Sunday, March 28, 2010

Will you be a lousy scab, or will you be a man?

Part of my insistence on adequate preparation for my next traveling experience - rain forest or otherwise - lies in the fact that I feel sort of disjointed here. I am in a rain forest. But nothing about it suggests to me that it is specifically a rain forest in Peru, that it is the Amazon. I place the blame for this mostly on myself - as I mentioned earlier it's mostly my poor knowledge of Spanish and, I would assume, my poor knowledge of what organisms I'm seeing here place me specifically herein the Peruvian Amazon. In Kenya, we were almost, or even more, isolated than here. A four hour drive through the desert to the nearest internet cafe is far more cut off from outside than I am here with my daily internet access. I can't imagine any sort of equivalent here of finding out about Michael Jackson's death via BBC Swahili on a static-distorted radio in the middle of Turkana. But in Turkana, I was completely immersed in the local culture concurrent with fieldwork. Here, I know very little about what's happening in Lima, 4 hours down river, or even on the illegal mining barge across the way. Consequently, what intrusions of reality and context there are into my monkey-chasing haven come as quite as a surprise.

To wit - earlier this month, the Peruvian minister of the environment fundamentally changed the situation for the Madre de Dios district of Peru. In a place where more than 2/3 of the economy relies in some fashion on illegal gold mining to function, suggestions that mining be better regulated (or really, regulated at all), do not go over well. But - that's what has happened. This minister has announced that, among other things, illegal miners will be evicted from the river patches they are mining; in order to be legal, all miners must include an environmental recovery plan; no mining is allowed on the northern shore of the Madre de Dios river; and the use of mercury is no longer allowed, even for legal miners. Predictably, this has infuriated a large portion of the Madre de Dios populace.

Perhaps less predictably, a certain amount of the blame for these new restrictions has been incorrectly placed on CICRA and its parent organization, ACCA. ACCA is interested in creating corridors linking CICRA's concession with another conservation concession further away. They have been talking to private landowners about using undeveloped land for this corridor. For a variety of reasons, though, miners have decided this means CICRA wants to buy up all the land in the area and stop all mining. In recent weeks, folks connected to CICRA have been kicked out of mining towns up river, and vaguely threatened. The threats have gotten more specific, and have been coming from closer and closer to home, especially as we get closer to a planned mining strike on April 4th. These include things like burning down the building at CICRA that houses the library and labs, and trashing other parts of the facilities.

Unfortunately, this means we have to stop everything and evacuate down to Puerto Maldonado. I head down on a boat with the other members of the monkey team in the next couple of days, and we will be hanging out there until the situation calms down - at least April 9, it looks like. We're moving the contents of the lab out into the middle of the jungle in case something does happen, but we're hopeful that the miners will have calmed down and not be interested in actually trashing anything. In an effort to encourage their non-interest, a number of members of the Peruvian military who patrol the Madre de Dios River will be staying at the research station and looking impressive, I guess. We all should be perfectly safe in Puerto, though, and hopefully nothing will happen to CICRA. It is bizarre, though, being on the side of The Man oppressing the common folks in this strike situation. The gold mining industry brings all sorts of complications, but watching this clash of environment and economic development unfold in front of me is really interesting. I just hope my books don't get burned up in the process!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A resolution

I’m sitting on a tarp beneath a mosquito net on the western edge of the Peruvian Amazon. A day of waiting for the monkeys to appear – “Bring a book,” Mini suggests, “otherwise you’re likely to fall asleep.” Sitting in my little bug-free cone, I do get drowsy. The muggy air penetrates what mosquitoes, grasshoppers, and startlingly large red ants can only shuiffle around on in search of a good hole (cleverly covered with duct tape). I am embarrassingly ambivalent about the magic of what is going on aroud me. In the bird song and titi calls, I could discover a thousand dramas – instead, I read a dystopic novel. In the interactions of the three different kinds of ant on my net, I could learn brutal military tactics, but I am content to nibble on some chocolate covered saltines (probably the reason they’re drawn here, anyway).

Rustling in the dry leaves below a liana catches my attention in spurts over the course of an hour. I see movement through the mesh, but can’t ascribe it to anything specific. Sure that it’s not a monkey, and reasonably sure it’s not a snake, I let the noise fade into the background until finally – a giant toad hops out slowly and laboriously. Literally the size of a dinner plate, flat and brown with huge unblinking eyes, he sits and catches his beath, making one good hop every five minutes or so until he has passed out of my sight. I’ve seen other toads like him on the path to my cabin. Their eyes glow purple when they catch my headlight, and they freeze when they know they’ve been seen. They don’t seem too concerned with defense mechanisms, apparently trusting camouflage and a definite air of “I will not be very tasty” to protect them from whatever comes calling.

A little while later, I am distracted from my collection of wildlife essays by movement out of the corner of my eye. I watch a quarter-size spider delicately climb up the mosquito net, hooking each leg into a different hole and gliding past eye level. Last night, Marco brought out a tarantula to show to a visiting group of students. Black fur on an impossibly large body and many-segmented legs with pink fuzzy feet (tarantula slippers) moved from his arm to my hand, crawled up to my elbow and back down to settle over my watch, not really interested in leaving. Eventually, Marco coaxed the spider back, leaving my arm with a vague sensation of lingering spider webs and prickly feet.

I have resolved to know more about everything next time I am in a forest. I’m almost three months in the Puervian Amazon and, though I can speak with certainty about monkeys I’ve seen three or four times, I can’t identify the brilliantly colored grasshoppers with wings that scatter every time I take a step. I can pick out titis and emperor tamarins in the early morning choir of animals waking up, but I can only name one or two of the birds I hear every day. Trees my monkeys eat from regularly are identifiable, but what good are Naucleopsis naga and Inga alba in an entire forest? And, while a constant smile and a smattering of regular Spanish verb conjugations are helpful, I get so frustrated when it is HARD to explain that yesterday morning, the monkeys climbed down an embankment and we followed them. Next time, I will be prepared. I will speak the language, I will hear the sounds. When I have the chance to spend a whole morning in the middle of it all without trying to keep up with small, speedy primates and just watch and absorb – I will leave the books behind.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


To see a place from the right perspective, I’ve come to realize you have to take advantage of whatever mode of transportation most people use to get around on a regular basis. Have you really been to NYC if you haven’t taken the Subway? Amsterdam without a bicycle? Manchester without a Segway? Nairobi without taking a matatu? Puerto Maldonado without a motorcycle?

We’re spending our mid-season break in Puerto Maldonado, a bustling port town where the Tambopata River meets the Madre de Dios. It’s the biggest city in the Peruvian Amazon, a jumping off point for tourists heading to ecolodges, a staging ground for mining operations both legal and illegal, an important stop on the Interoceanic Highway which cuts across South America from Lima to Brazil (exposing miles and miles of the Amazon to illegal settlements, hunting, and agricultural pressure), and the center of regional government. A town with at least four pizza places (though one recently burned down), a great bookstore, several mercados, an Indian restaurant, a variety of discotecas, and heladerias selling ice cream in deliciously exotic flavors like Brazil Nut and Passion Fruit (my two personal favorites), Puerto is a nice diversion from the isolation and occasional deprivation of the rainforest. I won’t tell you how much ice cream I’ve had in the past three days.

Conveniently for us, a bunch of other usual CICRA residents are also in Puerto Maldonado with us. It’s really funny watching people I’m used to seeing moderately to quite dirty in field clothes and mud-covered boots wandering the city looking clean, fancy, but weird in clean jeans, dresses, fancy sandals – sometimes even jewelry! In a series of impulse buys, I’ve bought two dresses, a pair of pretty flip flops, and matching pairs of earrings (of course, it’s added up to about 30 dollars, so I’m not too upset). We’ve gone out dancing twice, played Settlers of Catan with some added twists, and, as I said, eaten a shameful amount of ice cream. It’s been really fun interacting with people in a completely different environment, though. One of the guys who’s around right now is Marco. At CICRA, he’s perhaps best described as the mechanic – he deals with the generator, the water, the lawnmower, some trail maintenance, etc. etc. etc. He’s probably in his mid- to early twenties, and has been hanging out with the monkey team for the past couple of evenings. He also happens to own a motorcycle.

Though Puerto has a lot of people, it doesn’t extend over a HUGE space. Most people get around walking, taking tuk-tuks (three-wheeled, three-seater motorized rickshaws), or by motorcycle. There are motorcycle taxis (one sol for a trip to the plaza, vs. two soles to go by tuk-tuk). Entire families ride on the same motorcycle: Father driving with a four-year-old in front of him holding onto the handles, mother sitting behind him with an infant on her lap. Teenage boy with grandmother’s hands wrapped around his waist, two brothers, two sisters, everyone has a motorcycle. At the discoteca, a lot of people were dancing with their motorcycle helmets still on!

Sunday night at the Discoteca, Marco offered to take us out on his motorcycle to see Puerto, if we wanted. I jumped at the opportunity! So yesterday afternoon, he showed up at the hotel and we went and tooled around. He showed me the port on Madre de Dios where there were giant trucks lined up waiting to cross the river via ferry, as the bridge is still in the “there are two supports erected which were built 10 years ago and have no more funding to actually build a bridge” stage of the project. We went to the much less built-up Tambopata port, and continued up and around through all sorts of parts of town, frightening a number of dogs who were in the road and splashing through an impressive number of puddles. We also stopped at the Tower that overlooks Puerto Maldonado, which you can climb up for 2 soles per person. In my continuing effort to stop being afraid of heights so that I can climb the 60 meter tower at CICRA before I leave Peru, we climbed up this one. It was really beautiful – a thunderstorm was approaching and we could see the lightning through the clouds. It was getting dark, the lights were all visible for a distance until there were no more lights and it was just rainforest forever and ever. The oppressive humidity and heat were dissipated because of wind from the approaching storm … it was pretty wonderful, and almost enough to forget how high up I was!

I’m sort of hoping Marco will be interested in going back out around on the motorcycle in the next couple of days – maybe I’ll learn how to DRIVE a motorcycle, too! If a motorcycling primatologist in the Amazon isn’t intrepid … I don’t know what is.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Late night in the Amazon

It is 11:30 at night – later than I’ve stayed up in a little more than two months. A course from a university in Pennsylvania has just wrapped up their last night at CICRA and bought two cases of beer for everyone from Boca Amigo, the settlement just downriver that keeps illegal miners supplied with alcohol and prostitutes. After the group of students finished their beers, they headed off to bed, leaving the researchers to sit and ponder and finish off what alcohol was left. To one side of me, there is an intense discussion about body image and advertising. To the other, there is an equally intense discussion about potential raunchy Spanish nicknames for a member of my team. The owl monkey bounces along the table across from me, curling up on the arm of a researcher studying primate seed dispersal and I stifle a yawn – ashamed to be so sleepy that I can’t fully participate in any of these possibilities.

Conversation continues to swirl around me – how to market ecotourism, kissing in Bollywood movies, so on, and so forth. By about 11:45, the gathering begins to break up to head bedwards. On our way out, we see light flashing in the sky over the cliff, and everyone heads towards the boardwalk outside the Concrete Dorm to see what is happening.

The sky is completely clear above us. We can’t see the moon, but the Milky Way is stretching right overhead. After a few minutes of looking straight up, several people have seen shooting stars. What’s really amazing, though, is the foothills of the Andes. 70 km south of us, the mountains are obscured by clouds stretching along the horizon. An immense lightning storm is spread across the sky. Horizontal strikes of lightning split the sky and illuminate the clouds. Like an appreciative crowd at a fireworks’ show, everybody Oohs and Aahs at each fork of lightning. I don’t think I can really describe how beautiful it is, standing at the edge of a cliff looking out over the Madre de Dios River, across a huge expanse of forest, and into the Andes, watching this storm approach us.

We stand on the cliff watching for maybe 15 minutes. The ant queens flying around and biting my ankles somehow take a little bit of the magic out of the night, but it all returns when I fall asleep in my bed to the sound of geckos hunting crickets on the screens above my head.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Trapping Tamarins

The main emphasis of Mini’s dissertation is on genetic chimerism in tamarins. Tamarins are unique in a bunch of ways, but one of them is that tamarins habitually have twins. Due to a quirk of the placenta, the blood vessels that supply the twins overlap and cross, and on occasion, bits of stem cells transfer between individuals. Depending on what the cells end up becoming, this can have really interesting consequences. A baby tamarin may have its sibling’s liver cells, or some of its fur, or – in the most exciting cases – its gametes. This means that an animal has the potential to give birth to its sibling’s child. Mini wants to know if this has behavioral effects, especially relating to parenting. The most important thing, then, is to know the genetics of a whole bunch of different bits – hair, nails, blood, sperm, etc. Not the easiest thing to collect in the wild, so one of the things we’ve been doing is attempting to trap groups. This serves the dual purpose of allowing us to put indentifying marks on the monkeys – a radio collar, beaded necklaces, dyed tails – while collecting genetic information.

On March 5, the day’s plan was to trap Jean 4 and FC. We have wire platforms and traps (basically compartments with swinging doors that we can tie closed) dispersed around the jungle in places we know groups hang out, with bananas sitting on them. Jean 4 is a group that we’ve been following pretty consistently, but have yet to trap, and FC is our marked group. We still needed some genetic information from RC, the presumed mother, and the two twins who were too young to be anesthetized when they were initially trapped. Unfortunately, when we went out to trap Jean 4, we realized that what we thought was tamarins eating bananas from traps had actually been capuchin monkeys. So we called that pretty quickly. Karina, Emma and I went out to follow FC for the rest of the day when (surprise) it began to pour! FC went and hid in a bramble while the three of us went to wait out the rain in the lab.

Mini and Gideon were heading back to the lab at the same time (they were much dryer than us because they took a tarp out with them!). They were really excited to hear that FC was so close, so we put up a trap that had been taken down earlier. Emma and Karina stayed with FC, who were still in their bramble, while the rest of us set up the trap. Eventually, all of FC moved around the trap. RC and GPG grabbed the bananas off the top of the trap and the doors while everyone else was swarming around trying to decide if the metal was dangerous, if the bananas were worth chancing the metal, and (once they did), how the heck to get back out! RC was the first monkey we trapped, followed by Twin 2, GBR, and GPG. They get really irritated when they’re trapped, and try really hard to get out – squeaking, struggling, pushing against the mesh, etc. Twin 1 was the only saddleback out of the trap when a group of emps came and investigated the trap. There were about five emps swarming around and in the trap – at least one emp went in the empty compartment and ate bananas, and several emps scent marked and climbed around the top of the trap, especially around GPG. She was not impressed.

Twin 1 was scared off of the trap by the emps and spent the next 20 minutes or so climbing around the back of the trap, between the bottom of the trap and the platform, on trees around the trap, and up on top of it. Gideon approached in the hopes that he could catch Twin 1 if he wouldn’t get in the trap, and also to scare away the emps. The strings of all the compartments except for GBR’s were tied to a tree, and we were focused on getting 1 in a compartment when GPG broke through the mesh of her compartment and escaped. After that happened e decided then to let GBR go and take RC and Twin 2 in to be processed, while GPG, GBR, and Twin 1 stayed out, as it was late enough that we’d need to keep the trapped animals overnight.
Karina and Emma followed the rest of FC to their sleeping site while Mini, Gideon and I prepped the lab for processing. After a little while, we decided to go ahead and start processing Twin 2. I started out just taking notes – noting the weather, times of injection, what samples were being taken, stuff like that. But once RC also was given Ketamine and Karina and Emma came in, I just held on to Twin 2 and started taking data and keeping her cool. We had a wide variety of things to get – fecal samples, cheek swabs, blood samples, stuff like that. We also took a dental cast (baby tamarins have REALLY TINY teeth!) and tried to bleach her tail to make her more distinct from Twin 1. After her bleach had been in for about 30 minutes, I got to give her a bath to wash the excess bleach out. Soaking wet baby tamarins are pretty adorable.

After we finished processing both RC and Twin 2, we put them in the recovery cage. They were definitely groggy, and sort of wobbled around for a little while. We put banana and water in and covered the cage up. When Mini checked on them later that night, Twin 2 was asleep on top of RC. The trapping experience was really cool – it gave me a lot of perspective on the monkeys. They look so big when you’re watching them. Well, that’s a lie. But they definitely look larger than when you’re holding them in your hand. Twin 2 literally fit in the palm of my hand. Her hands were clasped around my finger and she was NOT letting go. 160 grams of monkey is not a whole lot.

Hopefully we'll be trapping more in the future - the problem has been getting them to go IN the trap. We use playbacks of saddleback calls to get them to come to the traps, but they get so caught up trying to find who was calling that they never actually sit down and eat bananas. Mini and Gideon have an agreement with a rehabilitation center to borrow a baby tamarin rescued from the pet trade. He's going to be staying with us for the next couple of months and when we trap, we'll put him out to call to the other monkeys so that they'll go in to investigate. He's set to come next week, so hopefully I'll have lots more trapping stories to tell!!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Who'll stop the rain?

While the rest of the world has its crazy weather and geological events, we’ve been experiencing, well, pretty much what you might expect for the rainforest. Today was the first day in four days that we weren’t rained out of the field (and it poured on us during the afternoon for a number of days before that). I wrote a little about rain in the rainforest earlier, but now I feel like I’m practically an expert. Days frequently start out grey – at least hazy – so you can’t always tell by looking at the sky what the afternoon will bring. Some of the most worrying, greyest clouds in the morning portend really beautiful, sunny afternoons. And the converse is true. But for the past couple of days, it’s just RAINED. And RAINED and RAINED.

When we’re out in the forest following monkeys and it’s raining, there are a number of variables that determine what you do. How hard is it raining? Are you following FC (the marked group), or are you following a new group? How far from camp are you? What time is it? Following FC with even light rain can be sort of pointless because we depend on voice recorders to get most of our data on the twins’ behavior, and they are not to get wet. FC is usually close enough to CICRA that you can head back after maybe 20 minutes to half hour of steady rain and not feel too bad. If you don’t have a raincoat with you, you can maybe even cut a little while off of that (and most days, if it rained the day previously my raincoat is soaked and I can’t stick it in my backpack or it will mold and make me smell). Once it stops raining, you can head back out and use the radio telemetry equipment to find where the group is now.

On the other hand, if you’re following a new group, it usually means that you’re at least a 20 minute hike from camp. It also means that you have no way of finding the group again if you leave them to get out of the rain. We don’t leave a new group unless it’s POURING for a substantial period of time, and even then, more often than not we’ll stick with the group. Especially if it’s the afternoon, it means you’ve put four or five hours into sticking with the group. Losing them before you get a sleeping site means that you have to start out scouting for a new group all over again the next morning – it’s worth getting soaked to know where they’re sleeping and where to find them tomorrow. We’ve started bringing tarps with us to scout in case it rains. Our rain activities in the field include gossiping, reminiscing about food (apple crisp and diet coke are my biggest cravings right now), singing Disney songs, and thinking of songs about rain.

Generally when it rains, the tamarins head up into a bramble in a tree and hide there until the rain stops. They’re small enough monkeys, and it rains heavily enough (especially as water collects in the canopy and falls in bigger drops), that it could do some damage and maybe knock a twin out of a tree, or something like that. It also gets very slippery, as one unwitting tamarin found out. Gideon and I were scouting a new group one afternoon and it started pouring. However, it started raining at 2:45. Doing the calculations, we decided that a potential two hours of getting wet would be worth it to get this group’s sleeping site. But then we saw tamarins moving about 30 meters away from the bramble we were CONVINCED our monkeys were hiding in, and we ran to find them. “What weird tamarin behavior,” we commented, but figured we just had a renegade group that wasn’t scared of the rain. After about two hours of running around in circles in this patch of forest, we determined that we’d scared up a new group of tamarins – at least 14 monkeys in one group! They were moving from one tree to another, and I was following to find their sleeping tree while Gideon was getting an official count of monkeys in the group, when the monkey I was running under (who was carrying a twin) suddenly slipped and fell out of the tree! I stared up in shock at this monkey growing larger and larger above me, and suddenly he bounced off of my shoulder! He hit the ground softly (most of the fall having been absorbed by my body), stared at me in his own shock, and scrambled up a tree with the twin! “Gideon,” I yelled, “they definitely have a twin! The monkey carrying him just fell on me!” Gideon, not really paying attention to me, shouted back, “OK, Erin.” I didn’t think he’d heard what he said, so I told him again when we were wrapping up for the afternoon. The reaction was much more in line with what I expected.

If it’s raining in the morning when we get up for breakfast, we generally don’t go out until it stops raining. For the past couple of days, that’s translated into “we generally don’t go out.” The rain’s been toying with us – yesterday morning, for example, it was cloudy but not raining until we were literally stepping outside of the lab, all DEET-ed and prepared to head out. And then it began to pour. If we get rained out, we do data entry until everyone’s computer runs out of batteries, and we work on things around the lab. Sometimes we watch movies (yesterday, we watched The Proposal AND the Hangover. Very high brow entertainment). We’ve also become compulsive Settlers of Catan players! I’ve only won one game, but it’s a lot of fun! I never thought that trading things for sheep could be quite so entertaining.

We were greeted this morning by the welcome sight of blue sky breaking through the cloud cover. The sun fought its way out for most of the morning – only two hours of rain all day! Keep your fingers crossed for tomorrow. I think I’m going to be permanently pruny when I get out of here!