Where are you, Bekantan?
It's beginning of May 2017 and I'm stepping off the plane in city called Balikpapan, located in Borneo island of Indonesia. Unlike the majority of my fellow passengers, I don't visit Balikpapan for business or vacation, my task is quite extraordinary. I'm lured to this part of the world by really extraordinary creature, Proboscis monkey (Nasalis larvatus) or Bekantan – as locals call it. This highly significant primate habitats mangrove forests within the bay, which starts just at the end of the city. Previous researches showed that local population consists of approximately 1400 individuals, which is among seven largest known populations. My task is to measure development of this population after last survey in 2012.
I am accompanied by one of the highest ranked Czech primatologists, Stan Lhota, who is able to give me all necessary background information for the research, as he did it himself in 2007 as well, and also for the vast majority of conservation actions within Balikpapan Bay. He further introduces me whole methodology in details, which is actually quite simple in theory. In few words, every sunrise and sunset we cruise with the boat along the coast and through all accessible water systems, seek for proboscis monkey groups, identify whether its a harem group or all male band, mark it and repeat it until we're sure that we've seen all groups within selected part of the Bay. As mentioned, quite simple on the paper and I am eager to begin. The first day we go to the field and right away I am confronted with hard reality. Theory meets practice. I don't really see the monkeys, since they are highly shy kin, and when I finally do, they scatter away before I even try to “take a look under the skirt”, to determinate gender. Fortunately my research team includes also experienced members, who obviously do not share my issues. Especially my boatman, local fellow called Darman has an eye of the tiger and he's able to spot the monkeys within a mile, I'd bet. Highly valuable for data collection indeed, however it makes me, the big important principal researcher, feel pretty much, yeah, good for nothing. This goes on and as I victim only slight improvements I tend to be truly unhappy with current situation, being a bit depressed. This escalates after Stan's departure (he was only able to stay for a bit more than a week), when observed number of groups per day decline rapidly. It goes that far I start to question the approach, if we use the methodology correctly and the question “Are we doing it right?” occurs on my mind way too often.
So I can't do different than consult with what left from the research team, my boatman Darman and assistant/student Alex. With typical Indonesian optimism they tell me not to worry and assure me about the way. They manage to sooth my misgivings, which alongside with short-term difference in research restore my inner balance. The difference in research appears to be more important than expected and with potential to turn the tides. For about a week we shift from boat surveys to land survey, as some of the groups live further within the mainland, around water reservoir. The location is pretty tiny, compare to water systems we observed as a daily portion, hence I finally have more time for observations. Heck, I have all time I need! And finally, finally it feels like I'm getting somewhere. More time I spend observing the monkeys, more I understand to which features I should pay attention, where should I look or when stay sharp for clear view. Know your enemy, that's how they call it, right?
After getting back to the boat I'm eager once again, to test my fresh powers. And it works! Furthermore, it stacks up and for the first time I feel like valuable part of the team. So the times fly by, weeks pass and I develop my skills, I can distinguish the groups right away, number of groups and even when we move to the most difficult part of research, counting individuals within a group I don't find it difficult, just a bit challenging.
And when we enter some small tributary with no monkeys and Darman shouts “Bekantan tidur!” (Bekantan is sleeping!), I don't worry anymore, they are there. Just matter of time until we find them. Quite simple indeed.