. Anna was on her way when, another male- Oh Norbert…yay. Wait no. His arms are fuzzy and fair and a dark head but his tail was differen, Norbert’s amazing bushy , frayed tail. And then someone else came out to the edge of the forest. And all doubt rushed out along with all coherent thought. “Anna, it was the group VOLDEMORT, I just saw him- Voldemort. I’ll keep searching for AMY”. Well that was a premature celebration I thought walking into an area I normally wouldn’t go to. A little way into the plantation. And then I saw some movement on the ground. Surprsingly, it was a female pig-tail with a pig-tail running away as soon as she saw me. It does look like Chewbacca with her infant Chocolate and she DOES still run away from us. I followed in her direction, crossing a moat on the way. There was Scarlet, my saviour on many an ocassion, climbing up a palm while Tim followed. I heard noises, characteristically pig-tail, coming from the plot on the other side. “This time it is definitely AMY”, I told Anna.

She reached me soon enough and decided to focal Norbert without further ado. I went around doing an id-check. Febe, seemed okay, just sad to see her without her baby. Felicia, her other juvenile was nearby. Emma, as usual was on the ground. It was only 3 when AMY decided to finally respond to the looming thunder in the sky and start moving in though the rain was not too strong. Anna and I followed. She had just finished with Norbert who spent the whole time sitting around feeding from something he had stored in his cheek-pouch which I happened to see was pink when he happened to take it out. It was definitely flesh. We had later heard the bones crunch as he chewed them with his powerful jaws.

We started going up one hill, then crossed to another, through some Bertums till we reached a patch exclusively filled with them. Anna was doing a focal on Biru while I was stalking Tiga to see what he was eating and if I could photograph it. obviously he wasnt letting it go so easily. But I had enough and more time because AMY had found the Bertum fruit jackpot. Half an hour later, Anna seemed very happy. Biru had stayed in her line of sight eating the whole time after an initial hiccup when I had to stand on the other side and give her a running commentary of what Biru was up to. Unsurprising because all the individuals of AMY were bust partaking the very same fruits that grow on a stalk surrounded by spiny Bertum stems. AMY slowly began to move to the left, an area which we thought had taller, non-spiny trees. More approporiate for sleeping. And thus, after waiting for around 40 minutes and realising we were pretty far uphill and that I had worked almost 10 hours today, we climbed down, evading a more rainy time that the camp had evidently seen.

Primate Diaries-Days 37-39

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 account 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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20th Feb’2017- Eyes wide open

Mimi has been gone, volunteering in the state of Pahang where a health check-up has been organised for on of the Aboriginal tribes (She is a do-gooder. Tell me how the “youth are out of touch and lazy” again). Anna really needed a day off after all those 12-hour shifts she has been pulling. And thus, I was here in the forest this morning while Michele would take over the afternoon shift. And being alone (the times I either Anna or I were lost don’t count) meant I was going to have to ensure that nothing made me lose AMY.

I reached the sleeping site and though I was on time, it was already well lit though the sun wasn’t out yet. I thought I heard rusting further downhill, in the direction heading towards the plantation. This would make sense as AMY had only gone into he plntation once yesterday. It was the sensible thing to do but AMY may not do what I dem is sensible for them to do. I abandoned my plan to go down and walked left instead because I thought I heard more sounds. Seemed like a good call (call- get it? the pun?) but I still had no visual confirmation. And as if answering my silent prayers, there he stood, on the ground staring intently at me. The Heimdall of AMY- Franzi. With a look in his eye that seemed to say, “Where were you? You’re late” before he got up and led me straight to the females. They were busy grooming infants while some juveniles and adults were still climbing drown from there night perches. They began to move and I wondered what direction they were moving in. You know what, doesn’t matter. I WAS NOT going to lose them while I was busy staring into the GPS, phone or filling up the tablet too long. They move like ninjas, no sound,no warning and then…no trace.

They were moving in small circles around the sleeping site, looking for things they could feed on. Biru had finally caught Norbert’s eye and I got bored of watching them go through the predictable motions of ‘present-pucker-mount-vocalise’. Although, as Michele had pointed out yesterday, Biru for some reason doesn’t groom whoever has just mounted her. I was tumbling through more spiny Bertum while avoiding muck in my bid to follow AMY. My conflict with Phoenix, tormentor of juveniles and pain in every macaque’s butt continues (I celebrate silently everytime he gets rejected by a swelling female or chased by some other adult -male or female). Meanwhile, Oliver and I have finally reached an understanding following our series of stand-offish encounters. He no longer glares warily at me while uckering incessantly though he’s still not reached the level of almost a weed-induced chill of Franzi and Norbert (according to the knowledge I have of weed-induced chill from TV and movies). Brandi watched me curiously when she though I was unaware. Wish I could pucker like they do when they catch you watching them (obviously this is a bad idea- i is best to keep a neutral”resting bitch face”).

We finally reached a flat surface. We were quite close to the logging road. I sat down on the only available log without spines and I could see Febe to my right around 10 m away and Franzi diagonallly in front of me around 7 m away calmly plucking out a spine from his foot. It was a tranquil moment and I eased up. He looked at me and I at him and then suddenly, before I could move or react, he had jumped like a startled cat and up a tree while a gigantic WILD PIG passed through and jumped over the log at the exact spot where Franzi was a second ago. I sat there frozen while images of Peppa pig and Pumba were replaced by this silent giant who could actually jump over this log like a graceful ballerina as well as crushing someone with its monstrosity. When I unfroze, everyone seemed as unperturbed as they were before and Franzi as back to grooming himself as if nothing had occured.

AMY got on to the logging road and I realised they were heading into the swamp at Checkpoint 1. This gave me a chance to do a head count as they trickled from the forest to the other side of the logging road. I saw the shy mother Chewbacca. (Shy is an understatement. She alarm calls every time she spots you watching her. Anna gets frusrated when trying to do a focal on her) Or at least I think that’s her. Where was her baby? I go closer, she spots me and runs up a tree snatching her baby Chocolate (whose sex we still don’t know because Chewbacca won’t leave it alone) from its surprised babysitter Jane, the swelling sub-adult who is fond of all juveniles and currently swelling herself. “Sorry” I whisper for having caused grief though I doubt they understood.

We reached the swamp and a familiar part of the swamp too for that matter. Michele and I had spent two-three consecutive days in this area closest (again…relatively) to ‘bridge 2’. It was almost 1pm and none of the areas I had been in had reception so messages giving my location had been unsent. I hoped AMY would move steadily to the plantation and I could just be spotted by Michele there but suddenly AMY stopped. They were just taking their own sweet time to get to the plantation. Luckily, this gave me the erefct opportunity to try out our new walki-talkies and they worked. Michele came to bridge 2 and I told her I was only 87 m away from her. Easier said than done in this area but we have used the way and so cleared part of it. She got to us, I handed over the tablet, briefed her about my day,we exchanged GPSs and I wished her good luck.

I had almost reached the tarred road without incident when I saw something on the path. It was black as coal and glistening, and moving from the forest to the field on my right. I slowed to a standstill at a standstill. I knew by then that it was definitely a snake. And then I saw its head, the unmistakable whiteband on the underside, near its head- A COBRA. It’s funny how time slows down for your benefit and you can notice eveery detail, every second when you know you can’t photograph it because it happpens so suddenly (Also, I don’t want to get trampled by a pig or bitten by a cobra).

I got home. Mimi had arrived last night after her trip to Pahang and was going back home to Kedah. She had been kind enough to make us all Tom-yam because she is a saintly creature. The landlady had invited the remaining three of us (Anna, Mimi and I) to lunch which we accepted and enjoyed. Mimi left with the promise that she’ll try to come and visit before I leave and I’m going to hold her to it.
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21st Feb’2017- Little AMY wants to play

I had a terrible headache last night which was not impoving because I couldn’t sleep much thanks to the crazy downpour interspersed by loud thunder. When I finally went to sleep, it was still raining. And so it was when I got up. Anna and I decided that it would be better if we took the jeep. We got there but didn’t go to the sleeping site immediately. It was so dark and still pouring cats and dogs. We would not be able to see ahead or hear AMY thanks to the rain. Finally, at around 8:15, we decided to go in the moment the rain eased up a little though it was still a steady drizzle. And then it hit us where the sleeping site was. I learned the true meaning of swamp. It was waterlogged. Places I knew so well, with muck and Pandan trees looked novel when so much of it was under water. I could feel something on my inner arm- a leech. I started to bleed though it wasn’t too bad. “That’s only the first of many” said Anna.

We got to the sleeping site Michele had marked. The rain was so bad that AMY had definitely not moved. We went up a bit further till we reached a place where we could hear them. The long-tails and Duskies were here too though no gibbons. Anna believes that AMY tends to sleep in either of the swamps when it is about to get stormy that night although she doesn’t know how to prove it scientifically…yet. We stood under a tree to shelter from the rain while fending of and removing leeches before they did too much damage. We watched as Jisuaf repeatedly mounted Goldie who-bless her vocalises every time so we can be assured of her, and thus AMY’s presence. Afetr a while, our eyes adjusted to the low-light conditions (it was 9:30) and we saw others. “We’ve only moved 20 m today” Anna said looking at the GPS. Soon, the males had their barking and support-shake rituals (they seem to do this ever morning as if their heirarchy needs to be figured out and reinstated every day). By 10 am, when the rain finally stopped and it started getting warmer, AMY started moving and I removed the 9th leech from my body. “I once had 20 in total on a single day, your number too will increase as we walk more now” Anna remarked. Dreading the leaahes, we began wading through the almost knee high water and looking for little island made of dead wood and solid mud that could suport our weight and wasn’t surrounded by clumps of spiny plants. This was a difficult task to accomplish and we had to take many a detour to avoid getting stuck. Luckily, we knew AMY was heading towards the plantation using our favoured route via bridge 2, which though mostly underwater was still manageable.

By 11 am, as I removed my 12th leech, Anakin had come out to the plantation though still in the buffer zone. Biru was getting mounted by some male, probably Oliver. Anna did a focal on Anakin while I filled in the tablet while I waited for others to come out. It was 12 and we could still only hear AMY on the other side of the bridge. Even Anakin went back in. So we crossed back again and waited. Then we waited some more till we got bored of seeing and hearing them but frustrated because they didn’t seem to want to go to the plantation. We wondered how hungry they might be and why they weren’t going out. Tim was sleeping above us while Curli mounted and groomed Phoenix, who for once seemed too sleepy to torment anyone. While other males fought and barked, Norbert was too busy getting groomed. And suddenly, the long-tails that had actually gone into the plantation started alarm-calling for no apparent reason. AMY seemed not as excited- probably because they knew they were safe. Tim momentaily raised his head and looked. I followed his gaze and saw what the fuss was all about. The dogs were here.

This whole time, my message to Michele who had her day off, to come pick me up hadn’t been sent (no reception in the swamp) and I wanted AMY to go out so I could go find reception. It was 1:15 pm. We had watched as Norbert was chasing Biru up and down several trees to probably mount her while she refused and avoided him. Finally, the mothers came out of the bushes in the distances and we saw that the group was definitely travelling to the plantation this time. I spotted Putih on who Anna was desperate to do a focal. We crossed the makeshift bridge 2 yet again. But in the time it took us to cross cautiously, Putih had gone. My head was throbbing now and I decided that it was time to get to a place where I could find reception so all my messages to Michele could be sent. I finally called her the moment I had reception asking her to please come pick me up on the bike. She had luckily just received my messages and was about to leave.

We got back by 2 and I showered, had lunch and decided to replenish my body with electrolytes before sleeping for close to 4 and a half hours. It is my day off tomorrow and I intend to write my blog, do some chores and relax.
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Wednesday 22nd Feb’2017- An ode to ‘uselessness’

I went to sleep quite late, taking advantage of the fact that internet is stronger (again- relatively, post 11 pm). I set an alarm for 7:30. I was going to unwind, type my blog up with the least mistakes possible, do laundry and cook for the wake so I didn’t live on Maggi and apples. I had given Anna and Michele all the stuff they would need for this morning. But I missed out on one crucial thing….bike keys. So Michele after trying to start the bike without keys realised that this bike needed keys which were in my hut. After I was woken up, I couldn’t really go back to sleep but I decided to browse some internet, or try to. I lay back down and felt a crunch. Almost too afraid of whether my head had cracked open, but rationalising that it would be louder and more painful, I slowly sat up and turned on my phone’s flashlight. It was a big-ass spider. I had crushed it to death. Well, no point relaxing now.

After disposing off the corpse, I decided that I should really get on to doing my laundry while having coffe and working on the blog. I wanted to finish all my weekly chores while I had the time. The landlady informed me that long-tails were in the village again. This was enough inspiration for me to finally procrastinate on cooking. I finally had lunch by 1pm. It was a nice day- not too sunny and not rainy. Although I’m completely okay with rain if I don’t have to work or leave the house.

I had made plans to start a new book or read some papers after a little siesta. Until I realised Youtube was working. And then I fell asleep. I got up and Michele was knocking on my door informing me that the cooking gas cylinder was probably empty. There goes my plan to do something work-related today and cook the Silica gel. Anna would have to come so we could drive to exchange the cylinder. And we were seriously low on petrol. As in we were sure it wouldn’t last us till the next trip to the city on Saturday. So after Anna came back and filled us in on AMY’s activities and sleeping site, we made the impulse decision to come into the city, change Starbucks day from Friday to Wednesday and get food after.

One doesn’t realise how exhausted one gets. And I never feel tired when I am working. In fact I feel I am not doing enough. So this is my post appreciating a relaxing day dedicated to unwinding. Though it did not necessarily start out or pan out as I had planned, me the cynic has realised that it is not necessarily a bad thing.

PS- Follow my adventures via images and videos on:

twitter- @mad_megs

instagram- meghamajoe

Primate Diaries- Days 34-36

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 account 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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17th Feb’2017 – The lull

Michele and I had the morning shift. Only on the way there did we realise that it had rained last night. The sky still looked overcast. And it took us a while of me fumbling around with directions and almost walking into rocks till we got there. We could hear sounds. But when we got closer we realised they were from Long-tails. But I also heard the haunting hoots and not the trill of the long tails. Another glance and there were Duskies. Adorable as ever but not ideal when your prize is AMY. But then, I saw Norbert (The Alpha) in the trees. He was high up for once. Some juveniles started coming into view here and there. It appeared that all the primates that were not apes (When will I finally see a Gibbon, not just hear them in the distance?) had decided to reconvene during the night. But once you can see a few pig-tails, your eyes automatically pick out more. PLus there were getting louder. A storm was brewing.

The males were barking. Norbert was being joined by other males. They were walking menacingly around each other. There were 4 large males. “Jisuaf has to be one of them” I said. The females grooming nearby just moved a bit and continued grooming. Phoenix- not being big enough but still a lover of fights in general decided that he should stop scratching himself while getting groomed by Biru and stand up to bark excitedly. The long-tails were shrieking and the silence of the morning was broken by this ruckus for about 6 minutes and then, everything went back to normal as if it had never happened. The long tails climbed down. The Duskies weren’t around anymore. It was us, anxious to see where AMY would go and hoping we don’t lose them, and AMY, who knows what they think or if they do. Who makes their decisons? Well it is probably not Norbert, something we knew and guessed considering his grunts don’t do sh*t. Although it will be interesting to compare his ‘leadership’ style with that of Voldemort’s. Michele was supposed to shadow him for the complete shift while I stuck with the group. Norbert, unlike the other males is less likely to run off into the sunset leaving you stranded and lost in the forest.

Actually, that plan was easy on paper. Norbert, normally easy to see as he prefers walking on the grund (not a lot of trees can support his massive form). But today he was on the trees. A single tree. Picking spines out of his arm, scartching his inner thigh and “SLEEPING!” Again?” as Michele explained. They had hardly moved from the sleeping site and we couldn’t do scans because all of AMY was in the trees. High up for some reason we couldn’t possibly fathom. Just when you think you’ve figured them out, they do something that makes you question everything. Well, I guessed it might be because the sun still wasn’t out, though it was 9 am already. There was a slight breeze and we eased up. It was dull compared to yesterday’s crazy adventures and you know what? That is completely fine. We barely moved and when we did, it was at a leisurely pace. The only individuals who was foraging on the ground was obviously Emma.

It was 10:45 when they finally went into the plantation. Jisuaf was having his turn with the swelling females. The sun was finally gracing us with its presence but the clouds weren’t relenting yet. I finally did some scans in the plantation. There were planatation workers in the distance who could be heard but AMY had had a lot of catching up to do. Norbert stared into the distance and Michele pointed out that he did look a silly, with his mouth agape. Mimi had told us that was her first impression of him although I think and pointed out that she was biased because he replaced her bae and then-alpha Vince. We were in the plantation for a surprisingly long time. Long enough for Anna to come and take over at 1pm and thankfully avoiding the hassle of sending and communicating co-ordinates in the forest. It was an easy day. I predict some level of weirdness tomorrow.

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18th February 2017: I hear voices

Anna was doing a 12-hour shift again. I accompanied her in the morning, scaling a somewhat high hill near the stream, to get to the sleeping site that Anna said was “quite close” but I was defintely winded by the time we finally got there which makes me question how my body is still not used to all this climbing despite me having been here a little over a month while Anna flits around like a butterfly. I should eat more papaya and dragon fruit, she loves those. Maybe they’re the secret? Anyway, we finally sat down. Norbert was standing on the only tree suitable to sit on so we milled about trying to see the others till he moved. Anna had big plans about all the individuals she wanted to do focals on. We talked about AMY, their daily dramas, possible pregnancies and data collection for her project. AMY was in no mood to move anytime soon so Anna decided to go search for Febe, an easy target despite the difficult terrain, to do a focal on. I munched an apple while a juvenile watched and I threw away the core discreetly (We don’t want the monkeys getting anything we throw away, making them associate us with food). in a while, I realised that it had started growing quiet though I could still hear females.

Not wanting to repeat yet another separation, I decided to follow the sound. It was Pamkin, she was walking on trees, down the hill. I followed her closely. I could see Anakin and Phoenix and hear calls from Norbert. The weird sound he and Oliver can make acording to Anna. It sounds something like “trr-trr-trr- ka-ka-ka” although it comes from deep inside their throats or their bellies. It is possibly a call to regroup and is fascinating to hear and even see, though the later is a rarer thing. The sound was being repeated more often than I’m used to and I assumed it was because this area is confusing, even for them. Too many trees, too vines intertwined and a stream cutting across the landscape. Ugghh, the stream, how could I forget. I only realised it’s significance when I was stood on the edge of a cliff with a straight drop of around 10-15 feet leading to the stream. Of course, Pamkin had crossed over using the large trees and branches as bridges.

I knew this area though and so I went to the place where I could climb down. It was difficult but more convenient than climbing up again to go using another route. I climbed down and now I could hear the sounds of thelpha (or Beta) again. I followed it. But I also heard a lost call from a female and this sound again. So I crossed the stream, appreciating the little waterfall along the way and some epineustons gliding about on the surface of the water where it had formed pools. I climbed up the other hill but all I could hear were a few sounds, it didn’t seem like the whole group was here. And then I heard it. The unmistakable short and clipped “huh-huh-huh”. The female copulatory call. The females make this sound after they have been mounted (and /or penetrated) by a male. My moment of doubt passed and I went forth, through some fallen trees and over some gigantic boulders. I had climbed up when I realised I had heard no juveniles at all. And they are difficult to silencewhen you are close enough to hear them. Had it happened again? Second time in three day? I was separated. WHo were these sounds from. Was it them again….VOLDEMORT.

I didn’t have to wait too long before I heard it again, the copulatory call and I took ut my binocs to see two individuals in the ditance on a tree. The female was grroming a smallish male. SHe got up to present to him. Definitely Pamkin’s butt. Then I remembered Anna saying something about a female in VOLDEMORT with a similar butt. “Please don’t be them” I pleaded to no one in particular. There was movement above me. Heavy movemnet, the one that can’t be made by squirrels, no matter how big. It was a male pig-tail. As big as Norbert. “DO NOT BE Voldemort” was all I could hope. It wasn’t. It was Jisuaf. Which wasn’t doing anything to assuage my fears. He does his own thing. He probably roams and mingles with individuals from both AMY and VOLDEMORT. But then, I saw Mina and another male who might have been Anakin. Wait, can Jisuaf make the “Alpha/Beta sound too?”. Is that why I got confused. I could hear more sounds, from the other side of the stream though on a different hill. I spent some time glaring at the individuals till they moved and my GPS found my location. I saw some of them start to move and so did I.

After finding any clear space to move amongst the trees, realising clear spaces are usually filled with spider webs, running nimbly on a log to cross the stream, and climbing the other hill I spotted Anna and the others. She had probably not even noticed I was gone for close to 40 minutes. I sat there to recover from my small adventure and watched AMY closely. They started to move in a while though they didn’t seem to want to go to the plantation anytime soon. It was a splendid day to take some pictures. We were quite high up. The sun was not too painful. Not too many annoying flies or mosquitos and I only had one stare-down with Anakin. Pippi chased Phoenix which made Anna and me very happy and Norbert lunged at him too. But Norbert was being uncharacteristic today. He had scared some long-tails who were hanging out and scared off all surrounding pig-tails by puckering and lunging at who knows-what, disrupting Anna’s focal who was now out of sight.

In a while though, AMYmoved to a location they all seemed to like. Emma was foraging. Pie and Lori were grooming each other, looking adorable as ever. Scarlet was grroming Schatz and Emily grooming Febe while Felicia and Reggie played with her baby. Pippi was tgrroming Oliver and presenting to him but he showed no interest as her swell’s gone. Norbert was layng in the sun, with his arms flayed out and the sun on his chest as he lay on his back, groomed by Biru. She presented. He got up almost unwillingly to inspect her swell and then mount her. ANd then, like a flash, he was as if posessed. Everyone dispersed and he ran around, chasing something neither Anna nor I could see. Even Oliver had run away. After a while I realised I must move again as Norbert had destroyed the tranquil moment and AMY was finally making a move in the direction of the planatation. Anna found Jane, whose swell is starting to grow, and hoped Norbert wouldn’t interrupt the focal this thime. Anna and I were briefly separated but I knew where AMY was heading and I waited for Michele to come take over. I met Anna, going into the plantation, as I was too, followed closely by Franzi.

I got home and showered. Thought I should probably do some other forms of exercise to stay fit and increase my resistance. Laughed at the sheer impossibility of that happening anytime soon while I read a book with Mieza curled up on my lap. One day, I’ll do more than 10 minutes of Yoga and the occasional plank. NOT TODAY
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19th Feb’ 2017- Opportunites

Michele and I got to the plantation in the afternoon and met AMY as they were coming out of the forest accompanied by Anna. Anna was the most excited I’ve seen her (She’s a stoic one-Anna) as she informed us that she had seen a Gibbon (probably ‘Agile’) and a python (thanks to the monkeys’ excitement) in the forest and a wild cat in the plantation. All I had done that morning was try to swat flies away, two of whom mated on my sticky-with-humidity-hand.

Anna really hoped to find Putih to do a focal on her in the early afternoon time slot [time slots are divided into 4 so as to remove any confounding effect of time as such- an individual might just naturally act differently at different times and we wouldn’t detect it otherwise]. I asked if she could watch and assess while I did another focal. I chose Febe. She is pretty chill with us watching her and I think it went well. And still couldn’t find Putih so she went on to the next individual on the last, the elusive juvenile Dani.
AMY decided to start going in at around 3 pm after an hour and a half of feeding at the plantation. They climbed up the hill at Checkpoint 2 and we followed them. Franzi, usually calm and indifferent about everyone was being protective of the swelling Biru and chasing other suitors away. This while she was trying to solicit as many copulations with the contenders as possible. Finally, it seemed that after a while Franzi lost patience, or got intimidated when Norbert came, and eased up. We went through a whole patch of Bertums, spines eveerywhere till we reached a clearing. This was a good rest stop and would boast great views if it weren’t for the thick growth of Bertum and Rattan. This gave us time to check for leeches and tend to any thorns or spines that could be removed and source of blood on body parts if there happened to be any.

Soon we reached a place I recognised. This was where Vino and I had had our adventure on the cliff edge after wich we first encountered a tiny portion of the swamp at Checkpoint 1. So luckily, I knew the pitfalls of taking certain routes (as in literally, I know where we could fall and be grieviously injured). Plus, it’s usually a bad sign when ALL of the macaques take to the trees. So we waited, I’d say with bated breath but breathing time is hard to come by when you are busy following AMY up a hill so I’d say we breathed well while we could and our hearts stopped racing a bit. And then, they climbed down. I could hear the stream. I knew this place too. This is where I momentarily got lost yesterday. Tim, one of the males who now has a wound on his nose looked at us while we climbed carefully. The soil was loose but climbing onto this other hill I knew the best route to take althought it still wasn’t the nicest route to take.

Soon, they were on the hill easily (again….RELATIVELY easily) approached from Checkpoint 1 and moved to a place quite close to where Anna and I had found them yesterday morning. It was 6:45 and the sun was still shining making us anxious as to when AMY will go to sleep. BUt they started going up the trees soon enough. The pre-sleep ritual of female hoots, juvenile “ooh’s and male grunts had begun filling the air with yet another sound apart from the crickets. We filled in the tablet and left.

Days 31-33: 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 account 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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14th Feb 2017: Back in business

Anna and I rode out on the two seperate bikes this morning.The partying was done and we were back on track. AMY had slept in the same place they had slept the day they…I didn’t even want to think it- ran super quickly and dragged us to “The Swamp”. We were dreading that outcome but AMY was feeling kind today. After confusing us a bit by moving in no particular direction, we caught up to them moving into the plantation. Most of the oil-palm fruits had been harvested and the macaques decided that they weren’t even going to bother leaving the buffer-zone. Anna could still do focals on the juveniles she needed though. I sat down and checked off all the individuals I could see, the state of swelling that the females were in and which males had achieved the coveted ‘pink scrotum’ (when they have a red penis- Norbert and Oliver currently do so). It had only been an hour and the last few individuals were trickling back into the forest. I looked around for Anna but couldn’t find her. I presumed she must have gone inside already and waited for Biru (swelling considerably), Brienne (starting to swell), Mina (regrowing swell) and Phoenix (currently mounting Biru when he has the chance). Soon, they started to move in. They were going through small thickets which I could access with some difficulty and the difficulty level kept increasing. Finally, I only had eyes on Mina who quickly averted my gaze and climbed quickly up a steepish rock. I couldn’t see or hear anyone. But I knew this area by now and so I kept climbing. I was climbing a small rock when my leg slipped and I tripped over a vine. I got up and realised that Phoenix was intently staring at me. He has no concept of personal space and is growing increasingly troublesome. He torments juveniles almost everyday and even the usually calm Scarlet and Emma are wary of him. Scarlet even chased him screaming today after growing tired of his rubbish. I avoided him and kept on my path. I was just about to start panicking because Anna wasn’t answering me when I heard juveniles playing and males grunting. Anna was at the far end doing a focal on the shy-ish mother Chewbacca (and her infant Chocolate). I realised that is why she didn’t answer- also because she knew I would find her and was panicking unnecessarily.

AMY was moving around quite a lot though not really towards a particular place. I was keen on seeing my bae Norbert who seemed to be a rare sight today. Oliver, my slightly intimidating frenemy was abundantly visible though. He was sneaking up on me and testing how close he could be without needing to pucker or run away. Phoenix and Anakin were taking turns hanging out and mounting the swelling females. Anakin too has become more habituated to us I believe. He doesn’t pucker as much and is cool just sitting around pretending to ignore us while snidely keeping an eye out to track our movements.
AMY began to move again, this time climbing quite high up. We were almost close to the highest pointthat boasts breathtaking views of the sun setting on the ocean. But AMY had alternative plans for us. They decided that we were better off fighting Bertam palms’ spines that relaxing on a hill top with views of the ocean. And so we started climbing down, watching juveniles clamber onto falle logs that were to big for them to grip and Brienne quickly moving away when she encountered Scarlet. I caught a glimpse of my valentine Norbert but he ws too busy barking in short grunts to mollify some juvenile probably or discipline them (we don’t know much about vocalisations and their purpose in different contexts).

Michele had the day off today and Mimi and Vino have been tasked with attempting to find the other group- VOLDEMORT. And Anna being the badass she is and amazingly nice had decided that she was going to pull yet another 12 hour feat and let me go home whenever I wanted. I was disappointed as I had failed to get a chance to try a focal yet again because AMY kept moving downhill so fast even Anna had to stop focalling. I asked if she needed any chores to be done back at camp, just so I could make up . “Go and enjoy your birthday”. Man, such awesome humans studying pig-tails.
So I returned in time to see Vino off. She is going to another project site for 2 weeks. I showered, ate a late lunch, tried to write my blog, got annoyed of all the flies and mosquitos, decided to go to my room to type and then decided that I would take Anna’s advice and enjoy my birthday. And so I took a nap- for almost 2 hours. It was a beautiful birthday
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15th Feb’ 2017: You-Know-Who

I woke up at around 6:30 and decided to ask if Anna and Michele who were about to leave for the morning shift needed some equipment from our hut. They realised that Mimi had the keys and I realised that they were still in her bag. So I had to go wake the poor thing up. After handing over the keys I reminded both Anna and Michele to fill petrol in their bikes. Michele realised that she couldn’t find her head-torch. And it couldn’t be lost in her bag. It is fluorescent-ishly pink and would stand out. Since they were getting late I offered her mine and tried to write the blog while being side-tracked by the cats and the dawn -chorus of the birds. Mimi and I were to leave soon too as today she and I were to repeat what Vino and her did yesterday, in vain. Look for VOLDEMORT.

I have mentioned VOLDEMORT in my first blog. They are the other group that share the reserve with AMY. They get their name fromthe alpha of the group who had no nose. Nadine hopes that we can habituate VOLDEMORT like we have habituated AMY. This is good because it will increase the amount of data collected for the different projects and we will avoid confounding our data by having just a single group who may have a particular set of behaviours that are only observable in them and can’t be claimed to be common to all pig-tails. We had already made big plans for VOLDEMORT. Anna had told us that many of VOLDEMORT’s indivuduals were still not-photographed or catalogued, we had a chance to name them. Vino had quipped that all the individuals should be named after deatheaters. Or if not, at least some one should be named Bellatrix. Having conversations like these make you realise how much of an impact certain books have on people (also that Potterheads are everywhere).

So, here we were, Mimi and I. We decided to split up at checkpoint 1. I would scour the plantations while she would stay closer to the forest edge. We would go all the way uptil checkpoint 0 in this fashion and meet at a designated point (Such good planning whe you know your communication devices are going to be useless). So I made my way into the plantation and kept an eye and a ear out for any movement in the leaves or low hoots characteristic of pig-tails. And there was nothing. I don’t mean no pig-tails….nothing at all. No long-tails, squirrels, shrews, rats, dogs, cows, humans. Nothing. You know those movies where when there’s supposed to be pin-drop silence they fill it with sounds of crickets chirping? Yep that was it….just some crickets chirping. I remembered that Vino and Mimi had informed us that almost all of the fruits in the plantation had been harvested so there would be lesser feeding opportunies for the macaques and others. My mind wandered onto other things. I noticed that the sun was filtering out through the leaves manifesting in my favourite scenario-The Tyndall effect. This also made a lot of spider webs visible. I immediately decided to take some pictures and hopefully be able to photograph some of the designers. I was trying to get this beautiful crab spider in focus when I heard a rustle from the dried oil-palm leaves on the ground nearby. Probably a skink, I thought. But then a sound as if something was laughing like we type a laugh “He He He He”. I turned around and tried to look for a source- nothing. So I went back to trying to focus on the spider. But there it was again, the sound. You know those same movies with the pin-drop silence and the crickets chirping which suddenly gets filled with soft maniacal laughter and then a piercing scream from the protagonist as they die? Yeah. Me too. Thus I moved away cautiously and quickly knowing full well that it was probably a frog or a gecko that makes the sound.

After scouring the area without much luck, I went back. Mimi and I decided to use the logging road and go as far inside as possible, “Hmm”ing and “Huh”ing to mimic the sounds of pig-tails as convincingly as possible in the hope of a response. Mimi had made the sound and heard a lost call, turns out it was from a lost long-tail though. We walked along sharing our common amazement of fungi diversity and flowering plants along the way. “Maybe VOLDEMORT needs to be resurrected” Mimi said. “Hmm, bone of the father unknowingly given, flesh of the servant willingly sacrificed, blood of the enemy forcibly taken” I chanted (Well I I had to google the exact words- I’m not that big a nerd (that’s a lie) ). Mimi spotted a tiny little leech trying to look for an ideal location on her skin to bite and suck from. She flicked it away and suddenly I felt something on my neck. I realised that it was a leeck. It had begun biting and I now had a red mark on my neck. Red blotch is better than being drained of your blood though.

We had decided to scout checkpoint 3 next when Anna communicated that they were going to the plantation with AMY, which was moving to checkpoint 2. So we wnt there after a quick-ish albeit relaxing lunch since we had no pig-tails to keep our eye on. I finally got a chance to do a focal. Anna decided I should start with someone simple- Scarlet, my favourite female. It was a mostly successfull first attempt thanks to Scarlet’s activities being limited to foraging for and peeling or cracking unripe oil-palm fruits while the her juvenile Scatz (darling in Deutch) and Tiga (means 3 in Malay-after the shape of his tail) hung out nearby.

While I waited for Mimi, she had gone to checkpoint 3 and had her own adventures while waiting for a sign of VOLDEMORT which involved getting ice-cream from the local vendor (ice-cream box on a bike), realising she had no money and being given free ice-cream because the vendor took pity on her and knows the ‘orange t-shirt girls’. Mimi got back and we decided that it was time to think out of the box, or atleast flip the box and look for VOLDEMORT on the other side of the forest, where there exists yet another planatation. Who knew? Well, Anna did and so did Mimi. So we took the jeep and heard the same Maroon 5 song that was stuck in our head already because we had heard it this morning too. We went into the plantation there, which grew a little more wild and the borders between forest and plantation were less clear. “Gosh we should be able to summon them. Get the dark mark tatooed on ourselves” I said. Mimi said she couldn’t as if she had seriously considered it. “Well you can get a dark mark with Henna. Should work just fine”. And we went on at length about summoning the Dark lord which would definitely sound super creepy in a small village like this with strong superstitions about dark forces if they understood English and did not know the context. We also discussed our dream to go to Orlando to live the real Harry Potter experience. We went ahead till the plantation was so thick with weeds that we thought it better to return.

It was almost 2:30. We had been looking for them since 9:15. But it’s the same difficulty we face with AMY when we don’t know where they are. THE PIG-TAILS CAN BE ANYWHERE is the general mantra. Any chance of finding them can only come when they present themselves to usin the plantation or the periphery of the forest. We spent the next half hour climbing up a small hill near checkpoint 2.5 where Mimi remembers having seen VOLDEMORT, although that was 2 years ago. Well, we were out of ideas so we spent the next half hour climbing up and down the small hill. “THIS VOLDEMORT IS USELESS. We are actually using the name”. I said exasperatedly, taking out spines from my hair and scratching my hand. We decided to head back, realised we couldn’t get down to the plantation at the only opening possible so stepped and swung on lianas hoping they would support our weight.

We got back around 3:30 and witnessed Michele get really excited saying she HAD to show us something she had photographed. It was Norbert sitting like the boss that he is while investigating something fluorescentish-ly pink. Michele’s missing head-torch! She had probably dropped it along the route somewhere yesterday before Franzi found it. It had been passed on to Schatz and then Norbert had played with it before abandoning it and Michele could retrieve it. Norbert-this is why he is my bae. Full of surprises. Anna got back after her 12 hour day. AMY had come back to the plantation and stayed late so slept in the buffer-zone. Anna was able to get a hold of Putih finally to do her mother-infant focal but still no Chewbacca.She feels and hopes that scrlett and Brienne are pregnant as they haven’ been swelling. Brienne’s ‘swell’ doesn’t seem to progress or regress so it could just be a body feature she has when pregnant. We told Anna of our plans with VOLDEMORT very excitedly until we realised that she wasn’t getting any of our HP references because she is a complete muggle, unaware of the books or the movies. Mimi, Michele and I almost immediately decided to explain all of our Harry Potter references all at once and probably overwhelmed the hell out of her. The three of us were busy fawning over Ronald Weasley, debating Snape’s morality and the political struggle and analogies in Harry Potter before we realised that Anna wasn’t even there anymore. “We need to have a Harry Potter movie marathon” we said together. But until next week (because we spend only 2 days of a week looking for VOLDEMORT), AMY.

PS: I realised that considering how many Harry Potter references we had made already, perhaps it would be cool to count the number of references we can make before we finally find VOLDEMORT. Also of course, the number of kilometres we walk.
References today: 3-5
Kilometres walked (as phone says)- 6.45 Km
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17th Feb 2017- The Summoning

Mimi and Michele had the morning shift today designated to the usual things- scanning and following AMY. At 9:43, I received a message on the whatsapp group fromMimi “We found Nagini”. At first I thought they had found another individual of group VOLDEMORT, hence the Harry Potter naming, as per our earlier conversations. It turns out, they were following AMY when the juveniles had seemed very excited about something and huddled together. Michele got closer to them to take a picture before Mimi noticed and warned her about the reticulated python that was slithering away to safety under a tree nearby. That was excitement enough. Anna and I had to make do with watching Miezer the cat eat a bunch of grass to cough up, nay, almost vomit his furball. Reticulated python in the forest and cat coughing furball. Same right?

At noon, we were getting ready when there was another series of messages starting with- “Megha, is your scar hurting?”. Another Harry Potter reference, this time well placed because Mimi and Michele momentarily lost AMY and then Michele spotted some juveniles so they followed them for a few minutes before they saw a male that was barking. He turned back and they saw his face. He had no nose. It was the Drak-lord himself (This is what I could glean from their excited narration of the incidents afterwards). It was as if the python was indeed the sign, forewarning for the sighting of Voldemort himself, the alpha male of the group VOLDEMORT*. Luckily, they found AMY back soon. VOLDEMORT was not on the agenda for today.

By the time Anna and I reached, AMY had apparently climbed quite high up and obviously were not on a rocky hill that was easy to climb. Mimi and Michele did not know how to get down so we sent them the way we had climbed up because it was the best of the bad ways. AT least we had AMY. Anna was desperate to do a focal on Charli because he was difficult to see and very skittish.While she was doing that, on this very slippery hill, I was precariously perched at a somewhat stable location watching Pamkin and Emma climb down. Anna dejectedly said that she had lost Charli yet again because he had gone down and she couldn’t see him anymore. “Oh we can go this way. Looks okay. And there;s no rocks, just mud so we can slide down without injury if it is too steep.” I said. Anna looked weary but agreed. Charli was getting away. So we carefully climbed down. She went first and warned me that there weren’t too many things to hold on too and place your foot on. “That’s fine. We only wanna go down anyway.” I assured her. Soon, she reached a platform while I was still struggling to make up my mind about my next step on this almost 80 degree incline. “Umm, we can’t get down any further from here. It looks pretty bad.” Anna said. We decided to go back up and go down the same way we had suggested Mimi and Michelle to go. And remember that loose soft mud which was going to make it easy to climb down. Well, it made it really hard to climb back up. I apologised profusely for wasting our time and we were back on the route we knew. Luckily, AMY was waiting for us. So we went back to carefully following them. While Anna did her focals, I sat down, removed all the mud from my boot and did some scans. Goldie was swelling and quite poular . Pippi, no longer swelling, had gone back to hanging with her juvenile Pie and adopted kid Lori.

We reached a place where Anna’s focal individual was in one direction whereas other members of the froup were in another and moving upwards though to where I couldn’t say as my view was blocked by a big rock. I sat ona tree trunk so I could turn around and keep an eye on Anna. I could see Pamkin in front of me. She started to move. I looked back but Anna had already left. I thought I should follow Pamkin so at least I KNOW where the group is in case Anna is following a male who takes her elsewhere and she gets lost. I followed Pamkin till I reached a series of bif rocks- they form a sort of bridge between the cliff I was on and the hill on the other side. I knew this ‘bridge’. It was two big boulder with a small one wedged in the middle. It was a little slippery but easy enough. I could still hear the group, easpecially the excited juveniles. I saw Malu so I was relieved even though Pamkin would have been my first choice to have followed. He and the male next to him puckered in my direction. and turned back to leave. I decided to climb back over the rocks and follow them. I could now see a mother with an infant going away from me. I thought it might be Putih or Chewbacca as they are both shy. I could see a male sitting on a small boulder facing away though. He had a dark back. “At least Oliver is here” I thought. And then he turned and all my thought imploded in my brain. I couldn’t belive my eyes though he was so close. I needed confirmation so I fumbled through my bag. My hands were shaking as I looked through the binauculors. There could be no doubt. He had no nose.

Literally, they were slits. All this time, I still didn’t picture him to look like this. I was face to face with Voldemort*. I had lost AMY and found VOLDEMORT. That is why they moved so fast. Everyone but the alpha. He saw me and puckered. We were quite close and his face is slightly disconcerting especialy after Norbert’s. But I followed him while he walked around assuring ‘hmmm’-in juveniles with short barks and sitting calmly, looking at the sky and foraging. I noticed that he had white eyelids and his dark tail curved outwards at the tip. He seemed okay enough with me and I decided that I could follow VOLDEMORT to their sleeping site and hasten the habituation process after I had informed Anna and the others of my separation from AMY. The GPS was working as was my phone and I knew this are of the forest. I would be fine.

Voldy hung out on the ground instead of in the tree, much like Norbert. I could still hear the group. They had climbed trees because of me but not run far away. There was hope. Suddenly, Voldemort started to move. I followed, as closely as he would allow me too. I was climbing up an incline when he suddenly turned to pucker at me. I stepped back to give him some space, accidentally cracking some twigs under my foot and holding a tree. I heard a female screeching and before I could think I saw Voldemort rushing in my direction. He lunged and I moved to my left. Away from him and the tree with the panicked female. He puckered again and I decided to retreat. Change of plans. Maybe we should look for and habituate VOLDEMORT when 2 of us come together. I was unnerved and didn’t realise that i was stepping in a ditch. I fell on somewhat soft ground but was on all fours. I could take the slight bruising of my knee to macaque-attack though. We didn’t get off to a great start because I startled a female but I like to think that in a few weeks, Voldy and I are going to be great friends.

Anna had received the message that I was separated and I followed her directions to reach AMY who were in the plantation. She confirmed later on that she too thought that AMY and VOLDEMORT had crossed paths again today. After my little adventure, I was more than happy to be with the already habituated AMY where on the way to the sleeping site, Phoenix was the only upstart who tried to pucker at me before turning it into a weird squint of his eyes and leaving me alone.

While we were going back to the bike after having left AMY’s sleeping site, I heard calls that were unmistakably of an Alpha and humms that were of female pig-tails. Yet, AMY was quite far away from the edge of the forest. “Its not AMY, right?”. No, Anna said. “Is it them, VOLDEMORT” I said the name with a hushed reverence. We got back and obviously discussed at great length about our encounters today and hoped we would find VOLDEMORT just as easily when we look for them next week.

*The name of the group shall always be in all caps so as to differentiate it from the individual Voldemort/Voldy/dark-lord,You-know-who etc.

PS: Follow my adventures via images and videos on twitter- @mad_megs

or

Instagram- meghamajoe

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?

Day1-3 Primate Diaries

AUTHOR’s NOTE:

So I’m spending three months in a state called Perak in Malaysia. The following is the account of how I’m spending my time. When you are away from civilisation and cell reception you realise the value of the internet. Having to buy something from Starbucks when you come to the city is the only way to get Wifi. So I can’t promise I’ll do this everyday  and consistently but for now I’ve done 9 days. Maybe I’ll do it weekly from now on. Pictures are difficult to upload but they’ll come eventually. Meanwhile please feel free to Google about the project, the volunteers and the animals and plants. Excuse the typos, typing on a tablet is tough.

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Day 1- No monkey business
So here I was after around half a year of planning and anticipation, at the Segari Melintang forest reserve. I decide to take a year off post MSc to actually help out someone else collect data. So I found and applied for the Macaca nemestrina project spearheaded by Dr. Nadine Ruppert. She has been studying the pig-tailed macaques for quite some time now, even collaborating with the German Primate Centre. I had already travelled 5 hours by bus from KL and been met by Anna, a potential PhD student who after coming back to volunteer multiple times had learnt to drive the quirky Ford with shift like a pro. She was to be my mentor as I am the first field assitant to arrive.
We took a wild moped ride to bring us into the forest where we were seeking the group known as AMY. Anna showed me “checkpoints”- areas the pigtails frequent. The trail are on the periphery of the forest followed soon by oil-palm plantations. We had to dal with minor flooding thanks to the crazy rains last night which diminished our chanes of spotting Amy but this gave me the opportunity to learn the area, watch and listen for animals I could recognise and become acquainted with disappointment which is a critical lesson when attempting to observe animals in their natural habitats. They’d be extinct if they were so easy to spot. So unlike the vociferous dusky langur and the relatively abundant long-tailed macaques, pig-tails are quiter and suspicious. Any movement in the trees was inspected but was anything from a giant squirrel to a bird. But after going along the checkpoints multiple times, suddenly….movement and the unmistakeable tail. I was overjoyed. That is until Anna told me it was group VOLDEMORT (never thought I’d be courageous enough to say that name out loud). But we decide to follow its members anyway. If you thought spotting them the first time was difficult, following them into and inside the forest is no mean feat. We stumbled into spines (I stumbled), got stuck in mud (I did) and my left rain boot leaked so my foot was wet the whole time. We followed members of Voldemort till we were exhausted (ok…I was) and climbed back down. Another quick trip to a checkpoint to see if we could spot Amy but no avail.
A lot of people know what happens after animals have been found and observed but few can romanticise looking for animals in thick forest surrounded by spiny plants. Its a challenge- mental and physical and I for one, am up for this.
PS- The group we wish to follow is called Amy after the first now deceased mcaque to be collared. Voldemort was named after the then alpha male who had no nose

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Day 2- The jack in/and the boot
The day started mellow enough. I got to start the day at a leisurely pace and tend to my runny nose, read a bit and pet Mitza who is in love with me or my light brown cargo pants that he likes to lick. We spent a few hours in the forest starting at around 12:45 pm. For the second day in a row, AMY was nowhere to be seen. Every rustle in the trees turned out to be long-tails or langurs and every movement in the bushes was a lizard or a squirrel. We found VOLDEMORT again but they are shy and difficult to follow. There were no workers in the plantation today which is usually invitation for the macaques but the area is stil water-logged which might deter their movements on the ground. We did find a lone male but he has probably left AMY (males disperse after they reach adulthood…google “primate philopatry”). In one of our multiple trips we spotted (I didn’t) Franzi, a male who seemd extremely chill and he moved from one palm to another. We followed him for a bit and entered furthe into the forest before Anna suggested that perhaps Franzi has joined Voldemort as this was where we had followed them yesterday. Also for the second day ina row, my left rain boot had a hole so a semi-flooded plantation was not ideal ground. Anna was sympathetic of my ordeal having seen me empty the personal pool I had acquired and occasionally stopping to wring my socks. So she enquired with Nadine and we decided to take a trip to Sitiawan. We found the boots quickly enough and they were much cheaper than I expected. While we were there, Anna suggested we should invest in a Starbucks drink for the sake of their wifi and then we ate dinner at an Indian-Malay resturaunt. Thosai, it turns out is indeed Dosa but stuff served with it can only be categorised as Dal, soup and the familiar- chutney. Our city adventure done, we headed back on our longish trip back when guess we heard the rare but dreaded sound of the tyre bursting. It had been a while since my last tyre changing lesson but between the two of us and the right tools, I was confident- that is until we opened the boot (refer to title and rain boot- get the pun of my title yet?). It turns out, the jack was exremely rusted and wouldn’t budge. We were a little too far from anywhere to be walking and all hope seemed lost as no acquaintance from Teluk Senangin (the village we stay at) seemed to be responding. So there we stood in the light drizzle on a somewhat desolate street to Teluk Senangin.
But soon enough, reinforcements arrived, thanks to Anna having informed Nadine. 3 boys from the village set to work and after realising our jack wouldn’t work, set about changing the tyre using their car’s jack. Nadine’s husband had also been called and also came around to help. We had moved from muddy, spine-filled Segari Melintang to the air-conditioned Starbucks to a grease and rust filled sweaty adventure. We still haven’t found Amy since I’ve arrived but I can’t say it has been awfully dull.

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Day 3- On panic and picnics
Following last night’s adventures, we decided that it would be best to get both rear wheels of the car replaced ASAP so drove carefully to Manjung. Our limited Malay and signs were seemingly being interpreted by a kid no more than 11. All was well, or so we thought before the mechanic dude took our car keys and our interpretor and drove the car out of sight. We had no option but to stand there and hope they were going to go elsewhere and get it fixed. After what seemed like an eternity- they came back, but the tyres had ot been changed. After yet another miming session and radio silence, some calls were made and we were asked to follow one guy from the store. This super cool dude who smoked a cigarette while waiting at a red-light took us through winding roads and areas Anna was not familiar with. The other store of course had been called. We got our tyres fixed and ensured we had a better one to use as spare next time. And super-cool dude had obviously left us so now we were left to our devices to figure out how to get back. After a little while, we did have to use our devices which luckily did show us the right way and combined with my keen eye for landmarks that serve food, helped us get back on although around half an hour late for field-work.
Our quest to find AMY continues and since the last two days had seen lesser rain, we were hoping for more monkeys. It was long-tails everywhere and raucous calls of langurs rang through when we did enter the forest. Yesterday was Franzi and today I met Jesuef (No one knows how to spell it). He was the calmest pig-tailed macaque I had spotted. He was in the plantation feeding on oil-palm fruits that were on the ground. He was cautious but uninhibited by us which is what the rest of AMY should be like. BUT where was AMY? We spotted another pig-tail but it seemed to shy so was probably from Voldemort. We decided to stalk Jesuef. And he was in no hurry to go back to AMY. He sat there enjoying his little picnic, sitting on a little tuffet, away from the pools of water around. Dainty and relaxed, scratching his scrotum while he was at it. We followed him for a short while before abandoning that idea and going to check out other favourite haunts of AMY in the forest. Guess what…nothing yet. The pig-tails are nomadic. The sleep anywhere, rest anywhere and go anywhere. Unpredictability is probably a good thing for them. It’s not ideal for people wanting to study them considering some have studied them before and know that they usually operate predictably. But getting lost in a language and a city and finding my way through a tropical evergreen forest looking for a missing group of pig-tailed macaques all start out at rushed events filling you with dread, panic or excitement until slowly you realise that you have to breathe, calm down and enjoy the ride. Scratching genitalia in public is probably a bit of an overkill though.