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Thursday, November 10, 2011


We have gotten into a pretty regular schedule here. We get up at 6:15am each morning, spend an hour or so slathering on sunscreen, making breakfast, prepping collection tubes, and preparing for the day. We work all morning in the field, then return home for lunch, housework and lab. Some days we go back out to the field for a few hours in the late afternoon. On Thursdays, we go to Debark - very exciting because I get to check the post office box, read emails and eat roasted goat. On Sundays, we have a day off which we spend doing data entry, more lab work, showers and around-the-house chores like laundry and inventories. Every once in a while though, something happens that throws the schedule waaaaay off. Last Saturday was one of those day.

The day started off normally enough. We got up at 6:15am, got ready to go, and made it to the field a little later than usual - maybe around 8:15am. When we got to Wuraba, the standard cliff that we usually find our monkeys on, only a few monkeys had come up from their sleeping area. Pretty unusual, as there are often several hundred monkeys grooming and foraging in the grassy lawn area above the cliff. We all trooped over to the cliff edge with binoculars to see what we could see. Just after we got there and were taking our binos out, there was a HUGE commotion down below us. Our Ethiopian assistants already had their binoculars out, and they started shouting too! "Leopard! Leopard! Gelada is dead!" We all started freaking out and looking everywhere with both binos and naked eyes. We saw a blur of movement disappear into the forest - apparently the leopard. We asked the boys if they could see anything about the gelada and they told us it was an adult male. Although they have extremely good eyes and are rarely wrong about anything pertaining to geladas, we didn't believe them. The literature and common sense say that a leopard could only take a juvenile or an adult female, not a full-grown adult male with long canines, lots of muscle, and fighting experience. The boys said they could see where the body had been taken, so we decided to forgo work and clamber down to where the kill had occurred. It was a beautiful and eerie walk - the forest down the cliff was much thicker and more tropical feeling than what occurs on the plateaux, and the monkeys and birds had gone creepily quiet in the aftermath of the attack. The hillside was very steep and we half-slid half-walked down to where the leopard had last been seen. Eventually, Eshete called back to us that he had found BLOOD on some leaves. We hurried over to where he was and sure enough, there was fresh wet blood spotting the undergrowth. We took a few samples with our DNA kit in the hopes we could use it to identify the dead gelada if we couldn't find him, and then continued, with me in the lead. Following the blood trail was like something out of a movie. We weren't trying to be quiet because we didn't want to surprise the leopard at his kill, but we were all justifiably freaked out and thus proceeded in relative silence. I was in front of the pack, since Eshete said he didn't see any additional blood and I wasn't convinced. A few feet further in to the forest, I found more blood, then a well-defined trail where something large had clearly been dragged through the undergrowth. More blood, more broken branches. Then I looked ahead for the next blood patch and saw the body.

The boys had been right - it was an adult male. He was lying on his stomach in a little hollow under some trees. We quickly gloved up and investigated further. His body was still warm and he had blood running out from a large wound in his throat. He also had two puncture wounds on one flank - clearly bite marks from the leopard. He was definitely dead, and as we looked closer, we realized that taking blood for an ID was unnecessary - this was Tariku, one of the older adult males in our study population. Tariku was the follower male in the T group. An old, smallish male with many kids in the group who loved to climb on him and groom him. We did what we could to tie him to a large stick and carry him out into the open so we could see better. Having done that, Julie and I climbed back up the hill to search for cell phone reception - we wanted to check in with the project advisors in Michigan to see what we should do with the body. On the one hand, what a great opportunity to take measurements and samples from a gelada we had six years of data on! On the other hand, getting Tariku back to our house without drawing attention to ourselves would be a challenge and we didn't want to do that without express permission from someone higher up. There was no reception at the top of the cliff, so Julie hopped in the car to search further afield while I began focaling the remaining T group geladas. Eventually Julie was able to get through to the Michigan profs (in the middle of their night, unfortunately!) and we got the OK to take Tariku back to our house for further study. Julie radioed me, and I radioed down to Ali, Setey and Eshete who were still with the body. They lugged him up the hill, met Julie and the car, and bundled Tariku up in a rain poncho. Then they picked Ambaye and I up and home we went. While Ambaye and I were walking back to the car, he asked me if I thought Tariku had gone to another country and pointed up at the sky. I guess some people believe in monkey heaven!

Back at the house, we laid Tariku out on a tarp in our lab. None of us were quite ready to deal with him, so we covered him and had lunch and tea instead. I also drove up to the campsite to retrieve the enormous scale the mule men use to weigh baggage. While doing that, I managed to attract the attention of all the adults in our village. They trooped back down to our house and started weighing themselves, their kids and their guns - apparently having the scale is a big attraction! After lunch, we set to work in the lab. We took all sorts of measurements - arms and legs and total length, chest patch dimensions, etc. We also took blood samples and some samples from a goiter-like parasitic growth on his arm. Hopefully we will get permission to ship those samples home so we can find out what type of parasite our geladas have. All in all, quite an experience. After everyone had finished weighing themselves and gone home, we weighed Tariku. He weighed in at 55 lbs - much heavier than any of us were expecting! It sort of explained why he was so difficult to carry up the hill from the kill site. After all that was done, we dug a grave for him in our backyard. We decided to bury him nearby instead of returning him to the leopard so that in a few months, we could dig up his skull and bones for more measurements. We buried him in the late afternoon. Eshete, Ambaye and the head scout Berarra came down for the burial and we said a few words about Tariku's life before burying him. Eshete threw some grass in the grave and said "This is for Tariku's dinner." All in all, definitely quite a day!

Even without analyzing any samples or comparing length and weight measurements to other geladas, we learned several interesting things. First, leopards can and do kill adult male geladas - and in broad daylight! Second, geladas don't seem to mourn dead adults. We've seen mothers carrying the corpses of their dead infants for days on end, but when we found Tariku's body, there were no other geladas anywhere nearby. In fact, the rest of his unit was up on the top of the cliff feeding, grooming, mating and socializing just like normal. It will be very interesting to dart subadult males in the spring so we can compare Tariku's length and weight to other males of similar size. Hopefully we won't have the opportunity to steal any more leopard kills - once was interesting but I think that's enough for me!


  1. (Hmmm... Google apparently didn't like my comment. Re: post!)

    As per norm, this is an amazing story! But what is also amazing is this formatting. Not only did you (or more likely Kathy) get a right justified text, but somehow, the last punctuation of every paragraph is left justified! I don't think I could replicate it even if I tried. Good job!

    And, of course, keep having them adventures!

  2. What an incredible story and so excitingly written! You should be a monkey story telling author.....I'm sure that exists!

    On a side note, do you know what type of monkeys are in Singapore? I posted videos and photos on my blog and Facebook. I heard they attacked people and closed down my favorite bridge :(