Written by and Photos Courtesy of Catherine Yates – to find Catherines own blog visit: catswonderings
As an experienced primatologist you would assume that our leader would have found her ‘jungle feet’, a feat that has monumental advantage in any jungle. Having the ability to follow a group of tiny tamarins through dense liana forest requires a certain amount of coordination, that as we discovered on multiple occasions she doesn’t posses. Back on the infamous T6, known for filling enthusiastic RA’s wellies, we had not had the best primate day. A saddening lack of monkeys had us down, exhausted and arriving back at the pond crossing.
Meticulously picking our way across, each footstep a calculated placement, we were almost to safety. Overconfidence in the jungle is dangerous, as I found with one welly full. Laughter ensued at my expense, until a seemingly ‘experienced’ primatologist took a step and ended up waist deep in stagnant swamp water (disclaimer: she is very experienced but the jungle ain’t easy and primates is hardcore, remember?)! However, it was not an all round unsuccessful day, soon after the lack of primates was explained by the presence of one of Peru’s largest, most powerful predatory birds; the Harpy Eagle.
Us females have another challenge facing us in the remote jungle – the bathroom. We lack the convenient anatomy to simply and quickly relieve ourselves. For the ‘primate girls’ this means only one solution; jungle wees. A risky business, with bloodthirsty mosquitos itching to get at you (pun intended). At the risk of days of insatiable scratching we simply must bite the bullet and answer to nature’s call.
Despite all the perils, (here I must confess that although the titles thus far seem to have slightly negative conations this is, without a doubt, an extremely positive experience) the up close encounters we get always outweigh the ‘hard’ days. Being able to watch and be surrounded by squirrel monkeys for hours on end is incomparable. Watching capuchins interact with their ‘family’ is humbling; a lot of their behaviour is mirrored in our own. With a dynamic between adults and juveniles similar to our own, that one bold youngster willing to push the boundaries for an extra piece of fruit, a lot can be learnt. From tamarin toddlers begging a parent for attention to three night monkeys huddling the whole ‘human’ spectrum of behaviour is covered.
Of course there is one peril that is down right unavoidable: data entry. On a high from a six hour follow, we are soon brought back to reality when the realization that we have a record for every three minutes of that duration to enter into a complex excel spreadsheet hits home.
Still, we’re living on a boat in the Amazon – it could be worse. Right?
As our first two week rotation came around it was time to say goodbye to the RAs leaving us. Goodbyes are not easy, especially when coupled with having to move boats, change schedule and deal with the fact the ‘hub’ of activity is leaving too. An evening of card games is about as fancy as leaving parties get out here, and it’s all we needed. Waving the Riõ away signaled many of our first days off from surveys; a much needed respite.
The day mainly consisted of getting to grips with our new living quarters, significantly more ‘rustic’ than the grandeur of the Riõ, it took us all time but little did we know we would come to love the Pithecia even more fiercely.
With depleted numbers, and us primate girls temporarily without our beloved primatologist we had to recruit a select few RAs to train in the art of our primate surveys. The change over also allowed us to give other surveys a go and see just how hardcore everyone else is.
Mist netting tickled my fancy straight away and even with the 5.45am start, I was not deterred. Once the nets are opened it’s a waiting game. Retreating from the nets we returned at intervals to check, and retrieve any caught birds. The delicate work of disentangling individuals is done expertly and taking various measurements follows. Admittedly birds scared me before, but after the hands on experience I am hooked, and quite the pro I would say (modesty will take you places)! All went well until the expedition medic was entrusted with holding individuals, which was clearly too much too handle and hereafter was strictly only allowed the clipboard, less of an escape risk.
Other activities were explored, such as canoeing upriver with only our arms as the motor (spoiler: not everyone on board used their arms for paddling, obviously someone had to be entrusted photographer and conveniently it turned out not to be me) during sunset.
Although primate surveys did continue throughout, the rain did not do us any favours. The majority of surveys were rained off one particular day when the heavens opened and did not close for a good 24 hours. This was to one dissertation student’s dismay as he was ready to go and found no one there, questioningly he asked: “Why are there no surveys?!”. When it was explained that it was a result of the excessive rain he replied: “But…It’s a RAINforest guys!!!
One learns many things living in the rainforest, such as the classics – patience, serenity and respect. However, there is one trait that rises above the rest, both in terms of practicality and essential need: ingenuity.
The benefits of this trait are endless. From something as simple as manufacturing a comfortable resting place on a jungle transect, to the critically essential task of cutting safe steps to allow us to move from boat to land and back, no task is too big or too small for the local guides here on site. We too have become, if not intuitive, certainly inventive in solving everyday problems from drying our sopping clothes during tropical rainstorms and entertaining ourselves to moving mattress between three different boats (always in the dark of course – makes the most sense right?)!
With the rotation over and the Riõ back as our base, surveys returned to normal. New arrivals had us all on our toes, especially us primate girls as our new dissertation partner entered the mix. As with any expedition of this sort, we all got mashed together and somehow fit together! Our beloved primatologist was back and encouraged us to take the lead on our surveys and bring our new team up to speed. With our trained RAs in tow all ran smoothly. Entering our third week and approaching our halfway point did have its downfalls – exhaustion. More ‘rustic’ living usually manifests itself in issues with sleeping – out here that can range from scratching yourself awake to enjoying a wake-up call from morning survey boat engines (why do macaws need to be surveyed at 5.30am?!). As a result, certain days leave you longing for nothing more than a comfortable seat, and that comes in the glorious form of a log with leaves on it; sheer bliss. Nothing has ever been so comfortable.
Settling back into routine the primate surveys could not be going better. Smashing the 20 hour expected mark of data by a mile and finding ourselves at 50 hours is a relief; we can do this. Finding ourselves in this position, our beloved primatologist thought it a grand idea we look into other survey methods – in particular, predatory behaviour. Fashioning a fake snake to see how squirrel monkeys will respond is a challenge we took on. By way of a sock, decorated to resemble a fox, we gave it our best go. Unfortunately, the monkeys could not care less and did not even give us the time of day.
Maybe we aren’t as ingenious as we like to think – but hey, you can’t win ‘em all!