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Death in the Wilderness

There is no one path to death in the forest. There are a myriad of dyings. And that is as it should be.

For me watching the red colobus monkeys in a small West African forest was an  addiction. I suppose this was my Downtown Abby and my Mad Men writ large. Absolutely nothing mattered except this soap opera. The world could be spinning out of control, tectonic plates colliding, but when I was with the colobus I was glued to the forest, mesmerized to the point of semi-insanity. I had to be there from absolute beginning to the very end and nothing, no one, absolutely no one, could disturb me. The characters spilt out onto the forest floor and up into the canopy and took over. Their dilemmas were my dilemmas. Their joys were my joys. Their pain was my pain. These were not simply long-tailed, pot-bellied, thumb-less monkeys in trees. These were my “friends.” I thought about them all the time. I dreamt about them. They became my obsessions.

Female colobus monkey with infantPhoto by Photo by Dawn StarinFor Dawn Starin, the colobus were "not simply long-tailed, pot-bellied, thumb-less monkeys in trees," they were her "friends.”

I needed their stories. I needed — absolutely desperately needed like a junkie’s need — to have the latest red colobus soap opera instalment of love and passion and success and failure. I needed this forest, its array of Dr. Seuss-like creatures and its Dali-esque vegetation, sunrises and sunsets.

For years I religiously, fanatically took my time samples, recorded the temperature and humidity, plotted the colobus movements on a map, described all social interactions and took photos of everything and anything. I noted all snake sightings, bushbuck sightings, sitatunga sightings, and patas and green monkey sightings. I constantly, compulsively collected facts. Relevant facts, irrelevant facts. It made no difference. In fact, I’m not even sure I was able to distinguish between the two. If something happened it found its way into my notebook.

If I was sick, if it was storming with death defying thunder and lightening, I still went into the forest way before sunrise and sat under the sleeping trees waiting for the colobus to wake up and start my day. I was afraid that if I missed one minute of their awake-time I would miss the one piece of the puzzle that would complete the picture.  I was convinced that whenever I was away from them there was going to be an Archimedes in the bathtub colobus eureka moment.

When an infant was born I was obsessed with trying to figure out its future life story. When a new female joined the troop I tried to determine where she came from, if she would stay and who she would form bonds with. When a member of the troop disappeared I spent days searching the forest looking for them. I covered their home range trying to see if I could smell the signs of death. Were they dead? Were they eaten by a python? A crocodile?  Did they join another troop? Were they just off on a brief safari? I wanted the whole story from beginning to end and I wanted it immediately.

Sometimes even the simplest things eluded me. Although I spent a lot of time trying to pick out clues and put them all together, I was often at a loss. The forest held secrets that I would never understand. This was most obvious to me whenever I came across the body of a once-living creature. I turned the remains over. I looked for clues and more clues. I examined every little bone and piece of rotting flesh. I wanted to know how it lived and how and why it died. And rarely, rarely did I ever understand all of it. There was no CSI team assisting me. I could pretend that I was Gus Grissom, but without his lab and his team, his determined doggedness, and supreme intelligence and aloofness, I was lost. I understood nothing.

The obvious ones — the infant colobus with long canine gashes who was a victim of infanticide, the female who was found inside the stomach of a dead python, the new mother with an obvious snake bite on her neck, the young male who was attacked by other colobus and mauled to death  — yes, these I semi-understood. But, there were many other ones  where I was totally at a loss.

The young adult male colobus lying under a thin blanket of fallen leaves, propped up against the fence that separates this small forest from the agricultural fields. The young juvenile male under a dense thicket of the brightly coloured, noxious, invasive lantana shrubs, half eaten by maggots. The young adult female stretched out on the savannah. Who were they? Where did they come from? How did they die? They left no tracks back to their past. All of them had gone from being living animals to lifeless riddles, enigmas, jigsaw puzzles with the important pieces missing.

Abuko Nature Reserve, in GambiaPhoto Wikimedia CommonsAbuko Nature Reserve, Gambia. "The forest held secrets that I would never understand,"
writes the author.

And it was not just the colobus deaths that posed problems. The swollen monitor lizard out in the middle of the savannah with no marks on him, still looking as though he is going to scuttle off if I got too close. An adult male green monkey lying at the edge of a lily pad covered pond while a large crocodile bit off pieces of his arm and a gurgling Senegal coucal stole pieces of flesh and flew off. Did the green monkey fall out of a tree into the pond? Did a crocodile drag him struggling and screaming into the water? The subadult male green monkey lodged upside down in a pretzel of a liana vine, his bones at wrong angles, a massive hole in his stomach spilling out his innards. How did he get that huge hole? How did he get upside down? The headless genet cat hanging from the palm of a rattan tangle. A swollen, putrefying python suspended off the frond of a raphia palm. The newborn bloodied bushbuck, perfectly formed, lifeless at the base of a kenno tree. Dead, all of them dead.

There is no one path to death here in the forest. There are a myriad of dyings and all of them creep slowly into swelling and stinking, first familiar and then often non-familiar, forms.

Here in the forest, out in the wild, whatever dies here dies firmly and finally; its flesh is eventually picked off by the maggots and worms and ants and its bones are scattered and strewn and gnawed on by porcupines and then bleached by the sun; its hair is collected by birds to use in nest building and finally it becomes part of the earth, seeping nutrients into the soil. And that is that and that is how it should be.

Except on a personal level, that is not that. With the ones I never knew I could be detached, fascinated, educated. With the ones I knew, the ones I had followed for years, I was emotionally diminished. It was always painful for me to accept that a colobus, a colobus I knew, had disappeared or that one of them had died. Whenever I came across a dead body my first thought was always ‘Please let it be someone I don’t know. Please, please let it be a stranger.’

Imp, the writer's favorite colobus monkeyPhoto by Dawn StarinImp, the young male colobos who taught Starin that it was possible to have
feelings for individual monkeys and still do objective research.

And then came my lowest point. It came storming in on a hot, dry afternoon. I still remember the day, the time, the heat of the sun on my back. I was following the colobus from the riverine vegetation onto the savannah where they climbed into a Syzygium  tree and started to feed. As I walked under the tree, taking my 15-minute time samples, I tripped over the body of a young male.

Closing my eyes, whispering my please pleas, I started to shake. Somehow I knew this time the pleas would go unanswered. I already knew for sure, before I turned him over and looked at his handsome face and the small little wart on his wrist and his crooked index finger and the nick on his ear and the bend at the tip of his tail, that this was Imp, my favorite. He had obviously fallen on the high-tension wire above and been fried.

This was no gentle ‘he went to meet his maker ’ or ‘he’s gone to a better place’ moment. This was fucking death, the end, the abhorrent monster swaggering in in the hot afternoon sun and stealing my peace, rupturing my sanity. I shouted to the trees and the creatures. I stamped on the ground and screamed over and over again, “anyone but Imp, anyone.” I cried until I was exhausted. And then I sat there for hours. The colobus went on doing their colobus things. The green monkeys moved in and out. All their soap operas continuing above me and around me meant nothing. I was numb. I wanted to will Imp alive. I wanted him to get up, move off and join the others.

I had learned so much from Imp. He taught me that it was okay to have feelings for him and still do objective research. Watching him interact with his mother I realized that I wanted to be a mother. Seeing him play with his peers I realized that it was possible to be both ridiculously geekily goofy and popular. When he was banished from the troop by nasty Yunk — the Stalin of the colobus world — I would sometimes find him skulking in the bushes spying on his old troop mates. He showed me that young ousted males spend their time in exile growing strong and sturdy and waiting for a vacancy. When Yunk disappeared and Imp returned, as a handsome strapping lad, popular with males and females, young and old, I realized that popularity and dominance don’t always go hand in hand. Why Imp?

On the day he died, I remembered the day he was born. Actually we shared a birthday. I remembered him looking up at his mother, Inca, with what can only be described as bewilderment. I remembered him discovering the world, playmates, rejection, sex. I remembered his eyes. Each time I looked into them I got a sense of recognition, a sense of who I was and where I came from. A sense of evolution at work. And now, as I type these words, I also remember the horror, the anger, the awfulness. It never really goes away. And, I’m not so sure I want it to.

In the forest there is no hiding from death, no ignoring it, no avoiding it, no denying it. It does not creep in on tiptoes. Here, death stomps in and leaves behind rancid, reeking foul smells and swarming putrid carcasses and bare bones and distorted skeletons. Here death is both simply ordinary and horribly brutal. Here it is inevitable, real, familiar. Here it is an everyday occurrence and yes, a necessary occurrence. And here on this savannah, in this wilderness, was where I grieved for a very distant, very, very distant, relative who gave me much magic and reams of knowledge about who I was and where I came from.

And yet on another level — an objective level, a totally non-emotional level — I know that he became the host for an array of parasitic microbes. He provided a countless number of microbes with a suitable environment for reproducing and allowing this small forest on the edge of this huge continent to flourish. He provided various fungi and parasites and bacteria with an appropriate home and necessary nutrients so that they could help replenish the soil, feed the forest. And so, as soon as he died, he began fulfilling one of his most important ecological roles. His decomposing carcass nourished the roots of the Syzygium tree and the Kaba vine climbing up and down and over its canopy and the young grasses peeking through the soil and around the edges of his decaying form.

Now he endures in his own nourishing, ecological way. Now he gives life after death. And thus the cycle continues.

Dawn Starin
Dawn Starin, an honorary research associate at University College London, spent years studying the social behavior of the endangered red colobus monkeys in the Abuko Nature Reserve, The Gambia, West Africa. Some of her non-academic articles have been published in publications as varied as The Ecologist, The Humanist, In These Times, Natural History, New Internationalist, New Statesman, The New York Times, and Philosophy Now.

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