Primate Diaries: leaving, searching and running in circles (Days 72-74)

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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27th March 2017, Monday: Parting and meeting

We had a whole list of errands, buying items that Nadine had listed-including extra tubes for the bike wheels and tools. Leo, Vino, Michele and I got to Manjung at around 9:45 hoping to start early. But just because we are used to starting OUR working days at 6:45 doesn’t mean civil society and businesses are. Luckily one Chinese bike repair establishment was open. Vino pointed to the bedazzled Ganesha statue they had. Apparently they keep pink rice flour based things as prasad (snacks/offering) whereas the Indians stick to Laddoos. Luckily it was also near the veterinarian’s clinic. Vladmir/ Vlad, our latest kitten found by Nadine at the beach was not looking too good. He refused to eat or even move a little bit and Anna had decided it was best to take him to the vet.

We dropped Michele at the vet and ran the other errands, finding most things we were looking for. Afterwards, we picked Michele and Vlad up and I babysat him in the car while everyone else went to the mall to do a bit of personal shopping. Leo and I needed to join Anna for the afternoon shift so we decided to get take-away lunch.

We needed to slow down a bit after this chaos as this was also the moment to say goodbye to Vino who left to go back to KL today. She will most probably be joining Nadine’s lab at USM but fieldwork and volunteering with all of us means our moments and adventures together had come to an end. We hugged Vino goodbye. She will be missed. Of course I will stalk her amazing art on Instagram and think of her eveery time I come across creepy Anime. Mimi was first to go and now Vino. It hit me that I leave soon too (too soon?). It’s disconcerting and exciting at the same time.

Leo and I reached Anna and AMY in the plantation at checkpoint 1. I secretly hoped AMY was finished with all the moving this morning and were ready to take it easy. Anna was busy with her focals so I acted as Leo’s guide and taught him some more individuals. We didn’t have to wait too long before AMY began to move. We went inside and I continued to tell Leo about the various individuals and their characteristics, pausing when I thought he would get overwhelmed and confused. He was definitely doing much better than I was considering this was only the 3rd time (not on consecutive days) he was spending time with the individuals. It occured to us after some amount of walking that we were still only at the forest edge. I completed the ID check and Leo and I sat down. Amy wasn’t going anywhere for a while. I pointed Phoenix, the tormentor of Juveniles to Leo. As of now, he was engaged in blissful slumber in a tree in our line of sight. We saw a female approach him and silently groom him. That’s rare. And it didn’t seem to be preceeded by him puckering or succeeded by him mounting. He just lay there and moved his arm up at some point. WHO WAS THIS FEMALE. This was where the plot thickens. It was Goldie, the alpha female. I have never seen them interact. When they do, it is usually Goldie chasing Poenix, just like everyone else chases Phoenix unless swelling lower-ranking females. Anna finished her focal and confirmed that it was indeed Goldie and Phoenix.

AMY was beginning to stir and start moving. We realised that they were moving towards checkoint 2. Anna had begun her focal again and Leo and I stayed behind. We passed by Norbert and Oliver napping away in all their glory. I spotted Emma and we followed her slow movements while she foraged for insects inside a fallen tree’s bark. We were quite close to the plantation and decided that a lot of individuals were probably there. Indeed, AMY had decided to take a second trip to the plantation. It was 4:30 now. I decided to show Leo about our 20 minute scans. We spot 3 males, 3 females and 3 juveniles and type what they are doing and at what stratum of the plantation or forest (ground, tree trunk/bark, canopy/palm tree crown). It is a good way to keep yourself in the group and learn to spot individuals which can otherwise be difficult when they camouflage well and make no noise.

The group stayed in the plantation for close to an hour and began their (hopefully) final scent for the day. Again, luckily for us, they seemed to be in no tearing hurry. We were able to follow them up the hill at checkpoint 2. Leo, it turns out has only been to this area of the forest all the 3 times he has followed AMY. I told him not to worry- AMY would change it up soon enough. We climbed some rocks to get up and reached a point I am familiar with, thanks to it being a usual route and hang-out spot used by AMY. It was 5:40 and Chewbacca, Phoenix and Pamkin had already climbed up some trees near us. Leo and I got to talking about forestry and plants, going on to discuss issues surrounding land management and so on. Anna was still doing a focal on an individualwho had decided to go further up the hill we realised, though it couldn’t be that far. It was 6:45 and Anna was done too. We all got downhill. I’m so familiar with the area now-I didn’t even need to look at the GPS.

We got back and procured the help of some neighbours who had volunteered to fix the repaired bike wheel after seeing us struggling to remove it. So ow, we finally have both bikes functioning and need not take the small car into the forest. All we need now is the forest-worthy Kembara to be fixed.

28th March 2017, Tuesday: Searching for YOU-KNOW-WHO

Leo, Lea and I left with the tw bikes after Michele had returned with one. Anna was still with AMY. She planned to do yet anther full day. We were underway when I felt the drizzle turn into a shower. We had already entered the plantation when it started pouring. We quickly parked the bikes and hunkered down inside the forest at the edge. Anna and AMY too were taking refuge at the forest edge near the clearing. After about 40 minutes, the rain stopped and Lea went to join Anna and AMY. Leo and I were tasked with looking for VOLDEMORT. The rain had reduced my hopes. The macaques, if they can help it-will prefer to be in the forest when it rains.

Nevertheless, this was a great opportunity for Leo to see the frustraing process that is searching for VOLDEMORT- a group that is not as habituated as AMY and whose hang out spots we aren’t as aware of. Plus, searching is a great way to see parts of the forest and plantation you haven’t seen before. Lea had had the privelege f searching for AMY so she had been to all the checkpoints but Leo had only been to 2 and the outskirts of checkpoint 1. So, though I hoped for VOLDEMORT to be a no-show, it would not ALL be in vain. We started with checkpoint 2.5 listening for any movement. Since the rain had just stopped, even the long-tails and squirrels were yet to move about. We walked all the wy to checkpoint 3. I pointed out areas where we normally searched for AMY and acces points to THE SWAMP at checkpoint 3 from some areas. We also had a small discussion about rattans, its spines and their function (torture every living thing was not scientifically acceptable). We then decided to walk al the way to checkpoint 4, where Giovanni had marked the trail when he followed Voldemort. Leo and I had a stimulating conversation about cognition in primates, studies relating to animal behaviour and the concept of flipped zoos (where humans are inside a cage/vehicle/glass enclosure watching the animals roam free).

We were just about to walk back to checkpoint 3 when Leo pointed to a pigtail- a male….large-ish. It was worth a shot, if only to enter the forest from this side and see a new area. And it was different, novel in a “many more Bertam with spines and tangled branches of trees here” kind of way. We did manage to follow the male (who it seemed with time and spines was probably solitary) for some distance before it became almost impossible and the other lost call from a female was a long-tail. So with some difficulty, we came back down. Turns out it was already 4:20 by the time we got out.

I decided that since we had covered most checkpoints and areas, might as well let Leo see and experience the ‘logging road’. We came accross AMY, Anna and Lea at the plantation on the way. Though w were happy to see them, its always a bummer when you see AMY while looking for VOLDEMORT and vice-versa. Leo was curious to know why this was the ‘logging road’ was the only trail that was named. His confusion was cleared as soon as he saw the place. It is the clearest of the trails, with vegetation on both sides but a yellow-brick road like quality to it though one can rest assured that it won’t lead to an Emarald city. We did try to look carefully and kept our ears tuned to any pig-tail sounds but to no avail. At 6 we decided that it was time to head back home. VOLDEMORT has thwarthed me yet again!

29th March 2017, Wednesday: Circles

Lea and I got to ‘the clearing’ at about 1:20 to take over from Anna and Michele. After basic instructions and a bit of confusion as to whether AMY was going into the forest or staying in the plantation, we found them and bid Anna and Michele adieu. In about half an hour we saw most individuals going in. I ensured that we had all the individuals in the group as we went. We weren’t moving very fast and only at he forest edge. It also didn’t help that yet again, most individuals seemed to be in trees. While Leo has been having great luck spotting and seeing individuals at close quarters, Lea hasn’t been as fortunate. But I tried to make the best out of the situation by pointing out the individuals we did see. Norbert, the alpha and my bae is obviously easy to recognise. We spotted Oliver, Casimodo, Phoenix, Anakin (who obviously puckered at us the whole time), Mina, Pamkin, Scarlet, Goldie, Pippi, Jane and Biru. Unfortunately both Jane and Biru’s swells had receeded and they look pretty similar at this stage which is unfortunate. We talked about each individuals and their characteristics and quirks before realising that AMY was moving again, although we soon realised it wasn’t too far.

Since it had rained, the smallish swamp at checkpoint 2 had become more swampy though not as bad as the ones at check-point 1or 3. We were trying to follow any individuals we could keep track of long enough but they all seemed skittish and uneasy. At some point we heard dogs bark and everyone went up even further on the trees they were already on. Emily, just like her mother Emma seemed the least bothered. In fact, she was curious to see us and dropped down like Spider-man, not leaving even when I clapped my hands close to her face, almost losing my balance and falling face first into muck in order to do so. We were saved from doing more because Norbert decided to throw a tantrum right then and sent everyone scurrying. Soon afterwards, the lost calls started.

Just like on Leo’s first day with Vino and me, Goldie seemed to initiate it. Although this time I was sure she had’t lost HER juvenile Gollum. PAmkin was calling, Pippi began. As did Biru and Scarlet though with not as much intensity. At one point everyone made contact calls so loud, followed by male grunts, the curiosity was kiling us. And the annoyance of sitting on a not very comfortable log with any possible view of the monkeys obscured by the canopy and a fallen tangle of dried tree branches that was the epicentre of the calling committee. We were pretty sure that after all this drama was done, AMY would definitely go back out into the plantation considering they were only around 70 metres away. We wondered why AMY was acting weird- a question we probably would not be able to answer. I remembered that Anna and Michele had said that hadn’t moved much in the morning either.

At around 6, the finally came back out. It seemed rainy. We saw that Leo and Anna were here despite our cautions about the bad roads. They needed to set up traps with oil-palm fruits as bait to collect and identify rats (macaques eat rats thus reducing the rats that are a pest on the oil-palm crop, a phenomenon the Macaca Nemestrina Project is trying to scientifically ascertain). At around 6:45, Lea and I realised that the rain was going to hit anytime now and that it meant the macaques weren’t going to move too much. We convinced Anna to leave before the roads got worse and the car couldn’t go at all. I drove the bike through the rain getting slightly wet as the rain splashed when I drove through it, my glasses fogged over and misty. We all got back just in time for the bad rain to begin. The rain which wasn’t too heavy though it did last for close to 3 hours.

29th March 2017, Wesnesday: Pacing and Scurrying

Anna and I were at the plantation in the morning. I was to follow AMY while Anna tied up all the rat traps. She hoped to be done by 9 or so and I hoped I could hold down the fort till then. I went to the sleeping site Lea and I had marked. Nothing. No need to panic…..yet, I thought. They can’t have moved that much. “Although they might have moved when the rain was contiuously pouring for more than an hour….has happened” said my pessimistic side. “This is pointless, abandon the search” said my defeatist side. And I decided that I was going to go forward and investigate. Of course, AMY had stayed although about 50 m away from where we had marked.

They came out into the clearing soon enough but seemed to be taking their own sweet time. I did the ID check, became sad that Franzi wasn’t here anymore though I had seen Jisuaf at the sleeping site. AMY had begun moving deeper inside the plantation at around 9 when Anna’s voice crackled promtly through the walkie-talkie. She hadn’t missed much I told her. I had found Putih for her because I knew she has been despertely trying to do as many focals on her as possible. Just as I was telling her this- I lost Putih. Ah well! I tried said my defeatist side and I agreed. I left Anna to her devices while I folllowed Emma, then Febe and Mina and then saw Casimodo tear up and patiently dig into a tree bark to get to some very juicy looking larvae. I saw Oliver catch and eat a rat. I watched him dismember and devour the creature with revulsion and fascination. Casimodo was also at a little tuffet nearby and guess what, he too had a rat. A small one. I remembered that we were supposed to mark spots where we had encountered rat-eating, on the GPS. I did so, when Anna drew my attention to Norbert eating a large rat near her.

30 minutes later, Oliver was on his 3rd rat and I had collected his faeces for seed analysis (to ascertain if pig-tails are good dispersers of plants via defecation). Anna and I realised that we definitely needed to change the location of our rat traps and shift them deeper into the plantation for this is where most rat-eating seemed to occur. Too bad she had just tied alll the traps around 2 hours ago. We were almost parallel to checkpoint 0 by this time which is quite far from where we had begun. But now AMY was turning back.

By around 12:30 the pig-tails were back at the clearing. It’s weird how fast they move when they want to. They WERE full of energy from all the rats and grasshoppers and oil-palm fruits I guess. I’m glad I wasn’t doing the afternoon shift. Michele got to me sitting at the forest edge watching Scarlet and Goldie on two branches of the same tree. Anna had already begun her ‘forest focal’ and was inside with a juvenile. I have 10 more days left. I wouldn’t mind terribly if they were somewhat like today but I doubt that would happen and if I will actually like it.

The Friendship dilemma

Isn’t it great when you’ve hit it off with a person you can tolerate? It seems like you could hang out with them without too many uncomfortable silences while you desperately try to remember ice-breakers? That’s something really worth cherishing-particularly for people with Rajesh Koothrappalli levels of social awkwardness.

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But just when you think you’ve finally got it good, reality hits you-as it usually does-hard. Remember the other person you once painstakingly used up your energy in establishing and nurturing a similar relationship with? Yeah, well it turns out they don’t like your new friend, the reason for which is usually given in the vaguest terms without any concrete justification or even evidence. And it’s worse when the second friend returns the hatred for your first friend with seething disgust. And who’s in a pickle but you? You have to sneak around either of them to hang out with one and/or the other. Fit both into your schedule, probably watch a movie twice because they won’t see eye to eye without giving you a migraine.

But then again, I guess knowing at the beginning of either friendships that one friend doesn’t like the other, gives you time to make a tough decision and decide not to invest as much in one of the 2 friendships. It’s worse when two friends did like each other and you (jackpot) but develop a dislike for each other.

My friend (yes I have friends-surprises me too) and I were discussing, how we could do even worse and have friends who were romantically involved and then decided to break up. Being forced into taking sides when things get ugly is the worst kind of dilemma. You once again tiptoe, focus on being politically correct while dropping those big white pearls of wisdom that you tend to drop so liberally. And then, after you’ve been coerced into complaining about each of these friends to the other person-they get back together and then hate you because of all the bitching they made you do. Ah! and you thought living vicariously through others would minimize the chances of drama you would have to directly deal with. Great plan.

I’ve recently moved to a new city (yet again) and while the excitement of moving is a thrilling and liberating experience, making friends is as scary an ordeal as it was whenever I moved schools or saw people on whom I would have to use up my entire arsenal of conversation consisting of the topics weather and education. Again, it is challenging to objectively understand human interaction while swimming in the choppy sea that is human existence, acknowledging the importance of knowing at least a few human beings with whom you can socialize before you finally resort to naming all your future cats and hiding out in your room forever.