An Orangutan Adventure

This blog post was written a few days ago after an especially hectic and slightly nerve-wracking morning in the forest.  Read on for all of the details!

Today I decided to help team kelasi search for their monkeys, so Supian, Azis and I left camp at 5:30 am to scour the main habituated group’s territory.  After leaving Azis at his first transect, I started walking toward mine as well.  The tag that marks the start of that rtransect, however, has gotten lost recently, so I ended up passing the turn off- which led me straight into the path of a male orangutan feeding high up in a tree.  As with most orangutans, I could hear him crashing about in the tree before he came into view, so I wasn’t surprised to see him in a big tree right on my path.  He, on the other hand, was a bit surprised to see me, and immediately started to kiss squeak (a vocalization that often sounds exactly as its name describes, although this guy’s kiss squeak was more like the sound you hear when you step in mud and then quickly pull your foot out).  This is a common vocalization we hear from orangutans which are uncomfortable with our presence.  This guy also dropped a few small branches in my direction, so I backed off and watched him for a minute from a bit further away before continuing with my search.

A bit later, as I was approaching the spot where Azis and I had agreed to meet for breakfast, I again heard the trees shaking.  These were much more graceful movements than the previous crashes, so I knew it wasn’t an orangutan.  I immediately moved off the transect to get a better look, hoping to see a group of small orange monkeys bopping around.  Just as I was scanning the trees in that direction I heard yet another crash to my left.  Apparently I had inadvertently stumbled into the primate version of Grand Central Station!  Unfortunately, after a few minutes of observation I realized that the group to my right was gibbons, the animal to my left was the same orangutan as before, and I was left empty-handed with no kelasi (sidenote: you know your life is weird when you can say “unfortunately” and talk about seeing “only” wild orangutans and gibbons in the same sentence).   Although finding these other primates was a nice way to break up a monotonous searching morning, they weren’t what I was looking for, so I moved on for a rest and some breakfast.

After eating Azis and I split up again to keep searching.  I had only gone about 300 meters before hearing orangutan sounds again. I figured that, like before, he was in a tree somewhere near the transect, so I walked ahead slowly while checking the trees on either side of my path.  After a few steps I quickly looked down to make sure I wasn’t going to trip over anything, and as I did I caught a glimpse of something big and orange about 8 meters from me- and this big orange thing was sitting on the forest floor.  I stopped dead in my tracks.  Male orangutans are extremely strong, many times stronger than humans, and can move surprisingly quickly on the ground.  They aren’t usually aggressive, but if they feel threatened they can charge at humans, so I knew that I had to be very careful.  As soon as he heard me, the male climbed back into the trees and turned toward me.  I was thankful that he was no longer on the ground, but I also knew that this was no retreat.  He was kiss squeaking a lot, so again I moved back a couple of meters and sat on a fallen log to observe him.  He was putting on a bit of a show to try to intimidate me, which included pushing over a massive dead standing tree with one hand and then climbing through the trees toward me.  Although people naturally anthropomorphize primates they are in actuality very powerful wild animals (which I was acutely aware of after he yawned a few times to show me his sharp teeth), so even though I was at a safe distance I was still a bit afraid!

Luckily, after about 15 minutes he lost interest in me and turned to a feast of termites, kiss squeaking every so often to let me know that he still knew I was there.  I decided that it was time to go and moved off the transect to (very slowly) pass him, staying about 25 meters away the entire time.  I let out a small sigh of relief when I was out of his sight; it was the first time I had encountered an unhabituated male while alone in the forest, and was definitely a cool but slightly stressful experience!

So all in all, today was an eventful day.  Azis did end up finding the kelasi and the rest of the team collected behavioral data and followed them to their sleeping tree so that they could relocate them tomorrow.  I, on the other hand, came back to camp for a nice meal and long nap.  Hard life, yeah?

“Mozart”, a fully grown male orangutan that often comes near camp (the one I encountered was smaller than him, but more aggressive)


Things I have done today instead of eating Thanksgiving dinner

  • Woken up at 5:11 am still annoyed from the power outage and subsequent death of the generator last night to find that the electricity-thank god!-had been restored
  • Eaten a mango (bought for the equivalent of 50 cents at the local market) and brushed my teeth with a toothbrush that cost me the equivalent of 25 cents
  • Marveled at how cheap things are here, more than once. Sometimes I forget the exchange rate and when I remember it just blows my mind
  • Skyped with Mark for the first time in… many, many months. Now that my volunteer coordinating is done I will luckily have more time to stay in touch with people
  • Met the BBC film crew at the airport to get them set up in Palangkaraya for the next few days.
  • Made a tentative plan for my January vacation, I think I want to go to Lombok, Flores, and Komodo Island!
  • Gone to the mall to treat myself to MERKUN food. Hello chicken sandwich, fries, and a magical drink known as the Mochachino cream.  Ignored the fact that I also treated myself to Merkun food last night.
  • Started checking a paper we had translated to make sure that everything still makes sense. Got sleepy and took a nap instead.
  • Woke up to find that my delicious piece of bread filled with a chocolate and shaped like a turtle (seriously awesome and one of my favorite treats here) was covered with tiny ants… tore off the parts with ants and ate it anyway. I’m not sorry.
  • Started checking said paper again, learned that the actual word for “biodiversity” in Indonesian is “keanekarangaman hayati”, and stopped checking said paper because my head hurt a little bit.
  • Wrote this blog post.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone in America!  I hope your day is filled with turkey, cheesy things and cheesier jokes, and beer (and that you eat/drink extra for me).  I’m thankful for the jungle, cool breezes, ice cold drinks, and those of you that read this blog.  On a more serious note, I’m very thankful for my friends and family who have been keeping in touch with me while I’ve been here. It’s nice to know that there are updates and news from all of you waiting for me in my inbox when I come to town from camp, and even nicer to be able to Skype, text, or talk on the phone with you when I can 🙂  And on that note, I will speak to all of you again when you emerge from your turkey and football-induced comas.  Just know that I am very, very jealous of all the eating you are about to do, so to make myself feel better, here are some photos of my tentative vacation spots!

Flores, Indonesia

Komodo National Park, Komodo Island, Indonesia

Rice terraces in Lombok, Indonesia

Exciting News from BOS

A great post documenting the amazing work done Simon Husson, one of the founding directors of OuTrop, and his BOS (Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation) team. Releasing rehabilitated orangutans into the wild is extremely expensive and time-consuming, as there aren’t many places left in Kalimantan that are both suitable and accessible, so this release is a huge triumph for orangutan conservation. All of us at OuTrop have been hearing about this process along the way, and it’s great to know that they have finally been successful!

Going Back to the Forest

Here is the momentous news you have all been waiting for! On the 2nd November 2012, we reintroduced our first rehabilitated orangutans from Nyaru Menteng into Bukit Batikap Conservation Forest in Central Kalimantan!


Having safely been sedated and transported in their individual travel enclosures, the first helicopter arrived at a pre-designated point in Batikap at approximately 10.30 am on 2nd November 2012, carrying Chanel and Charlie, Leonora and Lamar, Emen and Embong and Terusan. All of these orangutans were released at the end of Transect David.

As soon as each of the orangutans were released they all immediately climbed up into the trees. Terusan immediately started moving through the trees and approached Emen, then paused to play with her infant Embong for a short while before moving off towards the North-West. Terusan was clearly enjoying his freedom and was later located after 3pm about 550 m from…

View original post 454 more words

Indonesian Weddings

Procrastination time! I have a report to write that I don’t really want to start on yet, so instead I figured I would write about Indonesian weddings.  We attended one with the volunteers last week, and they are setting up for another wedding on our street today, so I figure this is a timely post.  The house down the street is especially interesting because they have set up some elaborate decorations made of young coconut leaves, which is a Javanese tradition signalling that a wedding will soon occur.  In fact, in some parts of Indonesia unmarried women are commonly asked, “Kapan janur kuningnya?” which literally translated means “When will you raise yellow coconut leaves?” (aka, when are you getting married).  Most Indonesians get married quite young, so from what I can gather anyone over the age of about 22 that is belum menikah (not married yet!) gets asked something along these lines fairly often.

I’ve been to 3 weddings here now, and I think they’re really fun. As Westerners we often get invited to weddings for people that we barely- or just flat out don’t- know; the last wedding I went to was for the niece of one of our local staff members.  None of us had ever met her, but we were invited with open arms.  The more people you have at your wedding the better, and it was important that we attended to show our support for our field assistant’s family.  It was also an interesting cultural experience for the volunteers, because Indonesian weddings, regardless of whether they are Muslim or Christian events, are quite different from our Western weddings.  Case in point: this particular wedding started at 8 am, and we were invited to the reception from 9 am-noon.  Now when I say weddings are really fun, I mean they’re fun for everyone except the bride and groom.  Their main responsibility for the day is to stand in one room, which has been elaborately decorated for the event, while all of the wedding guests file in to say congratulations and have their picture taken with the couple.  They literally do this all day, while a) standing stiffly next to each other without much touching or smiling, because expressing affection in public is against the conservative Indonesian cultural norms, and b) wearing stifling hot clothes in the Indonesian heat.  Women wear modest, sleeved wedding dresses, and if they are Muslim wear their hair entirely covered, and the men wear long dark suits.

Bride and groom with volunteer Bronwyn and OuTrop staff Thea (photo: Morena Varga)

While the bride and groom pose for pictures, the rest of the guests are invited to help themselves to food and drinks (water or juice only, of course).  Guests can come and go as they please, there are no sit down meals or endless speeches to listen to, although there are usually a singer and keyboard player to entertain the crowd.  They are also not expected to give big gifts; a simple envelope with a bit of money is the norm.  As the only bule (white people) faces in the crowd we are also usually obliged to pose for what seem like endless photos, the majority of which are taken on people’s mobile phones instead of a proper camera.  I always wonder what people do with these photos… I think they probably show them to their friends to prove that they have, indeed, seen white people!  It’s fun for the first 60 photos and then the “celebrity” treatment gets a little old, but it’s also nice because people always come up and talk with us about where we’re from (Amerika? OBAMA!!! is the typical reaction I get), and our time in Indonesia.  Everyone is extraordinarily well-meaning and polite, even when they are trying to coax us up on stage to sign or dance with the band.  And, of course, the kids are really cute and giggly about talking with white people.

All in all, Indonesian weddings get two thumbs up.  In fact, I’m thinking about walking down the street around lunchtime today to see if I can go to another one!

Hanna and everyone! (all photo credits on this post to Morena Varga)

Nick and Pendy at the wedding

Supian and I goofing off (also, everyone at that wedding was SO SWEATY)

Me and the girls

Nick and the boys


Volunteer Group 2 Gone…

Well, another group is done and gone.  Group 2 went home this morning after another nice visit to Tanjung Puting (their first and my second!), and man am I exhausted.  We got back on the bus from Pangkalan Bun at about 2:30 am today, then the volunteers hopped on their flight to Jakarta at 6:50 am.  Suffice it to say that no one got any sleep! However, I think everyone had a good time and overall the group was another success.  Thanks to them we got all of the planting for our seedling experiment done in about 10 days and finished 225 vegetation plots for a student project, and most importantly for them they are on their way home with lots of stories about- and photos of- orangutans, tarsiers, lorises, gibbons, kelasi, snakes, birds, the great friends they made at camp, and so on and so on…

Group 2 and interns at Tanjung Puting, November 2012

Now after 1.5 days off for me, it’s on to the next thing.  We have a BBC film crew scheduled to come to camp for about 8 days this coming week, and taking care of all of the logistics and field work for them is my responsibility.  I’m actually not sure how much I’m allowed to say about why they are coming, but they will be setting up some HD video cameras to catch footage of animals and the forest for an upcoming series.  These cameras will stay out for an entire year, so we have a lot of work to do to get all of the proper equipment set up at each of their filming sites!  This is quite exciting for us, though; we’ve had film crews come to Sabangau in the past but this will likely be the most intense project yet.  And, we get to use their film for our own camera trap database, so it’s a win-win.

Hopefully now that the volunteers are gone again I can update this blog more frequently, and maybe even Skype some people that I’ve been missing 🙂  Keep checking back for news!

Me in the field measuring seedlings for the reforestation project