Fire Season in Kalimantan

Well, unfortunately this time of year is upon us again. The end of the dry season always comes with news reports of heavy smoke and countless fire “hotspots” across Kalimantan, and year after year the causes are the same : slash and burn agriculture, palm oil companies, and the odd accidental fire that gets out of control. With 2014 being a mild El Nino year, there is the additional potential for major fires because the soil is so dry. I can count the number of heavy rainstorms we’ve had here in Ketapang since I arrived in July on one hand- not good for the forests, especially the peatlands that are so critical to the continued survival of orangutans and mitigating climate change. Recent news reports say that there have been about 200 hotspots in Central Kalimantan alone. In Palangkaraya (home base for OuTrop, where I used to work), people are being warned not to leave their houses unless absolutely necessary and to wear hospital masks whenever they go outside, because in addition to having devastating ecological effects, the fires and smoke are also a threat to human health. The smoke can spread as far as Malaysia and Singapore, shutting down airports and raising air pollution levels as it moves.

Palangkaraya under smoke this morning (photo via @Borneoclimate on Twitter)

Palangkaraya under smoke this morning (photo via @Borneoclimate on Twitter)

Aside from all of that, the fires that rage in Kalimantan and Sumatra every year eat away at the remaining (and ever-shrinking) orangutan habitat on these two islands. The most severe fires occur in peatlands, which when dry provide seemingly endless fuel for forest fires. These forested peatlands also happen to be prime orangutan habitat, with the kinds of fruits and trees that orangutans like the most. Research indicates that the highest densities of orangutans are found in this forest type, but as it gets eaten away by fires and illegal land clearing, the orangutans are continuously restricted to smaller and smaller patches of forest. As their habitats and sources of food disappear, the orangutans try to look for sustenance in community gardens and agricultural land, and then they are captured or killed when they destroy the crops that people depend on for their livelihoods. It’s not a good situation for anyone, although conservation organizations like mine (GPOCP) are able to mitigate some of this human-wildlife conflict through environmental education and conservation awareness campaigns.

Forest fires are devastating for both orangutans and human health (photo: Jess Stitt)

Forest fires are devastating for both orangutans and human health (photo: Jess Stitt)

So what’s the solution? There are many suggestions: Legal enforcement of environmental laws. Providing alternatives or incentives to avoid slash-and-burn agriculture. More funding for fire-fighting teams. Better protection for critical peat swamp forests. Conservationists and land managers have a handy new tool in the Global Forest Watch-Fires platform that was launched this year and monitoring tools like this are hugely important in addressing fires once they’ve started. Ultimately preventing forest fires will be more cost-effective (and ecologically sound!) than simply mitigating them once they’ve started, but this requires an environmentally-minded government and cooperation from all of the players- local people, large companies, and various government agencies. It remains to be seen how the new Indonesian president will address this issue; for this year we can only wait until the rainy season really begins and keep an eye on hotspots in our area. So far so good in Ketapang and near Gunung Palung, and fingers crossed it stays that way! Regardless, this is an important and recurring conservation issue that needs to be addressed, for the health of both orangutans and humans across Southeast Asia.

For more images of Indonesian forest fires, visit this link ( Image credit: Getty Images.


Ha Noi, Vietnam


Hanoi by day, during the walk to the hotel where the conference was held. Believe it or not there are stoplights, although sometimes it didn’t seem so…

Well now that I’ve been back for almost 2 weeks, I figure it’s about time to actually post about Vietnam (sorry). For those of you who haven’t been following, I was there for about a week earlier this month for the International Primatological Society Congress 2014- in other words, 7 days of scientists and conservationists talking about monkeys and apes. Official stats say there were about 900 people there, and it was the biggest conference ever held in Hanoi, which is pretty cool! I won’t talk too much about the conference itself other to say that it was great to see old friends, meet other people in the field and learn about the research and conservation efforts happening around the world.


One of the good Vietnamese meals I had- noodles (“pho”) with beef, peanuts and mint leaves, all topped off with some really strong coffee!

Let’s talk Vietnam, shall we? Hanoi, the country’s capital, is in north Vietnam, about a 5 hour flight from Jakarta. It’s an interesting mix of Asian and European. Some parts of the city (especially around the hotel/conference area) seemed like any other America city, but other parts, especially the Old Quarter, were more traditional. Lots of small shops, food stalls and even a huge night market! Unfortunately it was also pretty touristy and there were lots of backpackers, so sometimes it was difficult to find authentic food and Vietnamese crafts that weren’t astronomically priced. Although it was nice to be able to walk down the street without being stared at or getting “Hello Mister!” shouted at you (something that definitely does not happen in most parts of Indonesia), it was also unfortunate to see the obvious effects of Westernization. Interestingly enough, though, many people did not speak much English. It was a little bit disconcerting for me to be in this part of the world and NOT be able to communicate, but that’s what I get for going outside of Indonesia and Malaysia!  Aside from the Old Quarter, some of the other cultural sites in Hanoi are Hoan Kiem Lake and the Temple of the Jade Mountain. Legend has it that there is a 6-foot long giant soft shell turtle living in the lake, a member of a critically endangered species with only four animals left in the world. Unfortunately I didn’t have an opportunity to travel outside of Hanoi, but if I ever go back, seeing the Cat Ba langurs and Ha Long Bay will definitely be on my to-do list. Word on the street is that those are must-do experiences- next time!

Old Quarter of Hanoi at night

Old Quarter of Hanoi at night

Since I got back, it’s been go-go-go, with several grant applications to do, events to plan and help with, and a surprise (but very welcome!) visit from Richard and Robin of Orangutan Outreach. This weekend is really the first opportunity I’ve had to catch a breath and catch up! And as America wakes up, I’m off to find some dinner. Hmm, I think I’ll have rice tonight…

Spots and Stripes: A Guest Post from Kenya

With this post we’ll take a brief trip from the tropical forests of Borneo to the savannas and scrubland of Kenya. My friend and Columbia University colleague Michael Butler Brown has agreed to write a guest post about his work with zebras while I recover from the VERY busy but productive IPS conference. I’ll be back blogging about Vietnam soon, but in the meantime please enjoy MBB’s stories and photos!zebra 1This zebra is not cooperating today. We’ve tracked him through the thick acacia scrub in our Land Rover for well over a kilometer and we have yet to get a good look at him. As the old diesel engine whines under the stress of crossing a deep lugga, the zebra finally trots through a gap in the bush. He is only in view for a second but with a reassuring click, the field assistant captures the image that ends our pursuit. The photograph isn’t very pretty – I’m certainly not going to frame it and give it away as a Christmas gift- but it contains the signature stripe pattern of the right flank, allowing us to identify the individual and track both his survival and space use over time.

It's not pretty but it's all that we need. We use zebra's unique stripe patterns to monitor populations of the endangered Grevy's zebra over time.

It’s not pretty but it’s all that we need. We use zebra’s unique stripe patterns to monitor populations of the endangered Grevy’s zebra over time.

I am the current project manager for the Laikipia Zebra Project at Mpala Research Centre in central Kenya. My project is a collaboration between the good folks at Princeton University and the Denver Zoo, and we work to study all things zebra…movement ecology, population dynamics, demography, disease and parasite ecology, sociality and human/wildlife interactions. My home in Laikipia is unique and interesting place to study zebra ecology in that it is one of the few places in the world where two species of zebra live on the same landscape. Here, the more common plains zebra and the endangered Grevy’s zebra traverse the same scrub and graze the same glades – sometimes side by side – allowing us to examine how different species of zebra respond to the same environmental stresses.

A Grevy's zebra (right) and a plains zebra (left) graze side-by-side. Grevy's zebra are larger bodied, have thinner stripes and a white belly. Grevy's zebra are also an endangered species with an estimated global population of 2,500-3,000 individuals

A Grevy’s zebra (right) and a plains zebra (left) graze side-by-side. Grevy’s zebra are larger bodied, have thinner stripes and a white belly. Grevy’s zebra are also an endangered species with an estimated global population of 2,500-3,000 individuals

Additionally, Laikipia is an interesting model for conservation in east African since it is a mosaic of private ranches, community lands and private conservancies. Unlike their brethren in national parks, zebra and other wildlife in Laikipia navigate a complicated landscape full of grazing cattle, roving goat herds, rural villages, unobliging ranchers and (sometimes) training British army units. Despite these challenges, Laikipia is a remarkably diverse system containing lions, wild dogs, leopards, cheetahs, elephants, hippopotamus, rhinoceros, eland, oryx, hartebeest, plains zebra, Grevy’s zebra and all of the dik dik (very small deer) that you could possibly ever want to see. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the oodles of less fuzzy but equally cool plants, insects and birds.

Laikipia hosts a suite of remarkably diverse systems that contain a spectacular array of megafauna. Here, I encountered a white rhinoceros and her calf as I survey Grevy's zebra.

Laikipia hosts a suite of remarkably diverse systems that contain a spectacular array of megafauna. Here, I encountered a white rhinoceros and her calf as I survey Grevy’s zebra.

To address the diverse needs of our ongoing research projects, we are taking advantage of an expanding scientific toolkit which ranges from time-tested aerial surveys to cutting-edge GPS tracking technology. One of the emerging tools that has proven very useful is the stripe identification survey technique, which uses pattern recognition software to help understand zebra population dynamics. Understanding the current population size and having a tool to monitor changes in population numbers over time is a critical goal in determining the status of the Grevy’s zebra and assessing the effectiveness of conservation measures. Fortunately, nature has decided to lend a helping hand in these efforts. Just as humans have unique fingerprints, each zebra has a tell-tale stripe pattern. These patterns act as a bar code to specifically identify unique individuals. By simply photographing a zebra and using innovative stripe recognition computer software, we can compare zebra seen in the field to a growing database of known, previously sighted zebra. From this information, we are working to develop a clearer understanding of the number of unique zebra over the landscape and beginning to piece together life histories of individual zebras. Although the questions may seem simple, the implications of the answers are strikingly significant. Having an accurate method to count unique zebra can provide reliable estimates of population counts and distribution throughout the range. Additionally, collecting GPS coordinates at each sighting allows us to monitor movement of individual zebra across property lines to more realistically depict how zebra use space throughout the wet and dry seasons that are typical of their semi-arid environments.

We outfit several Grevy's zebra and plains zebra with GPS-equipped collars so that we can track them and understand how different zebra species navigate this complicated landscape and respond to environmental changes over time

We outfit several Grevy’s zebra and plains zebra with GPS-equipped collars so that we can track them and understand how different zebra species navigate this complicated landscape and respond to environmental changes over time

Like many aspiring field biologists, mine was a youth spent tracking deer through the woods near my Pennsylvania home, reading National Geographic magazines, and watching the Discovery Channel. This fascination with understanding the environment eventually manifested itself in pursuing an undergraduate degree in biology. During my undergraduate career, I had the opportunity to work for a number of ecology/conservation organizations in the Washington DC metropolitan area, including the United States Department of Agriculture, the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and African Wildlife Foundation. I also had the opportunity to spend a semester studying wildlife ecology and management in Tanzania with the School for Field Studies (sound familiar? Cassie’s note: for those of you who don’t know, I spent a summer with SFS in Kenya studying the same things). Here, in the spectacular national parks of northern Tanzania, my passions for field ecology took a real and tenable form. After graduating university and spending a year working various field tech positions, I wanted to build on this foundation in applied ecology, so I joined Cassie’s cohort in Columbia University’s Master’s Degree in Conservation Biology Program. While at Columbia, I conducted my thesis research on movement ecology of Grevy’s zebra in northern Kenya. As you might imagine, there is not a huge market for Grevy’s zebra resesarchers so I was very fortunate to be offered this position at the Laikipia Zebra project.

As fascinated as I am by the systems in which I work and the species that I study, I am equally enamoured with the process of conservation biology. Applied ecology is fascinating field that allows me to get my quantitative jollies while spending a healthy portion of my time outdoors. Here, I have the opportunity to use science to engage policy makers and communities in creating solutions to real-world problems. That, to me, is the true draw for applied ecology and conservation research.

A group of Grevy's zebra watch as I collect fecal samples for parasite analyses. The fresher the better...

A group of Grevy’s zebra watch as I collect fecal samples for parasite analyses. The fresher the better…

Although I have enjoyed my tenure in Kenya, all good things must inevitably come to an end. At the end of August, I plan to transition into a PhD position at Dartmouth College in collaboration with the Giraffe Conservation Foundation. The foundation of my dissertation work will be in understanding population dynamics and movement ecology of the Rothschild’s giraffe, an endangered subspecies of giraffe that lives primarily in isolated protected areas in Uganda and Western Kenya. Fortunately for me (perhaps not so much for the giraffes), I will also be heavily invested in applied conservation research. Just as the orangutans in Kalimantan are feeling the squeeze from the development of forest habitat for palm oil and agriculture, giraffes in Uganda are also potentially threatened by agricultural development and oil exploration. One goal of my work will be to make sure that we understand the demographic problems associated with isolated populations and the conservation implications of oil exploration within a National Park so that this subspecies of giraffe can continue to exist within its natural habitat. It’s a certainly promising to be a challenging and exciting new project.

Obligatory cute baby giraffe photograph. Who wouldn't want to conserve this darling?

Obligatory cute baby giraffe photograph. Who wouldn’t want to conserve this darling?

Thanks to the infinitely patient Cassie for letting me write this guest post. Keep up the great work with the Gunung Palung Orangutan Project! For more information on the diverse work being done at Mpala Research Check out the new Mpala Live! For more photographs feel free to take a look at MBB Photography.

Stop #1: Kuching, Malaysia

Yesterday I arrived in Kuching, Malaysia for about a day and a half stay before flying to Vietnam tomorrow. Although it’s only a 30-minute flight from Pontianak (Capital of West Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo), the Malaysian side of Borneo is very different from Indonesia. The biggest difference is probably in transportation, in Indonesia nearly everyone drives a motorbike and I’d say only about 25% of the vehicles on the road are cars. Here it’s totally flipped and there are way more cars than bikes, probably because the roads are nicer and the infrastructure is actually set up for cars. Anyway, Kuching is a very multicultural city with a huge Chinese influence and relatively strong tourism. I think I’ve heard more people speaking Chinese than Malay since I’ve been here, and nearly everyone speaks English. There are lots of Westerners roaming the streets and that’s hard to get used to, it’s been a while since I’ve seen so many bule (Indonesian word for foreigners)! There are also tons of souvenir shops hawking “Borneo” gifts, some of the stuff is nice and they do have some authentic Dayak craft shops, but most of it is just the same stuff you can buy anywhere else. It’s a far cry from Ketapang, I’ll tell you that!

Sarawak River and the waterfront in Kuching

Sarawak River and the waterfront in Kuching. The river is a focal point of the city, and “Old Kuching” lines the south side.

Yesterday and today I’ve really just been exploring around my guest house (Wo Jia Lodge), which is right on the waterfront and only about 40 Malay Ringets, or $12, per night. This past week I’ve been extremely busy with staff meetings and finishing up a grant application, so I’m taking a bit of time off today to relax. This morning I went out around 9 am and wandered around looking for some coffee- I finally ended up in China town where I sat in a VERY busy noodle shop and had pork noodles and a cup of coffee for breakfast! It was a little family owned shop with mostly Chinese patrons, and the employees were constantly yelling orders and running around. The noodles were really good, the pork was a nice change of pace (because Indonesia is predominantly Muslim it’s difficult to find pork at restaurants), and my food + coffee + a bottle of water only cost MYR 6.80, or about $2. Score! Then I walked around the waterfront, went to several Chinese temples, and found the Kuching city mosque.

Chinese temple in Kuching, just a few minutes from the Waterfront

Chinese temple in Kuching, just a few minutes from the Waterfront. This is one of three temples I found today all within about a 10-minute walk from each other.

On my way back I decided to walk away from the waterfront area and accidentally stumbled upon the Sarawak Museum. That was awesome because I wanted to go there but was too cheap to pay a taxi- although it was at the very edge of what I would consider walking distance, I’m glad I went. The Sarawak Museum is actually a collection of various museums with artifacts from Malaysian Borneo’s history and culture. I went to the Natural History section (very small), the Ethnology section (all about Sarawak’s Dayak people, including a model longhouse… I have a lot of Dayak friends in Kalimantan so this was especially interesting to me) and the Textile museum. Admission to everything was free, and although the exhibits weren’t huge they were for the most part really nicely put together. Finally after a quick lunch of pineapple friend rice and fresh apple juice, I ended up coming back here to my room around 1:00. Now I’m just going to relax, repack my stuff, and get ready to head to Vietnam tomorrow for a week of primates. My plane is at 5:30 in the morning so it’s going to be a very early start, but I’m looking forward to seeing Cheryl and her family, the OuTrop crew, and potentially some Columbia friends. I’ll post again from Vietnam sometime later this week!

Dayak woodwork crafts for sale in a souvenir shop in Kuching, if I had space in my bag this time I would probably buy some!

Dayak woodwork crafts for sale in a souvenir shop in Kuching, if I had space in my bag this time I would probably buy some!

Idul Fitri Break

It is officially Idul Fitri break (Eid Mubarak!) and I’m thankful for that. I spent a good but exhausting day traveling around to some of the staff’s homes yesterday, unfortunately and although I really wanted to I didn’t make it to all of them. By the end I was stuffed full of ketupat (a kind of sticky rice), rendang (beef curry, for lack of a better way to describe it), and assorted little cookies and snacks. We even got a take-home bag of cookies and chocolates from the last home we visited. I’m pretty sure they will all be gone by the end of the week!


Idul Fitri treats and hanging out with new friends (future English teachers!) in Ketapang

As usual, the week before the holiday was a busy one at work. We unveiled the brand new website for the Gunung Palung Orangutan Project, which is the umbrella organization for both the conservation and research programs. I’ve been working on this since the beginning of June so it was awesome to finally be able to publicize it! Now I’m using the days “off” this week (I’m not off but all of the Indonesian staff are) to catch up on grants and plan for August because I will be in Hanoi, Vietnam for the International Primatological Society’s Congress for a good chunk of the month. I’m excited to see old friends from OuTrop and Columbia, hang out with the GPOCP staff outside of Ketapang, and meet new contacts. Plus, Cheryl will be there with her family and this is probably the last time I will see them this year, so I’ll be busy going over stuff with her as well! I’ve never been to Vietnam and I don’t know if I would go if this conference weren’t happening, so it will be a good opportunity to explore a new country. I’m sure August will fly by! After IPS I’m hoping to have a chance to get out into the community more and spend some time up near Gunung Palung because I’ve been in Ketapang for far too long and it would be nice to see some forest.


Meet Codet, one of the flanged male orangutans who lives in Gunung Palung National Park and the new face of the GPOP website. Photo by Tim Laman (

Oh yeah, and if you haven’t already seen it, I’m officially Wake Forest famous! I did a little interview for the WFU Magazine’s website and it just came out the other day: Saving the Orangutans. If anyone hopped over to this blog from that page, thanks so much for reading, and feel free to leave me a comment on here. I’d love to hear from you… WAAAKE! FOREST! WAAAKE! FOREST!




Ramadhan and More

Getting ready to break the fast after a community meeting

Getting ready to break the fast after a community meeting (not a great picture, I only had my phone with me!)

I wasn’t quite sure what to write about today, but as I opened my computer to check my blog the sounds of the mosque started and so that’s my inspiration for today. Ramadhan, the Muslim holy month, is about halfway over. In America and other non-Muslim countries, we often hear about Ramadhan, but do you really know what it is? The main focus of Ramadhan is fasting. Muslims who choose to fast cannot eat or drink between sunrise and sunset. They wake up at about 3:30 in the morning to eat (called sahur), then around 5:30 or 6:00 when the sun sets they can eat again (iftar). Indonesian Muslims vary in how diligently they follow the rules of Ramadhan (much like Christians during Lent), but generally they aim to fast every day for a month. Many restaurants are closed during the day and those of us that don’t fast try to be careful about eating in public- or for me, in the office!- although as Ramadhan stretches on these rules get more and more relaxed and some people stop fasting. Our conservation program activities have to change a bit as well, instead of having meetings during the day we do most of our community activities in the evening so that after we’re done we can break the fast together with the attendees. Breaking the fast is usually done with little cakes, fried snacks and fruity drinks, then after that everyone does their evening prayer before they have the full dinner meal. The fasting month lasts until July 28th, and then there’s a huge holiday called Idul Fitri where all you do is go from house to house and eat. I’ve already been invited to a couple of homes so that should be fun, and I’m sure I’ll get invited to more as the day approaches!

In other news, our project’s truck is pretty much done for so now I am actively searching for some funding to replace it. I’m not really sure where to come up with $25-30K but we need the truck for our activities so it’s going to happen somehow! If anyone out there who happens to be reading this has some extra money laying around and wants a truck named after them (seriously, I will paint your name on the sides of it) then you know who to give it to 😛 Cheryl and her family are coming back into town this weekend, then after that I’m going to hit the road and head back up toward Gunung Palung for some community activities, so things will be busy as usual around here for the next several days. I’m leaving for IPS in Vietnam on August 8th and won’t be back for ~10 days and I’m trying to get all kinds of things in order before then. The GPOCP staff all have at least a week holiday to celebrate Ramadhan, and my goal is to take advantage of the quiet time to finish some grant applications, make plans for my time away, and check out the beach around here at least once. Big plans, as always!

Gunung Palung sits behind rice fields in Sedahan village- when city life in Ketapang gets boring, I can always come here!

Gunung Palung sits behind rice fields in Sedahan village- when city life in Ketapang gets boring, I can always come here!

Where do the days go?


View of Gunung Palung from one of the surrounding villages

It’s been almost 2 weeks since my last post, wow! I’m not really sure where all the time went, except that I’ve been extremely busy with work. Here are some highlights:

  • Cheryl and the kids arrived! It was great to see them, her husband Tim Laman is a wildlife photojournalist for National Geographic and so he has already been here at the research station for a few weeks working on an orangutan assignment. Tim came down last Friday with his assistant Wahyu, and then the whole family was reunited on Saturday. It was a really crazy few days with them here in the house getting ready to head up to the camp in Gunung Palung National Park, but we had a good time. Gunung Palung is going to be featured on National Geographic’s blog this month, because the whole family is writing posts about their time in Borneo. The first entry is up, check it out! And if you’re interested in seeing more of Tim’s photos, follow @TimLaman on Instagram. He’s got some great shots of orangutans and field work posted.
  • I’ve been seeing more of the activities that GPOCP currently does, meeting with my staff, writing grants and reports, and starting to plan for the next few months. Last weekend I went up to one of the villages near the National Park called Harapan Mulia to attend a meeting of our Non-Timber Forest Product craftswomen. These women use leaves and other non-timber (aka no illegal logging necessary) materials that they find in the forest to make traditional crafts, which we then help them sell on the market to make money. This encourages them and the others in their village not to cut down the rainforest around them, which is valuable orangutan habitat. The main driver of this small-scale logging is the lack of an alternative livelihood, so this program is one of the methods we use to provide the village communities with a sustainable option. That’s the short version- I’ll write more about this at a later date, I’m sure. Exciting things are happening with that particular project. ANYWAY I went to the meeting, met these women, discussed their business plan, and watched them as they made their crafts. The task that day was mats made of Pandan leaves called tikar. I even learned how to weave! It It takes a lot of patience, and one mat can take anywhere from 6 hours to 6 days, depending on the size and design. Needless to say I got through about one row before my eyes were tired and I turned the weaving back over to the true artisans.
NTFP craftswomen - Copy

Craftswomen making tikar mats, made entirely of leaves and other readily-available forest material

Motorbike = freedom!

  • I got a motorbike! Technically it’s borrowed, because the bike that is supposed to be mine is too hard for me to ride right now. It’s a semi-automatic meaning that it required lots of hand and foot coordination- I’m not quite up to that level yet. So in the meantime I’m borrowing a staff member’s bike because it’s automatic and easy to drive. I can finally GO places on my own! Sure beats the little pink bicycle I was riding around on (no joke).
  • Finally, I’ve decided to go to the bi-annual International Primatological Society Congress. This year it’s in Hanoi, Vietnam, the theme is conservation, and tons of orangutan people are going to be there. It’ll be a nice way to catch up with old friends, network with new ones and learn about the latest orangutan and conservation research. I’m looking forward to it, but currently a bit stressed trying to get my flights/registration/visa figured out. That will have to be Tuesday’s project, because tonight I’m going back up to the National Park area with the National Geographic journalist that is helping Tim with the orangutan story. He’s headed to the research station tomorrow and we wanted to show him a bit about the conservation program first. Busy busy as always!
photo 1(2)

Beach on the West coast of Kalimantan- a nice place to relax and enjoy some es kelapa (iced coconut)