Dancing with Macaques: a survival guide.
One important fact about Adang island is that it is home to Tokay geckos. Tokays, for those not up to date on their gecko knowledge, are the second largest gecko species. They are usually powder blue color with little red spots extending down the body. They can get up to fifteen inches long, or about the length and width of your forearm not including the tail. These guys have some of the strongest stick power science has discovered and can remain stuck to almost any surface, even in a vacuum (we had a whole lecture on the wonders of their sticking powers). Most importantly, Tokays have little teeth, and when they bite something they have a tendency to remain locked onto that object. Oh, and they have a characteristic call which you really need to look up on Youtube. It doesn’t translate to written format.
What is the importance of the Tokays, you may be wondering? Well, we had a pair of these large geckos who lived in the bungalows we were staying in on Adang.
In the mornings, we would be awoken by the piercing cry of the Tokays in our room, usually around 6 am. One particular morning the call came from directly next to my head. Our friendly little Tokay had decided to come down next to my pillow to sing me awake, giving me a heart attack in the process.
After the usual wake up call on the fifth day on the island, we headed down to breakfast where we herded around the acidic instant coffee and went over the plan for the day. This particular day we were going to stay on the island and had free time until class. Usually we would take the boats out and snorkel from 9 to 3, but we had the opportunity to explore Adang or catch up on class readings. The island had a short hike to a waterfall so a group of us decided to spend part of the day exploring it.
The trek to the waterfall was uneventful albeit beautiful. It was a short hike through the tropical forest and we were rewarded with cool water once we reached the falls. It had been a drier year than usual, so the waterfall itself was not very large, but there were pools deep enough to wade in and cool down. Our group didn’t stay very long as we had to get back in time for class, and we split up with a few going on in front.
As my group got near to the end of the trail, one of the girls from the group ahead came running back. Apparently, there was a group of macaques ahead that would not let her pass through and we would have to find another way off the trail. My group thought if the four of us walked together slowly down the trail, surely the monkeys would leave and we could pass through.
The only wildlife guide I had ever read was for a cougar encounter. The instructions were to make your group appear as large as possible by raising your arms and generally making a lot of noise. The purpose was to make you and your group as threatening as possible.
We applied this approach to the large male Macaque sitting in the middle of the trail. In the trees above the male there were smaller, adolescent macaques. The scene reminded me of the part in Tarzan when Jane snatches the drawing back from the baby monkey and all of the other monkeys come out of nowhere to defend the baby.
Our group started advancing down the trail slowly, clapping to try and shoo the male away. This had zero impact. He regarded the four of us with obvious disdain. As soon as we got withing seven feet, he started to advance toward us. At that point, two of our group members (with higher senses of self preservation) ran back down the trail to take their chances climbing down the gully to the beach. My friend and I, already running late and tired from trekking in the heat, wanted to give it one last go in the hopes that the macaque would just move to a tree and we could pass. We advanced slowly again, clapping as we went. We didn’t want to harm the animal in any way or scare it, merely get it to leave the trail so we could pass.
This hope was dashed when the macaque charged us, teeth bared. My friend and I, deciding a scale down a gully was preferable to a tango with an angry monkey, beat a hasty retreat. A sandal was lost in the process, and when we looked back, the macaque was happily munching away on it.
When we finally made it back to our bungalows where we were to have class, Nans, a professor for an upcoming Wildlands trip joining our program for a bit, informed us of the correct protocol for navigating monkeys.
It is the exact opposite of what we did.
You make yourself smaller, avoid eye contact as it is seen as a challenge, and pass by quietly. I am happy to report that my second attempt at passing a macaque on a trail went without incident. In hindsight, I could have researched how to handle monkey interactions before the trip. Or it might have been something my professor mentioned before students wandered off into the forest. Either way, the learning curve was steep.
Safely back at the bungalows, we settled down for class on the porch in a circle. The snacks were passed around before we started like usual. Somewhere in the twenty years of running the program, my instructor had learned that he could hold student’s attention longer if we were fed. First we had a student presentation. Each of us at the beginning of the program had selected a date to deliver our talk on our research subject, and listening to what each student selected was one of the best parts of the program. Topics ranged from ranging from ecotourism in the tropics to relationships among the reef. Then came my professor’s lecture.
By the time we finished with class, dinner was almost ready. Dinner was both my favorite and least favorite time of the day. I loved the general chaos of the event, 21 people all talking over each other and laughing about the day’s events. I didn’t, however, love how often I would take a bite of food only to realize I had eaten one of the dried chilies used to season the dish. Several times I was sure I had burned the first layer of skin clean off my mouth with the intensity of the spice.
We were fortunate enough to have Erisy on our program. She was one of the program logistics coordinators and, in addition to working with Wildlands, is a fantastic musician. She brought her guitar along the whole program, and often in the evenings would play for us. There is no better way to end a day than to sit on the beach listening to the waves and gentle strumming of a guitar.
Being awoken by massive geckos and learning how to properly avoid monkeys is not your typical class experience. But on this trip, our days were filled with experiences like this. Some days we spent hours in the water seeking out fish species we had yet to see, hoping to get a rare glimpse of a reef shark. Others were spent interacting with members of indigenous communities to learn about their culture and how it was threatened. The only consistency in our daily routine was that we had the opportunity to interact with the subjects` we were learning about. It was an incredible experience and full of memories like those above. I have already written more than I intended to, so I will end my description of a day in Wildlands here. If you want to know more about what it was like, I would look at the photos from the trip. They will probably give you a better idea of what the trip was like than I can express in words.