Searching for Monkeys in All the Wrong Places – Part II

Hello again everyone! The long-awaited part II of the riveting drama that is my fieldwork has arrived! Talk about a real cliffhanger, huh? I bet you’ve been squirming with anticipation these last few months…

I guess now is a good time to explain a little about what I am actually studying (feel free to skip over this part if you’ve already heard me blather on about you-know-what and can’t stand to hear/read another word about it! :P).

My project examines the process of habituation in a group of wild macaques. In other words, I am studying the way in which monkeys become used to researchers following them. This typically involves a number of behavioral changes that I won’t get into here; but what I want to stress is the role of habituation as a “first step” in most primatological field research.

Without a habituated group, systematic data collection that requires individual identification and continuous following of a group is damn near impossible; the monkeys may flee from or threaten you, and sometimes even be a little too curious. The goal of habituation, therefore, is to get the monkeys comfortable enough with your presence so that they eventually “ignore” you.

In addition to following monkeys, my research approach is a bit unconventional in that I also follow humans involved in the habituation process. I am interested in the habituation as a mutually transformative, intersubjective experience between the research team and the monkeys we follow. Um, what the hell am I talking about? Well, consider the notion that following monkeys day in and day out allows us to “get to know” them, and vice-versa. We start to notice how certain individuals (or the group as a whole), behave toward us, and how, in turn, we interact (or not) with them. How does this “relationship” between the monkeys and research team change over the course of the habituation process? And how, indeed, do our impressions of habituation “progress” match up with behavioral data? These are just some of the questions I am exploring in my thesis research—I could happily pontificate about this shiz all day, but for the sake of getting on with it, let’s get back to searching for monkeys.

_ _ _ _ _

It’s 7:00 am now. We have spent the last 20 minutes listening on the forest floor, only a few meters from our entrance. In fact, a lot of what I do during the day is listen—one of the first phrases I learned in Indonesian is “dengar-dengar dulu,” which essentially means “listen really hard first.”

And so, we listen. Since I began my research here, I have learned a lot about listening. The best time to listen is right after it rains. The forest is positively soundless. The cicadas are still too wet to start up their usual buzzing, cacophonous symphony; the wind has subsided, so that any rustling or swaying of tree branches likely signals monkeys exiting their rainstorm refuge; and traffic noise from the road has yet to reach a crescendo again.

The funniest part about all of this is that we don’t actually listen for monkeys at all. I mean, yeah, I get super stoked if we hear a distant male’s loud call or a squabble among little ones, but this is fairly rare. What we are actually listening for are birds.

There are two species of bird that follow the monkeys: the selesray and seregunting. The general rule is that if there are monkeys, there are always selesray and seregunting; but finding and following the birds won’t necessarily lead you to monkeys…it’s certainly a gamble that keeps things interesting.

These birds swoop in and out across the canopy, taking advantage of the bugs flushed out by the monkeys’ movements (isn’t community ecology delightful?), and their calls have become music to my ears. The seregunting’s call is especially magical. It sounds like a Peruvian pan flute, a rapid tooh-tooh-tooh vocalization that I certainly cannot do justice with just words—maybe I’ll imitate it for you one day if you’re lucky!

After months of following this call, and consequently finding our group, I have become like Pavlov’s dog whenever I hear the familiar, breathy seregunting song. My heart starts beating a little faster, I become more alert, scanning trees and cliff faces for signs of monkeys, and I start checking my watch to make sure the timing of my initial scan is just right – in case we do find our group. I am Seregunting’s primatologist.

Today, we don’t hear what we’re listening for, but the cicadas are certainly giving it stacks. So, at 7:15, we begin our ascent up to the cave we pass through daily—a shortcut of sorts— that opens up to a dense jungle of serpentine vines, lush palm and ficus trees, and majestic tower karst.

Always something to do, even if we can't find the monkeys!

Always something to do, even if we can’t find the monkeys!

We often find the group passing over the top of the cave, about 15 meters above us, to get to the other side of their home range. So we wait after passing through. And listen some more—“tidak ada bersaura juga…diam sekali” (There aren’t vocalizations here either…so quiet)—is a mantra my field assistant repeats on a daybay, and today is no exception. We move on.

In my field notes, I have come to name a lot of the places we pass and listen for the monkeys. This is mostly for the sake of my memory and mental map, but also for fun. Names like “vineseat area,” where once I laid across a thick vine and thought wouldn’t it be nice if the monkeys passed overhead, right now…and they did! Or “fallen ant log trail,” where I sat on fallen tree while collecting data, and instantly yelped in pain, startling the group, as I was bitten by what felt like a bazillion ants; or “lone male cave” where we once saw a single male exit, loud call to the rest of the group, and climb up a cliff face looking for his companions. I even name places where nothing in particular has happened—they’re just pretty—like “cave batu area,” where you can see a few small cave alcoves carved high up in the karst, and “oasis area” where there is almost no ground vegetation or rocks to trip on, and the only surrounding trees are palms. We stop by these spots almost everyday to wait for the group, but today, we must be searching in all the wrong places. It’s 10 am, and there’s still no sign of our monkeys.

Alison & I hanging at the vineseat area

Alison & I hanging at the vineseat area

We stop to refuel with our ritual forest snack—last weekend I was lucky enough to snag some Snickers in the city!—at “Pak Haro’s overlook,” a shelf-like overhang near the road that commands a view of the entire forest below. We chat about where we should look next, and formulate a general plan for the next 2 hours.

The next hour and a half goes by slowly, and we become frustrated. We’ve listened and waited in almost every place we know our group goes to eat and rest. We haven’t even heard a peep from our bird friends. It’s hot today, so it’s likely the group has been chilling out, quietly grooming in a cave while we’ve been slaving away, searching for them.

Searching for monkeys in Jalan KT (KT's Trail)

Searching for monkeys in Jalan KT (KT’s Trail)

When you’re searching for monkeys this long to no avail, everything starts looking and sounding like a monkey. A lizard slithers across dry leaves, and it sounds like a little juvenile scampering across the ground behind you; a dark hole in the rock ahead looks awfully like an adult male watching you from above; trees swaying in the wind are mistaken for monkeys foraging; and the low squawk of a rancong, or Hornbill bird, starts sounding a lot like a female threat-barking. The forest can be damn tricky sometimes!

It is 11:50, and almost time for lunch. We are positively knackered, ready to give up and go home, so I finish up my field notes and pack up my binoculars, defeated. I imagine the monkeys watching me do this from high up on karst, chuckling to themselves—satisfied after another day of going undetected by those halfwit primatologists.

Now, 5 months into my research, we find the monkeys almost everyday. I attribute this to a combination of finding new places the group likes to hang out and them being less scared of us. Looking back, I have come to appreciate those days of not finding the monkeys. Though frustrating, it was a time I was able to really enjoy the forest—there was always something new to see or stumble upon, and we often explored without worrying that we had just missed our group. I’ve also come to realize that we were never really searching for monkeys in the wrong places, we just weren’t very good at finding and following them yet!

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