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.


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

Fill-you-in-Friday: Orangutan Conservation, Part 1

Welcome to part 1 of who knows how many in my new series on orangutan conservation! Part of my goal in writing this blog is for education; although I read all of the orangutan news and have learned a lot about the conservation issues surrounding these big red apes, I know that most of you have never had that opportunity. So here we go…

This inspiration for this post is this short photo blog post on the Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) website: Homeless | Wild View. I posted it on the GPOCP Facebook page earlier this week and it was one of the most viewed posts in a while, which was not a surprise because it’s such a good summary of the threats facing orangutans today- the  main one being deforestation for palm oil agriculture. I will probably write a separate blog on palm oil because it’s such a big topic, but the summary is that across SE Asia, Africa and South America, primary rainforests are being cut down for enormous oil palm plantations. The oil palm is then used in virtually everything: shampoo, potato chips, soap… the list goes on.

The difference between palm oil plantation and primary rainforest, photo via

Those same rainforests are home to tons of animals, including orangutans. As forests are cut down the orangutans living there are either stranded and homeless or, unfortunately, killed- with babies often being sold as pets. Those two orangutans in the photo blog were rescued and hopefully someday will be returned to the wild, but in the meantime they are confined to a small island at Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Rescue Center. This is obviously not ideal but unfortunately a good part of orangutan conservation these days is rescue, rehab, and relocation.

That’s probably enough depressing information for the day- although a lot of conservation news is bad, it’s also important to focus on the positive. One of the big success stories this week is that Virunga National Park, Africa’s oldest park and home to a critical population of gorillas (apes is a theme here today!) has been saved from oil exploration. This is a HUGE victory for conservation groups such as WWF, who have been campaigning tirelessly to preserve this amazing habitat.

Hooray! Thanks for the hard work, WWF. Photo via WWF Facebook.

My next post will most likely be from another country, as I’m leaving on Tuesday to go to Indonesia. I haven’t started packing yet (oops) and so the next few days are going to be crazy with family things, putting stuff together, and preparing for my arrival in Ketapang. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts or answer questions you may have, so don’t hesitate to comment here. Thanks!

Back from Boston

Well, I’m officially all trained in! Just joking, I know I have a lot more to learn to prepare for my new position, but it was a great week in Boston. Being able to work one-on-one with Cheryl Knott, Executive Director of GPOCP/my new boss/orangutan researcher extraordinaire, was a great experience and I feel much more solid in my responsibilities. I have my work cut out for me, as there are a lot of things that I can do to help advance GPOCP’s mission and impact, but I know it’s going to be a great job. In just 12 days I will be there in Ketapang, meeting all of the staff and getting things rolling!


Cheryl and I at her house

If you’re reading this and you haven’t already, check out our website, like Gunung Palung Orangutan Project on Facebook, and follow @GPOrangutans on Twitter. I’ll be posting news and updates about orangutan conservation on all of those media as well my own personal experiences here on this blog, so thanks in advance for those of you that support me and the organization.

ANYWAY in other news, yesterday when I got back to Minneapolis I went to REI because I wanted to buy a new backpack- my old one has a hole that a mouse chewed in it last year at camp. About an hour later I emerged with no backpack (couldn’t find one I liked) but a new zip-up, pair of pants (trousers, for my British friends), and hiking shoes. Luckily I needed most of what I bought, and it was all on sale, but let me say that it was still not a cheap visit. Check out my cool new shoes, though! I’m pretty excited about those and hopefully I’ll get a chance to put them to good use.


They’re purple! Not super heavy-duty but sturdy enough for long hikes.

Time is going to go quickly now, I’m leaving on June 17th and have a lot of things to do this week. My flights are all booked now and I’m pretty prepared, but there are always last-minute things that come up so I’m anticipating a crazy week. Stay tuned for the excitement!