Highly Commended in the International Category of the 2015 BBC Wildlife Blogger Awards

A Sting in the Tale

Zacarias ran towards us, eyes alight with anticipation.

“There’s a large group of howlers in the fig tree right next to the tower” he gasped. “One joined us on the platform! Come on!”


But, having yet again failed to locate the otters on the oxbow lake, I was weary. Dusk was beginning to seep into the forest and I wanted to avoid bathing and dressing in the dark, sweating with the tension that comes of hearing the malicious whine of scores of mosquitoes around me. There really was not a moment to be lost if I wanted a relaxing dip in the river before nightfall.


Frank and I were in the middle of a giant otter population census in Manu National Park, Peru. The family of ten known to inhabit Cocha Otorongo was proving frustratingly elusive. While we had spent the entire day on the lake, waiting patiently for the otters to emerge, our two field assistants, Zacarias and Benjamin, had been doing the same on the shore, scanning the waters from the height of the eighteen metre observation tower with a pair of binoculars. Only to be surprised by the arrival of the howler monkeys.


I hate to miss out on things so I resisted the temptation to head back to camp alone, and hurried after Frank and Zacarias. The howlers were still by the tower. Benjamin grinned at us when we reached the top, out of breath. While Frank photographed the monkeys from a distance of less than five metres, I was distracted by dozens of black-and-yellow wasps, drawn by the salt in our sweat. I willed myself to ignore their clinging, crawling bodies, and became caught up in the novelty of observing the monkeys, clustered like glossy, chestnut fruits, within their own tree canopy environment. It was clear they would be spending the night here.


Our lack of torches eventually forced us to leave; we resolved to return early the next morning. I was excited by the prospect of hearing the unearthly dawn chorus of the howlers, like a powerful wind rushing through a tunnel, at such close range.


The alarm went off at 4:00am. After a few moments to recover and dress, we departed for the tower, accompanied by Zacarias and Benjamin. Fingers of early morning light reached into the shadows, and we could distinguish the sleeping forms of the monkeys curled up on high branches. An hour or so later, they began to descend from the treetop: first a hefty male, followed gradually by his troop of eight, all assembling on a broad limb at our eye level. For once we could fully appreciate the glorious colour of their fur without vegetation cluttering our view.


The monkeys did not howl as we’d hoped but instead indulged in a prolonged toilet session. The male occasionally paused to rub his rear from side to side on the branch, before once again positioning it over the edge. Trickling and plopping sounds filled the air. I hoped nobody was walking the trail below.


Finally, all the howlers, but one, dispersed. The remaining individual advanced towards us, settling a mere three metres away, seemingly waiting with resignation for us to move off so he could explore the tower platform. He sat hunched on a small bough, eyes sombre, tail wrapped tightly around him or draped over his head, his feet tucked together, chin resting on his chest. We watched each other. Every now and then he yawned, showing long canines, or scratched himself, revealing an equally impressive set of testicles. I wondered what he was thinking.


A strangled cry behind me broke my reverie. Turning, I saw Zacarias launch himself full length under a bench. For a moment I thought this was some new game he had invented to amuse himself. Then I spotted the gigantic, pale brown wasps emerging from their nest above him, in silhouette against the brightening sky. There was something menacing about the deliberate and silent way they fanned out amongst us. It reminded me of a helicopters-at-dawn scene in... was it Apocalyspe Now? Zacarias giggled, panic stricken – later he told me he’d been stung six times. Benjamin and I inched along the wall with our heads down, stealing furtive glances at the wasps as though, by avoiding direct ‘eye contact’, we could dodge their attentions.


Frank, gripped by photography fever and unwilling to abandon his post, elected to adopt the freeze tactic. It failed. A wasp darted in and nailed him with unnerving accuracy on the tip of his nose. Frank cursed, prompting much gleeful hilarity from Zacarias and Benjamin who had by this time abandoned the tower. I, too, watched in safety from my vantage point, one flight of stairs below the observation level. Frank stoically continued photographing the impassive, melancholy howler, his eyes watering and a bead of blood now adorning his nose.


I was puzzled. Why had the wasps attacked us? Unless Zacarias disturbed them somehow? From the corner of my eye, I spotted a second, smaller monkey squatting on a thin branch, a little distance away. He was behaving oddly, grimacing and frantically swatting his head with both hands. I couldn’t figure out what he was doing. His movements seemed familiar though. My eyes travelled the length of the swaying branch under him...


That was it! I knew now who the culprit was. The smaller monkey had approached the platform, its curiosity piqued, and the leafy tip of the branch on which he walked had brushed the nest, awakening the normally docile, nocturnal wasps from their slumber. The young howler had clearly paid a high price.


The moral of the story? If you want to avoid a view with a sting, always check who’s sharing the tower with you.

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