Ha Noi, Vietnam

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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.

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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…

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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!