Friday, April 27, 2007

The Mango Patch

Its been quite a week. On Monday a whole bunch of things went wrong. First of all, when I got up at 4:30am to get ready to go out to the forest, there was no running water. This happens fairly often during the dry season, but still, its annoying. Then, the kitchen door was locked, so I had to break in through the window to get the provisions I’d packed for the day. Once inside the kitchen, I discovered that someone had eaten about half of the fruit I’d packed in my little Tupperware container. What was the deal?! Could nothing go right on this day?

Oh but that was not the end of it. Once in the forest, my watch stopped working about 10 minutes after I’d started collecting data on the South Group. This is a pretty essential piece of equipment for the project. The way I collect data is to set the timer on my watch to beep every 2 minutes, and each time it beeps, I record a data point of the monkeys’ behavior—sort of like taking a “snapshot” at 2 minute intervals. Now, I have a spare watch, it just wasn’t with me because I wasn’t aware that this one was in imminent danger of demise. I briefly considered coming back for my other watch, but it would have been at least an hour and 15 minute trek to get there and back, so I decided that it just wasn’t feasible. Don’t tell the real primatologists out there—but I just decided to make do. I thought I would still be able to get useful data in terms of recording what they ate and how they ate it, just not the 2-minute snapshots of their activities.

So I proceeded to watch the monkeys. As I followed them through a particularly viney area, I felt a sharp stinging pain on my arm and looked down to see that I had brushed up against some kind of Nicaraguan poison ivy. This has happened before. On the plus side, at least I got a good look at the plant this time so I know what to avoid in the future. From previous experience, I also know that if I clean off the area with alcohol right away, it neutralizes the damage. So, I took care of it and was none the worse for wear.

I thought surely, this will be the end of it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. Towards mid-afternoon, I started to feel sick. Really really sick. Like sick to my stomach, sick. The monkeys became secondary to my primal goal of survival, and I left the forest. I spent the rest of the afternoon alternately vortexing and sleeping, thinking that there was no way I’d be in any shape to go out the next day or possibly even the day after.

But somehow I recovered. I got myself together and went out again on Tuesday—and it’s a really good thing I did. I found the North Group on the Camino just as they were about to make an incredibly big move. All morning they traveled and traveled. They took a twisting, winding route, but I began to have this suspicion that we would end up on Spondias Lane, where they packed up and left last November when the trees ran out of fruit. The Spondias trees are not fruiting now, but they are all sprouting young and tender leaves that howler monkeys are supposed to love to eat. (I don’t blame them-- I’ve tasted young Spondias leaves and they are quite good!). Well, we did end up on Spondias Lane, but only briefly. They stopped to snack on some young Spondias leaves, and then they were on the move again. They traveled and traveled until I saw in the distance—mango trees. I thought, “You have got to be kidding.” Several local people have alluded to this mythical patch of mango trees in the forest and have told me that my monkeys would journey there at some point—May or June most likely. But I only half believed them. From their description, these mango trees were far, far away, and while I didn’t doubt that some groups of monkeys would feast on the unripe fruits, I did doubt that it would be my troop that went all the way up there. Little did I know! It was virtually monkey heaven. The mango trees formed part of a “live fence”—that is, they had been planted in a line that must have demarcated a property boundary, and just beyond the trees were empty fields. There were 13 mango trees all in a row; the monkeys fanned out and feasted for hours.

I thought surely that by the end of the day, they would return back to more familiar parts, but they did not. They took off again, in the opposite direction that I expected, and they followed another corridor of trees between a pasture and a plantain field. If Wrinkle Belly himself wouldn’t have been there, I never would have believed that these were my monkeys, so far away from home.

On Wednesday morning, I found them exactly where I’d left them on Tuesday night. They quickly proceeded along the corridor, but I’m not really sure why. There didn’t seem to be any foods up there that wouldn’t have been otherwise available in their regular range, but there sure was another group of monkeys who wanted to keep them away. Every once and a while, some monkey from the North Group would venture a little farther in to the corridor, and then a monkey from the other group would howl and chase them back. I even saw Wrinkle Belly get in a little skirmish, but no worries—he emerged unscathed.

At any rate, the North Group slunk back down the corridor on Wednesday evening, and they slept by those 13 mango trees that had begun this whole journey. They spent the entire day on Thursday in the vicinity of the mango patch. There was a great commotion around mid-day as another group (possibly the same one they’d skirmished with the day before) tried to move into the territory. But the ferocious howls of Wrinkle Belly et al held them at bay. Late in the afternoon, the sky clouded over and it began to rain—then to really pour. I guess this is foreshadowing the rainy season to come. Its been dry so long that I forgot how rain felt. The air became deliciously cool, and I stretched my arms out to soak up as much water as I could. For the first time in months, I felt hydrated. Everything in the forest started to look a little greener and less sharp. As the rain subsided, the North Group monkeys had one last meal of unripe mangos and then they began their descent. They traveled and traveled, finally reaching Spondias Lane and refueling with some young Spondias leaves before they continued on their way. As the sun was setting, they were poised right on the edge of the forest patch where Simeon and I found them on the very first day. So it was a long strange journey, but the monkeys ended up back where they’ve always been. I have a feeling they will revisit this mango patch, and at least now after having followed them up there, I will know where to look.

Its been a long week and a long month; I'll be taking a rest from the forest for a couple of days. Thanks for reading! Until later then.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Happy Earth Day

Its been a while since I’ve posted anything because really, what could I say in the wake of the incident by the mango tree? I’ve just kept on doing the same old things: observing the monkeys in the forest, cutting up leaves with the toughness tester, etc. But all the while, I've kept thinking about that baby monkey I couldn't save.

At any rate, Rob and I realized that today is Earth Day, so I thought that warranted a blog entry from me. I hope everybody at home is out planting a tree. In honor of Earth Day, I thought I would include a little list I’ve made about my observations on the Dry/Windy season here on Ometepe. Most of you who know me well know that I really like making lists. Not grocery lists or “to do” lists—I actually hate making those. But I like making quirky lists such as this. For reference: in this part of Nicaragua, we receive approximately 1300mm of rain per year, falling mainly from May through November. The remaining time (December through mid-May) is extremely hot, extremely dry, and often extremely windy.

How to know it’s the dry/windy season:

• You turn on the faucet or try to flush the toilet and nothing happens.

• You wake up and there is a dust bunny in your hair.

• Your contact lens blows off your finger while you are trying to put it in your eye (this happened in Jan 2004).

• The lettuce from your salad blows off your plate at dinnertime.

• There is significantly more grit in the bread, rice, beans, lettuce, etc.

• Things hitting the walls wake you up in the night.

• Things blowing off the shelves in your room wake you up at night.

• You are always covered in dust.

• The puddles in the road dry up.

• Your clothes dry in about 2 hours.

• Everyones’ eyes are red all the time.

• There is puke on the ferry.

• There is your puke on the ferry.

• There are no spiders, anywhere.

• By 11am, the water in your bottle is so hot that you could boil tea with it.

• Howlers fall more often because the dry, brittle branches they are traveling on break.

• Early/mid dry season: you are covered in thorns, ticks, and burrs.

• Late dry season: the cicadas are so loud you think you might go crazy.

• You actually get a fever if you are out between the hours of 8:00am to 4:00pm.

• Its so hot that the only thing you can compare it to is the rush of heat you feel when you open the oven door to take out a sheet of cookies. And it feels like that all the time.

• On the road, passing cars stir up so much dust that you can’t see anything for about 2 minutes after they go by.

• The water level in an 8,264 km2 lake has dropped 2 feet.

Anyway, thanks for reading and Happy Earth Day!

Friday, April 13, 2007

Another Incident by the Mango Tree

Yesterday I found the monkeys right away along the Camino, in an area where both the North and South groups often forage. Once I sighted a familiar male I call Medio, I realized I was with the North group. The monkeys decided to spread themselves out quite a bit, and Medio's little subgroup traveled to one of their favorite locations: The Mango Tree. Aha, I thought. It is going to be a textbook day: eat unripe mangos, sleep, repeat.

This is precisely what they did for a while. Now before I go on, I've got to point out a few things. First, the Mango Tree is on the Gringo Property and is very close to where they are building their house. A crew of local guys comes in every morning to work on the house. From the Mango Tree I can plainly hear hammering, sawing, music playing, human conversations, and dogs barking. The other thing to point out is that the Mango Tree is where I found a dead howler 6 weeks ago-- a mystery that remains unsolved. If the monkeys have any lingering unpleasant memories of this incident, they have pushed them aside in favor of the apparently tasty unripe mangos. Both groups feed at this location, sometimes even at the same time, so it is often hard for me to tell who is who.

At any rate, after Medio's subgroup fed and rested for a couple of hours, I began to hear some scuffling a bit interior, even closer to the construction site. An infant was screeching over there, and the monkeys I was watching in the mango tree became quite agitated: running back and forth, howling, hooting, etc. Then dogs began barking, and there was quite a ruckus of howling and yowling for about 10 minutes. The dogs' barking became even more frantic, and I went towards the sound to see what was going on.

When I got there I saw 2 dogs growling over the body of a female howler. I charged at them, yelling "Fuera!" in my my meanest voice, and they ran away whimpering. The howler was motionless: already dead. She was bloodied at the throat, right flank, and hindquarters. I felt like I might puke. I hated those dogs-- they had looked fat and well-fed, not the sickly skinny kind that really needed a good meal.

I dug through the dirt with my hands to make a hole so I could bury her. Moving the howler to the burial hole without touching her was quite a challenge, but the plastic bags I'd brought for leaf sample collection served as makeshift gloves. It was without a doubt the grossest thing I've ever done. The temperature must have been close to a hundred degrees, and burning sweat was dripping into my eyes. I was covered in dirt that soon mixed with my sweat to become a mud-sheen.

As I covered the dead howler with dirt, I happened to glance up and saw an infant in the tree right above me. It must have been the infant I'd heard shrieking earlier. The poor little guy. This was a grim situation for sure. I wasn't certain of the age, but I suspected that it was one of the 2 December infants, so at most it was 4 months old. By this age, howlers are consuming some solid foods, but they derive the vast majority of their mutritional requirements from their mother's milk. In terms of locomotion, they frequently leave their mother to play and explore, but they almost always ride on her back when traveling within or between tree crowns. This little guy was at least 6 to 8 months too young to be able to survive without its mother. I didn't even want to think about what was going to happen.

I stayed and watched the infant. It kept giving alarm calls and retrieval calls (the sound infants make when they've gotten too far away from their mom and need her to come get them). Every time the infant called, the rest of the subgroup-- some 20-30m away in the Mango tree-- hooted anxiously. The infant somehow got itself into a huge Guanacaste tree. I surveyed the surroundings and realized that even if it had wanted to travel back to the others, it could not. There were too many gaps in the canopy that were just too wide for it to cross by itself.

After about three hours of crying, the infant seemed pretty worn out. It got quiet and just hung limply from a branch; its eyes were half closed and its mouth was half opened. This was not a good sign. Finally at 12:15, it fell off the branch and dropped to the ground with a very loud thud. I ran over to the infant; it was lying motionless but it was breathing and its eyes were opened. I tried to give it some water from my bottle, but it wouldn’t take any. Instinct kicked in and I scooped up the baby in my hat and began to race down the volcano. I talked to it constantly, making all sorts of wild promises. I told it to hang on and I would make sure that it had a lovely life.

When I got to the Hacienda, everyone was surprised to see me home in the middle of the day and when they saw that I was cradling a baby howler monkey in my arms, they were even more surprised. I relayed the story best that I could and told them to get me some milk. There are about a million cows on this island but nobody ever has fresh milk; they always use powdered. Doña Argentina went to the kitchen to stir up some powdered milk, and Daraysi momentarily disappeared only to return moments later with a baby bottle. When the milk was ready, I began to try to feed the baby—who I had since discovered was a male. He couldn’t really swallow and most of the milk just dribbled down his face. Whenever he got a little bit in him, he would kind of gasp and perk up and look at me but then he would sort of pass out again. Rob sat next to me and helped with the feeding. We discovered that the baby seemed to do better at taking water rather than milk, so we gave him a little bit of that just to try to get him hydrated again. We kept at it and finally got him revived. He was able to move around a bit, and his hands and feet—which had felt cold—started to feel a little bit warmer. He had himself a little accident (which got all over my hat), so we bathed him and got him all nice and clean. Afterwards, he clung to my shirt like he would have clung to his mother’s belly and fell asleep again.

It was really beginning to seem like he was going to make it. I was ecstatic but overwhelmed—now what was I going to do with a baby howler monkey?? I couldn’t have just left him on the forest floor to die, but now I didn’t know what to do with him. Even if he was strong enough, I wouldn’t be able to just release him back into the group. At his young age, he was still entirely dependent on his mother. Unless another female abandoned her own offspring and adopted him (not likely) he didn’t stand a chance. It was beginning to look like I was about to become this infant’s new mother.

The kitchen staff was all intently interested in the baby monkey, especially Alejandra. She held him and said that she would help be his mother. I thought, maybe this will work if we all take turns caring for the infant until we figure out what to do with him. Whenever the infant was awake, he was trying to climb and crawl around. He bit Alejandra on the thumb, and although I was horrified, she didn’t think it was any big deal. Daryasi was overcome by the baby monkey’s cuteness. While he was crawling around, she reached to pick him up and he bit her too. She shrieked, running away crying out, “Ay, el hijo de Melissa me mordió!” It was actually kind of funny. Getting bitten didn’t seem to deter Daraysi; in about 2 minutes she was back to hold him again, cooing, “Monito, bonito, congito, chicito, pobrecito…” I was pretty freaked out by the idea of getting bitten by a monkey, so I made sure to keep those little teeth away from me.

At any rate, I was pre-occupied with the infant all afternoon and evening yesterday. I emailed Martin, and he replied right away with suggestions and the name of a medicine we should give the monkey. At night Alejandra slept with the monkey in her arms; I didn’t see him again before I went out to the forest at 5 o’clock this morning. Although I wanted to stay in with the infant, I thought I should go back out and try to make sense of what was going on in the forest. When I got there, I found that something had scavenged the burial site, so all my digging in the hard-packed dirt with my bare hands had been for naught.

Meanwhile, Rob got up at 6am and rode his bike 18 kilometers to Altagracia, to the nearest pharmacy. He bought the medicine Martin said we needed to give the monkey and was back by 8:30. So I guess I wasn’t the only one who got attached to the baby yesterday.

Unfortunately, when I got home from the forest tonight, I found out the baby monkey had died. It happened just shortly after Rob returned from Altagracia with the medicine. Alejandra said that the baby had just clung to her all night and didn’t make any sound or movement. He took a little bit of water, but when she tried to give him milk, he wouldn’t swallow it and it just dribbled down his face. Before Rob could even give him any of the medicine he’d bought, the monkey was gone. I think back to the fall from the tree and remember how far the little guy fell and how hard he landed on the ground. Maybe he had internal injuries or something and couldn’t quite recover.

I have to admit, I am having a difficult time with this for many reasons. I am trying to tell myself that so many of us tried as hard as we could… but still. It shouldn’t have happened in the first place. Human actions in the forest are having—albiet unintentional—devastating effects on the monkeys. In the past 6 weeks, at least 3 monkeys have been killed either directly or indirectly by dogs that humans brought into the forest. At this rate, I wonder how many of my monkeys will be left by the end of this project. The monkeys are only vulnerable to dogs if they come to the ground, but I’ve noticed monkeys on the ground more and more often at this time of year. In the height of the dry season, many of the branches are brittle and dried out—so many times a branch will snap as a monkey is traveling across it, and the monkey falls to the ground or close to it. Terrestrial dangers are even more of a concern in heavily degraded areas, such as the one where the deaths occurred. In these scrappy, deforested patches, there are extensive gaps between the tree crowns and sometimes the monkeys have to come to the ground when the gap is too wide for them to jump. With dogs coming into the forest more frequently, this spells disaster for the monkeys.

I wish that this post had a happy ending, but I guess it just wasn’t to be. One thing to be happy about is that Wrinkle Belly is still alive and well. I’m just hoping that the monkeys stay up high in the trees and far away from the dogs from now on. Thanks for reading.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Safe and Sound

Just a quick blog to let anyone out there who reads this know that we have arrived safe and sound back on Ometepe. Our trip was a bit harrowing, but I’m too tired to go into any detail. We arrived at the hacienda on Saturday night, and I still haven’t slept in or unpacked. I was over-eager to get back to the monkeys, so I’ve spent the last two days out in the forest, sweltering under the blistering tropical sun. Both days I’ve been with the South Group (that of Uno), so no report on WB yet. Tomorrow I plan on staying in (hooray, sleeping in past 4:40am!) to test some plant samples in the morning.

Thanks to friends and family for hosting us and going the extra mile at every occasion. Regretfully, I didn’t get to see any of the Anthro crowd; its amazing how fast time flies when you’ve only got a couple of days in each location.

Will blog more later when I’m caught up on sleep (ugh, that could be a while) or otherwise when something interesting happens. Oh, speaking of interesting things, a tourist told us that Concepción erupted yesterday… again. Over here on Volcan Maderas, we didn’t notice a thing!

Thanks again and miss you all. Until later then.