A baby orangutan is found lounging in the tree canopy.

Katherine Meier ’16 and Cecilia Mayer ’16 are spending the year doing field research at the Tuanan Orangutan Research Station in Indonesia. Both women were anthropology majors at Macalester. By senior year, Mayer had studied in Indonesia, becoming proficient in the language, and had conducted research with anthropology professor Scott Legge, while Meier had completed an internship in a zoo’s primate department and done fieldwork with wild primates in Madagascar. Thus they were perfectly positioned for the orangutan research positions—under the direction of a Rutgers University anthropology professor—that they heard about last spring while attending the American Association of Physical Anthropologists’ annual meeting with their advisor, Legge. The same night they heard about the research positions they sent in their CVs and letters of interest. Before long they had passed Skype interviews, and—following training in research methods at Rutgers—were on their way to Indonesia. When they return to the U.S. this summer they plan to apply to graduate programs in physical anthropology/primatology. Following is Cecilia Mayer’s recent letter from the field station:

I’ve been in Indonesia for three months now, two of which I’ve spent at the Tuanan Orangutan Research Station. Here’s a summary of what I do there:

Katherine and I live and work at the Tuanan Orangutan Research Station, which we refer to as “camp.” It’s a collection of wooden structures in the peat-land swamp forest at the edge of our research area. All the structures are raised off the ground to accommodate the swamp’s ever-changing water levels. We each have our own room, and live at camp with five other people: the camp manager, two assistants, two staff members, and a cook, all of whom are Indonesian, mostly from Central Kalimantan. There are also four assistants and two staff members who do not live with at the camp but work with us nearly every day. At any given time there may be additional volunteers and researchers on site as well.

Photo provided by Cecilia Mayer and Katherine Meir.

Relative to other orangutan stations, ours is pretty comfortable. We have fresh food and clean water, and we regularly get to see some crazy cool animals, such as sun bears, monitor lizards, wild boars, and various lizards and birds. Out in the forest there are also cobras, pythons, vipers, and the elusive clouded leopard.

We work five days and get two days off. Workdays are either “follow days” or “search days.” On follow days, we wake at 3 a.m., prepare breakfast and lunch, pack our backpacks full of gear, and head into the dark, damp forest by 4 a.m. Our backpacks weigh about 10 to 15 pounds, about five pounds of which is food and water.

Because orangutans make nests at night, which makes it easy to keep track of their location, we head straight to the nests on follow days. We try to arrive by 4:30 a.m. so we can begin observing them as soon as they wake up. The sun rises around 5:15 a.m.

A follow day consists of observing and taking data on everything the focal orangutan does. We follow one orangutan at a time, although often the focal orangutan will be in a party with others. I’ve seen as many as six orangutans eating together in a tree. We also frequently follow mother/infant pairs. We keep track of each activity—eating, sleeping, moving, interacting—in great detail. We write down data on our iPads, take GPS points every half hour, and get urine and fecal samples whenever possible. Our work day lasts until the orangutan makes a nest for the evening.

On follow days we return to camp only after the focal has made its nest, which is usually between 3 and 5 p.m. The sun sets around 5:30 p.m., but the forest is dark long before that. It’s always preferable to return to camp before dark, since trekking through the swamp is not easy. Sometimes we lose an orangutan before it makes its night nest, either because it deliberately runs away from us or because weather conditions have prevented us from following. If we lose a focal, we try to find another to follow until day’s end.

Photo provided by Cecilia Mayer and Katherine Meir.

On search days we enter the forest at 7 a.m., choose an area to search, and try to find an orangutan to follow. If we follow an orangutan for five days, we leave it alone for a month. If we follow it for 10 days, we give it two months off. We do this to give the animals a break; most tolerate our presence but don’t enjoy it. On some search days we’ll encounter several orangutans, but if all of them are on breaks, we must keep searching. If we cannot find an orangutan to follow, we return to camp by 4 p.m.

On our days off we catch up on laundry and sleep. Because we usually wake at 3 a.m., it’s hard to sleep in on our days off. Initially, we found it exhausting to wake up so early and work for 12-plus hours, and two days of rest hardly seemed enough. But it quickly got much easier, and now I’m always eager to return to work. (Those two days are crucial, however. We need that time to heal our many scrapes, bruises, insect bites, and skin and eye infections.)

Despite the challenges, being in the forest and following the orangutans is better than anything else. Though the days are long, sometimes boring, and always sweaty, being in the presence of wild orangutans makes it worthwhile. Their intelligence and gentle nature is so evident, and they often spend long periods watching us, as we watch them. Orangutan infants are very much like human infants—adorable, a little ugly, and very silly. They have more capabilities than human infants, however, and are often exploring the tree branches far from their mothers by age two.

Terminology

Orangutan: A great ape (like chimpanzees and gorillas) that only lives in Borneo and Sumatra, Indonesia. Because we research wild orangutans, we rarely interact with them. There are two species of orangutans—the Bornean and the Sumatran orangutan—though they have many similarities and were likely the same species long ago.

Peat Swamp Forests: Tropical forests with so much water that leaves never fully decompose and instead build up into an acidic swamp. Peat swamps are threatened by logging to make way for oil palm plantations. These forests, which take thousands of years to form, are disappearing rapidly. This, in turn, threatens the unique species they are home to. Also, the peat stores huge amounts of carbon, which is released into the atmosphere when the swamps are drained.

Borneo: The third largest island in the world, Borneo lies mostly in Indonesia. The Indonesian part of Borneo is called Kalimantan; we work in Central Kalimantan. Borneo is home to at least 45,000 orangutans. There are fewer in Sumatra—only about 7,500, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Both species are considered critically endangered.

May 23 2017

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