Time to wake up by Gideon Erkenswick
The alarm clock went off at 5 o’clock sharp and the first thought that crossed my mind was the 1.5-kilometer walk in the dark to our trap site. I rustled Mini to wake up and she was not feeling good. Apparently she had a rough time staying asleep during the night so I offered to go ahead and let her sleep in.
“No way that isn’t fair,” said Mini.
“Okay suit yourself, but I offered,” I replied.
She then put her head back down for a few more minutes of shuteye while I was in the bathroom. I finished with the bathroom and was just about to leave when Mini said “Deon (deee-in), are you sure you don’t mind?”
“Seriously I don’t mind,” said I.
“Okay then I’ll just sleep in until 6:30 and come straight out to meet you,” said Mini, to which I agreed and promptly left.
As I made my way from our cabin to the laboratory I heard a large something jump in a nearby tree, and being too dark to see, I knew it could only be owl monkeys. I flashed my light in the direction of the noise for a minute or two but only saw the tail end of a monkey like creature take off in the opposite direction.
Making my way first to the comedor to grab some snacks and then to the laboratory, I proceeded to prepare my pack, fill my water bottle and the banana bucket, clean Chiky’s traveling cage and then put him inside. Putting Chiky inside the traveling cage is no easy task. He’s a quick Basterd and when you finally get him he’ll thank you with a bite or two.
The last thing Chiky and I did before leaving to the jungle was put our names on the chalkboard along with our field location and expected return time. By this time the sky was starting to show some light but under the canopy it was still very dark. Everything was completely silent save a few of the jungle’s early risers and the station’s cook who was starting to boil some water for breakfast.
As I calculated, I needed to cover the 1.5 kilometers to the trap site in 15 minutes in order to get Chiky set-up on time. I would take the station’s widest and easiest trail, Aerodromo, for half the way and then a smaller up and down trail, Perro, for the rest. As I walked on Aerodromo I kept my eyes and ears attuned for any movements but my mind, for some reason, was wondering what it would be like if I encountered an angry miner along the way? I actually found it kind of exciting because this would be an area of the jungle I know better than my hometown. I could let the miner pursue me just long enough to get completely lost, and then I would casually make my way back to camp.
Needless to say, I hit the Perro intersection before the fantasy could come true and my mind returned to the situation at hand. Suddenly, as I neared within 200 meters of the trap site I heard saddleback calls and 100 meters later I confronted a handsome looking adult. He chirped at me as if to say, “Good morning but don’t dilly-dally,” which I responded to with my nonchalant, totally natural walk. Avoiding eye contact until out of sight, I took off like a lightening bolt to get Chiky ready. Not sure what Chiky was thinking at this point but sounded like he murmed "Don't be a spaz."
In any case, Chiky and I were set-up in record time, thanks to the fact that our bananas from yesterday were well positioned and uneaten. I started playing long saddleback calls using our I-Pod and speaker and Chiky occasionally chimed in too. Within 15 minutes we had attracted that same group of saddlebacks and it turned out to be 6 adults. When Chiky saw the group he went bonkers and I thought, “Now who’s the spaz!” To my disappointment the group only checked out Chiky and eyed a few bananas before strolling on to a larger fruiting tree. I stood listening to the little devils lip-smacking on some inferior fruit right next store while these delicious bananas just sat there.
After 10 minutes or so, I was starting to get really ticked off and considered playing more calls to bring them back, but to my surprise they naturally came round. A few adults revisited the trap site, again ignoring the bananas, but at least they were there. If they would stick around for awhile I knew that eventually they'd take the bait. Just then I started hearing more saddleback calls from towards the trail and moments later I had two new saddlebacks bounding my way. As they approached the other group started to retreat until eventually the new guys completely displaced them. Following behind the 2 new guys were 2 more adults and 2 twins. So now I had 6 saddlebacks in total, 4 adults 2 twins, and the previous 6 had completely disappeared.
From a distance I heard leaves rustling and maybe even a snort or two. I’m still watching this new group but the sounds of large movement are getting closer. In a few moments Mini popped up….
An unusual night by Mini Watsa
It was an unusual night for me for I am typically a really sound sleeper. In fact, I did sleep through some exciting stuff, like gunshots from hunters going for agouti or peccary across the river, but a little before midnight I was completely awake. Indeed I was convinced that it was 4am, that we had to jump out of bed momentarily, and that at any second, our little red alarm would go off right by Gideon’s head. I’m not sure what happened next but the next thing I know it is 1:34am, I am groggy and awake again and once more, it’s not time to go even though my body feels that it is. And so it went, false alarm after alarm, until the red clock burst into song for real and I was, of course, too exhausted to be roused.
“Take the morning and sleep in a little,” whispered Gideon kindly to me, as he slipped out the door.
Minutes later I woke up with a fright at a great amount of rustling outside the cabin.
“Gide..on?” I quivered?
“I’m looking for night monkeys!!” came the response – just a normal morning for him.
Exhaustion quickly took over and I was soon fast asleep. I finally awoke at about 7am and hurried down to the comedor. Don Pascual made me a nice warm fried egg over rice, soft and salty, and I washed it down with my favourite concoction, fondly known as Monkey Poo: 5 spoons of oatmeal, 2 spoons of cocoa powder, 2 spoons of powdered milk, some sugar, some Solenopsis ants with the sugar (unavoidable) and a dash of boiling water, purrfect for breakfast, tea and dessert.
I had a quick chat with Adrian about, maybe, bringing the girls back up toCICRA because the strike was being called off for a couple of days and we might be able to sneak the boat down. Adrian’s parents, who are from Cuba but living in the US now, are scheduled to arrive in Puerto on Friday. To their credit, they are far from panicking and are coming anyway. He’s going to go down to get them somehow, and possibly escort the girls back up, since this strike looks like it’s settling in for a longish round two. None of this is for certain because of the difficulties involved in planning it all, but I’m sure that he will eventually iron out all the kinks.
He’s a very determined guy, our Director. Born and raised in Cuba, he spent his childhood, from all accounts, chasing after the wildlife on the island. Island wildlife not taking too well to the arrival of humans, as usual, resulted in the fact that Cuba has a greatly reduced mammalian fauna. In fact, the only really interesting mammals, Adrian says, were the bats. So follow the bats he did.
He trapped them, examined them, got bitten by them, killed them and stuffed them. His collection lies (moulding slightly) somewhere even today and is remarkable for it is comprehensive taxonomically speaking. However, his real spirit of determination was made evident in a different context altogether.
“I hate them,” he said to me once, referring not to his beloved bats but to the cockroaches that inevitably roam his cabin, “so I kill them”.
Slightly startled at his vehement revelation, uttered at an early hour at the breakfast table, I looked up blearily at him. Taking this as encouragement he went on to describe a well thought-out plan for their extermination.
“Yogurt is the key,” he explained, “I take empty bottles of Gloria’s bebible yogurt and leave the caps off. The cockroaches cannot resist and they climb in and get stuck in the remnants. They slide down and can’t climb out.”
“Then I kill them.”
A very determined Director. If anyone were to be able to invite his parents to the field station, in the middle of a large mining strike, somehow get to the town and escort them to the station in spite of the strike, manage a gaggle of field assistants and purchase food supplies to restock our larder, it would be Adrian. After all, if he weren’t there to put out the yogurt bottles every night, who would? And he really, really hates cockroaches in his space.
My head filled with these and other ponderings, I set a brisk pace on the trail towards our new trap site. Backpack filled with supplies, book by David Quammen in my hand, rain jacket slung garishly over my shoulder, and a coupleof extra hours of sleep under by belt, I was ready for the day.
I almost stepped on it. That would have been terrible, and not just because I’d have poop on my boot but because it would be not just any poop, not even tamarin poop (which is small, like them) but incredible, malodorous, musky, and fresh otorongo poop. Panthera onca poop. The poop to top all other poop. Jaguar poop.
My mind clicked into alert as I stared at it, one foot on either side of the three fresh black lumps. Flies were already beginning to gather but, I only counted six. The ability for feces to attract all manner of life, from butterflies and crickets to dung beetles and wasps, is unimaginable – you just have to linger after defecating to see the spectacle unfold. Fecal matter, especially human fecal matter, claims Adrian Forsyth, is an utterly delectable treat for a wide variety of critters. The pungent aroma drifts on the breeze, signaling the presence of a meal above all others. They flock to it in droves and everyone wants their share. They hoard it in pockets on their legs, in large balls in their arms, and even consume it on the spot. They roll around in it, exhilarated by the sheer nutrient overload that is available to them. Poop is incredible as bait.
Here I stood over the king of all poop in the jungle, possibly the largest and most attractive feast next to the one a human can produce. My heart was torn. I really needed to meet Gideon and help out with the trap site, but otorongo poop, is just not something you walk away from.
It is credit to my dedication to my partner and my job that I didn’t bring my camera out. I set off at a brisk jog down the trail, seeing the intersection of Perro looming before me. Rather relieved to be putting some distance between myself and the big cat, I kept up a slow jog down the trail. Clambering down the ravine and up the other side, I had to slow down to catch my breath… which was when I noticed the second poop samples. Lying in the centre of the trail, looking a little worse for wear, was an identical piece of poop, accompanied by some striking scratch marks right next to it. The smell of piss was strong, reminding me of Lily times ten.
Having made my choice, I carried on towards Gideon, arriving at the trap site, my heart thudding in my chest. By this point, visions of either myself or Gideon or (worse!) Chiky being eaten and pooped out by a big cat were crashing around in my brain, giving me the impetus I needed to cover ground quickly while not running.
[Rule # 1: don’t run when you see a cat] – check!
[Rule # 2: try to appear bigger] – fat chance!
Gasping I landed up fifteen metres from our mosquito net blind, to find Gideon standing outside it, binoculars and writing pad in hand. I whistled softly. Without turning around he told me that I could approach.
Lo and behold, as they say in that wonderful book of fables, there were monkeys everywhere!
The Return Journey
This was not going to get better really. The animals had seen Chiky, shown great interest in him, eaten at least one piece of banana judging by a peel dangling lazily off a bit of brush, and now they were done playing around. Time to go, for us and them.
We packed up our things and headed back, leaving my camera out of the bag this time. At the 275-metre marker on Perro, we slowed down, placing our feet carefully on the leaf litter, eyes scanning for the poop. Gideon walked right by it but having seen it just an hour or so ago, I recognized the scratch marks. The poop, unfortunately, was all gone, devoured by its biggest fans the bugs. Some latecomers were still rooting about near where it lay, no doubt slurping up the last delicious pieces from off the leaves.
Moving along at a fast pace we headed back towards Trail Aerodromo. Bursting out of the jungle, we found marker 625 with no difficulty. There it lay, enshrined in a patch of golden sunlight, a delectable buffet half consumed by gourmands of various orders of insects. Mercifully, there were 1.5 pieces still left, about half the amount that was originally there. Thinking that this teaches us something about the rate at which such foods are consumed, I quickly snapped some photographs with a pen for scale. Gideon shooed the bugs away and carefully gathered up the poop onto a large leaf.
In the process, he managed to tip it over, so the underside now lay exposed to the atmosphere. Immediately a fine mist of scent arose, sneaking it’s way into our nostrils, making Chiky take a startled step backwards. Being careful to keep it downwind of us, we hastily made our way back to camp, just a few steps ahead of the horde of angry customers who had paid for their brunches and now wanted their money back.
Along the way, about 150 metres from home, we spotted another set of scratch marks on the trail, but no poop.
Clearly, there was a jaguar in our midst. In fact, all this tied up rather nicely with the fecal sample that was collected from within the camp, full of gristle and fat, by Adrian and Emeterio a day or two ago. Our minds on the strike, we’d hastily set it aside and continued preparing camp for evacuation to the jungle.
So we took the sample directly to Emeterio, who has lived for five or more years at CICRA and is in fact, the person who founded the community of Boca Amigos down the river from us. Emeterio works with the short-eared dog on site, playing father and keeper and somehow juggling a part-time job as man-of-all-trades at camp. Right now he was on the roof of the cement dormitories, helping to lay a new roof. A big smile wreathing his face, he confirmed that it was, indeed, heces des otorongo.
He scurried off to put it in the dessicator. Later it will make its way to a lab somewhere to be analysed along with the other samples we collect here at CICRA.
He also informed us that this sort of behaviour, scratching near the poop, and thepresence of so much of it indicates that there is a slight struggle for territories going on. In fact, we’re in the presence of more than one otorongo!
Adrian adds to it later the exciting fact that other than a large male and an adult female (termed Sue), there had been two sightings of a black jaguar at the camp in 2008.
Three otorongos, two groups of primates, and Chiky the Monstrous Monkey – I bet that I’ll sleep very contentedly tonight!