Tracking the Black Crested Macaque in Sulawesi

by Simon Slater
Busan Haps Magazine

SULAWESI, Indonesia -- My eyebrows barely had time to fall back to their normal position when I asked an excitable local to repeat himself. “I ate bats with Bill Bailey!” he repeated, referring, presumably, to the British comedian. But how? Why?

Allow me to rewind the story a bit.

I was in Tangkoko National Park, on the northern tip of Sulawesi—the lesser-known, sporadically-formed island across from Borneo in Indonesia. I’d made my way to the furthest point of the monstrously-proportioned island looking to enjoy the company of the cartoonish-looking Sulawesi Black Crested Macaque. 

I’d booked a female tour guide who was a family member at the guesthouse we chose. However, on encountering a male guide not long after, I started to have doubts.

“I can get you a good photo of the monkeys eating bananas from my knee,” he proclaimed with wide-eyed anticipation.

As an avid photographer, his pitch was appealing. I was envisioning him knelt down, banana-baiting a salivating simian, when he gave me an offer I couldn’t refuse: “Come and watch a video of me eating bats with Bill Bailey tonight.” Sure enough, that evening I witnessed the popular British comedian break wings with a couple of locals, including the one who was sitting next to me, basking in his moment of fame.

The show we were watching was Bill Bailey's Jungle Hero, a BBC travelogue that had the intrepid Mr. Bailey travel through Borneo, Brunei, Sulawesi and New Guinea following the footsteps of Alfred Russel Wallace. Wallace, the British naturalist and explorer, had been, “airbrushed out of history”, according to Bailey.

It was in and around this very jungle that Wallace devised his theory that there is a physical divide between the animals in Sulawesi, which were Australasian in origin, and the animals in nearby Borneo that are classically Asian. The separation was due, in theory, to land movement. The divide has since become known as the “Wallace Line”.

Wallace, in correspondence with his hero Charles Darwin, collaborated on the theory of evolution and was jointly published with Darwin’s papers, with Darwin’s name taking prominence. Subsequently, The Origin of Species was published, Darwin took the fame, and Wallace’s name was consigned to the history books. 

The guide seemed fun, but I had made an agreement with a lovely lady, Renny, and I wasn’t going to leave her in the background.

Into the Jungle

After witnessing a group of Tarsiers (a small, furry, bulging-eyed primate) return from a night’s hunting at 5 a.m., Renny and her sister (who is also a guide) led us to ‘Rambo 2’, the most friendly of the four troops of Black Crested Macaques, curiously named after the Stallone franchise.

Instead of luring them with food like you might do with an orangutan in Borneo, they came hurtling over snapping twigs from all sides, and we became suddenly engulfed in their group. Being used to human contact, they were unperturbed by our presence, so we joined them on their primal quest for berries, grooming, play fights, and a place to recharge their little batteries so that they could to do it over again the following day. The simple life.

Rambling with them through the foliage is an overwhelming sensation and an immense privilege. Despite an initial time frame, Renny allowed us to follow them for as long as we wished—a testament to her and her sister’s love of both the macaca nigra and the jungle itself.

As the second day’s outing neared its end, the alpha male came over and sat down next to Renny. Placing his hand gently on her outstretched boot, they locked eyes. The look between them painted a picture no amount of banana-baiting could match.

She hadn’t eaten bats with Bill Bailey but it didn’t matter. She was the perfect guide.

Busan Haps Magazine website

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