In Summer 2017, I was lucky enough to be one of three people carrying out research in the Sacred Monkey Forest in Ubud (in Bali, Indonesia), which, according to their website, is populated by around 600 macaques (or Macaca fascicularis). This research was part of the Dissertations Programme organised and supported by Ecofieldtrips, which many second-year undergraduate students do as part of their final year project. But it’s also open to those, like me, who just want to take on a new challenge and happen to love animals and science!
In the months leading up to my arrival in Bali, Leo (Programme and Operations Manager) helped me to formulate and plan my research question through sending a variety of reading material and regular Skype discussions – Leo has a masters degree in Biodiversity and Conservation, so he has some pretty useful hints and tips. The Sacred Monkey Forest is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Bali, and therefore has a team of park rangers who not only keep tourists safe but also ensure the health and wellbeing of the park’s primate inhabitants. This includes providing food to the macaques at regular intervals, such as sweet potato, sweet corn and bananas.
So my question was; does this human-provisioning significantly alter the types and quantity of food that make up the macaques diet? Because of the intimate nature of the interactions between humans and macaques in the park, I also looked at what features characterise certain types of human-macaque interactions? For example, are aggressive interactions more often initiated by a human than a macaque?
But the research, as important as it was, is only one part of the whole experience. Before my trip I was put in contact with with the other candidates: Claudia and Adele, we decided we would all fly together so we could get to know each other. Little did I know that this was the start of a month full of amazing new experiences together; we trekked through hidden canyons, completed our open water diver certificates, swam with sea turtles, went for late night swims and late night walks (and photoshoots) on the beach, explored the famous rice terraces, made ourselves sick at chocolate factories - all of this just at the weekends! And it’s only thanks to the on-site Ecofieldtrips staff, namely DJ, Charlie and Jess, that we were able to cram so much in, from advice on what’s worth doing to organising transport to communicating with locals. We were all staying in the same complex, which belongs to Ecofieldtrips founder, Bridget. The house is beautiful; it’s all open plan, so you eat dinner outside in the warm Bali air overlooking tropical trees, and with the sounds of the nearby beach. Not a bad way to spend your evenings!
Carrying out the research itself wasn’t always easy - we had to stand for 7-8 hours a day watching and running after macaques (they’re surprisingly speedy) in humid Bali heat. But to be honest, you don’t really mind. Firstly, because Bali is a stunningly beautiful place, with tropical foliage surrounding ancient religious architecture; the Sacred Monkey Forest is built around three temples, which are still in use by locals. Secondly, every now and then a couple of playful juvenile macaques might climb up onto you and start playing with your hair (or your clothes, or your sunglasses, or your earrings, or your phone... you get the picture). Admittedly, you might get a smearing of mushed banana on you every now and then. Oh, and you also got the occasional adult macaque on you - those guys are HEAVY. But the park rangers were always there to shoo them away when the attention was unwanted. Because we were at the park from 9-5 pretty much every day for a month, we got to know the park rangers pretty well and they were a really valuable source of information. They knew the macaques’ daily movements and taught us to identify troops by recognising certain individuals.
In conclusion, I would fully recommend the experience to anyone who gets the chance, whether as a university project or not. From the knowledge I gained to the friends I made and experiences we shared, my month with Ecofieldtrips in Bali made for an unforgettable summer!