The splendid news that a wild group was finally habituated to our traps left me with a veritable smorgasbord of emotions and thoughts. Why, oh why, had I told them not to trap?! What if it never happens again? Oh man! It really happened though! That’s the important thing! Bollocks – it’s only worth something when you have concrete evidence of it. What if this is the beginning of the whole trapping spree I’d planed for October and November last year? Worse, what if it’s not! Jean 4 could be an outlier you know. And so on, and so on.
Luckily, we had so much to do that it had to end eventually, with more pressing matters at hand.
“Right,” said I, “Let’s practice!”
The plan was this: Gideon would go to the field site, replace the cage with architecturally superior one, re-string the doors, and await our arrival. We would snarf breakfast, grab Chiky, fill two large backpacks with the trapping supplies, grab tarps, nets and string for the processing centre, and of course, more banana for bait.
The night before the day, we set up a mock scenario, identifying down to the very last detail the responsibilities of everybody during the full 2 hours it would take to process two animals. We rehearsed it till we could recite it from memory. Just in case, Karina and Erin, who were to be the main handlers, wrote it all out on a piece of Rite-in-the-Rain paper and were going to pin it up inside the net. Emma collected all the materials she would need to collect fresh poop samples from each animal. Gideon examined every single zip-tie holding the best of our cages together and tested and re-tested the doors, ensuring no escapes and no rough edges that could hurt the animals. I fluttered about like a particularly mindless butterfly, examining for the umpteenth time our trapping supplies, playing the blood-draw procedure in my head on repeat.
Eventually, it was time to go to bed and we all departed, nervousness racking us with no hope for respite.
The morning dawned dark and thunderous, threatening rain. It had already rained all night, and the canopy was dripping. We jumped out of bed and got dressed hurriedly while it was still almost dark out. We made it to the lab to find Erin there, bright-eyed and awake, feeding Chiky his first bit of fruit for the morning. I realized that the canopy probably made it sound like it was raining a lot harder than it really was, and that Karina and Emma were probably under the impression that we were not going to be out that early, since they lived in small cabins in the jungle. Figuring that they would eventually join us, Erin and I got all our stuff packed. In ten minutes, the other girls were there, gushing their apologies, which I brushed off with little attention. We needed to pack and get all our things strapped together. And somewhere in there, we would have to eat, because lunch would most definitely be delayed by the success of our venture. If it were successful, of course.
Gideon had rushed out with the trap a full forty-five minutes before we were ready to leave. By now, I was betting that he’d be furious at how late we were. This energized us quite a bit, and we pushed to get there in time, trying to remember all the things we would need out there.
Finally, our grueling 20-minute walk done with, we deposited all our goods on the trail next to where the trap was set. Above it was a beautiful tangle of lianas that Jean 4 loved to groom on. Gideon and Erin set about covering all the appropriate spots with tiny pieces of banana – enough to remind them of how good plátanos taste but not quite enough to prevent them from going to the trap for more.
In the meanwhile, I helped Emma and Karina clear out a proper space on the trail and find four trees, two on either side, to tie up the mosquito net to. We laid down the bottom tarp and then strung the net up at just the right height to leave a little bit of net tucked in under the tarp. When this was done, the light green mesh would effectively hide us from prying eyes, and with our binoculars, would not hinder a direct line of sight to the trap. Everything set up at the trap, and Chiky in position and calling a little, Gideon and Erin returned to help lay the final touch to the processing centre – a large tarp covering the whole thing, forming little covered porch areas around the net, to protect us from rain.
It was just as well that we added this tarp because no sooner had we put our things in place that it began to drizzle. Now rain in the jungle is a different thing from rain in wide-open spaces, unless of course it is really heavy rain you are talking about. I’m referring to the kind of rain that is beyond a light drizzle that will get you wet in about ten minutes. It makes very little sound as it arrives over you, and it only gradually soaks through all your clothing. In the soccer field, you’d realize it was there immediately, and take appropriate measures. Under tree cover, you’d only know when it reached the stage at which the whole canopy began to release voluminous drops of water, splashing down on everything, with immense power to wet you and your belongings. Having spent some time in the canopy, acquiring more little droplets, each final product that descends to the understory is a powerful wetting agent. Furthermore, unlike out on a soccer field, the canopy continues to drip for hours after the rain itself has stopped!
It was with heavy hearts therefore that we realized that the day, this day, was going to be a wet one. The girls huddled under the net, discussing strategy while Gideon and I manned the strings. We played recorded calls from speakers hidden under our jackets and cursed that the sound traveled barely any distance with all the noise the rain was making. We quickly brought Chiky in, under the tarp, to wait out the wettest bits. He snuggled into a warm and dry towel, pulling it over his head ad ignoring the world. Occasionally he popped out for a bit of grooming and TLC, offered to him by one of his faithful assistants sticking a little finger in and giving him a good rub.
Finally, the inevitable happened. The rain tarp started to leak. Big, clumsy puddles started to collect in the littler tarp we put under the rain tarp. These in turn weighed the net down, making the girls duck inside. Gideon was force to return to camp for a new tarp, which he managed to locate in record time. This little disaster averted, he took a much-needed break to eat some breakfast that I’d brought him in a Tupperware container, fondly referred to as the tapers.
These plastic containers are not to be confused with tapirs, one of whom made a classic entrance into our lives shortly after. I was standing out in the rain, eating a particularly wonderful cookie that had recently arrived at the station (chocolate biscuits enclosing a creamy substance half strawberry and half mint), staring vacantly at the now dripping trap, letting my mind wander rather inevitably, like a homing pigeon, to the fact that I was never going to trap 80 animals. Suddenly, a big commotion about 5 metres away from me startled me out of my reverie. Cookie half-eaten in one hand, the group rushed over to me to find me standing them, jaw hitting the floor. When my stunned mind finally comprehended the sight I’d seen, I realized that it could have been none other than a really, large tapir that had stumbled onto the trapping site. The animal I saw was in the process of making a u-turn of sorts, and it was as tall as my shoulders, blackish in colour and had legs as large as a man’s. In fact, my first thought was, ‘who the hell is that guy??’
We’re a funny lot, the PrimatesPeru team. In the event that one sees a really unusual and rare animal, one tends to react instinctively, without much thought or reason. Consider for a moment, our separate reactions. Minutes after the incident you could find Gideon, running after the animal, binoculars in hand like some rabid explorer. Erin, forgot to put on her boots (no boots inside the processing centre) and was standing by me in sopping wet socks. Karina was cracking up at Erin’s feet while Emma quizzed me on what I saw. I just stood there, mouth agape, now doubt with cookie entrails all over my face…staring. Classic.
Upon recovering our dignity somewhat, we returned to the centre, only to find that a colony of army ants had decided to explore the area this morning. Numbering in the thousands, these ants of the genus Eciton are remarkably able foragers. Several species of birds and beetles have evolved to forage alongside the huge winding colonies of ants because the jungle’s small wildlife, literally flees at the sight. The birds dive in for a freaked out bug or two while the beetles go for smaller prey. The ants are relentless in their searching. They use scent to attract their compatriots and the swarm moves out each day, to bring back food for the queen and her eggs. At night, the whole colony will link up their arms and legs (if one can refer to them as that!) and form a giant nest of ants, guarding the queen within the trunk of a hollow tree. Every so often, they move the nesting site to a new location, identified and staked out by yet another column of ants. The only thing you need to really know about these ants is that they are relentless and will climb anything, and in order to get to their goal they will bite. Once an army ant has attached itself painfully to you, you may rip off what you can of the ant only to find the mandible still embedded in you…still twitching.
The sight of the colony gave me the shivers. This day, with its rain and ants, was really turning out to be crappy.
Gideon came over and we held a little consultation.
“Do you think we should go back?” he asked.
“No! It’s only 8 o’clock G…can’t we wait it out a little longer?”
“You know that you can come back tomorrow…they will still make an appearance. All our shit is getting wet!”
“Okay, we stick it out till 10, then we leave”
Thank goodness we did, for literally ten minutes after the girls started to move the centre to a new spot, 50m down the trail, they were stopped in their tracks by the arrival of Jean 4. Clutching Gideon in excitement we looked beseechingly over at Chiky, who obligingly uttered a loud and piercing long-call. The group responded and steadily made their way over, running in the treetops right above the trail, with the girls below them trying to look innocent and transfer trapping materials down the road.
What can I say? Chiky is irresistible and so are the plátanos. In under sixty seconds, three of the four entered the trap compartments and we pulled the strings shut. Then followed a long and painful twenty minutes while the last animal, clearly the juvenile, displayed a comprehensive lack of knowledge of foraging. She climbed all over the trap but to the front, hung upside down from it in an attempt to reach the bananas within the trap and sat annoyingly on top of the compartments with her family, tantalizing both them and us. Finally, a little tamarin light bulb went off and she discovered the front opening. When she jumped in, I’d all but lost circulation in my fingers from tying the string so tight around them!
But none of that mattered! We had them! We had FOUR of them! One. Whole. Group. It was electrifying!
Emma ran over and took over the strings while we secured the doors. The animals thrashed about inside most worryingly and we rushed to get the job done. In the meanwhile, Erin and Karina, after having set up the whole processing centre just the way they needed it to be, were re-doing it at a new location with twice as much pressure.
We brought the animals over and covered the trap with a tarp, quieting them considerably. Then we rushed back to bring Chiky close to us and he received a very big piece of banana for doing such an excellent job.
Soon we had two of them down and the processing began. We were able to use a new system that utilized all of us to the maximum extent possible. As such, I didn’t worry about writing anything down and simply asked for the materials I needed to do blood draws, etc. The girls handled their end remarkably well for their first time at processing the animals independently. We got every single thing we needed save blood from the young juvenile, who was too small to sample successfully. It took us two hours to process the first two and one hour for the second pair.
Halfway through, when we’d just finished the first pair of individuals, Gid and Erin stepped out to wash them and put them in a comfortable recovery cage, complete with towels and bananas. That was when they noticed the ants. The colony had apparently not found anything interesting and was drifting inexorably down the trail towards us.
Yes, we had to move one more time, to a third location. It took us about 30 minutes, but then again, we’d had a lot of practice doing it recently!
Finally, at about 3pm, we were all done. The girls left to get some lunch and take Chiky back for his daily quota of bugs at the station. He had been a real trooper and we decided to let him have the next day off, eating and playing in the Royal Palace all day. Gideon and I set up shop one last time, brought the two recovery cages into the mosquito nets with us, covered them with our jackets and lay back in exhaustion.
And happiness. Satisfaction. Some disbelief. A big dollop of oh-my-gawwwdness.
We had four more to add to the tally. It went remarkably smoothly and everyone was safe. We only had to wait till 5pm to let them go back out, and stop monitoring them.
When five came around, they and us were glad to be off. They shot off chirruping madly and we gave chase till they went up a sleeping tree we had seen them use before. All four were awake, coherent and very glad to be out. There was really nothing more we could ask for.
The day was everything we’d hoped it would be. And some. After all, how often can you claim that a tapir sighting is NOT the highlight of your day??