Getting down to business...
Updated: May 30, 2019
I hope that people have been enjoying reading my blogs from Borneo so far! If so, I'm sure you've gathered what an amazing place the Sabangau forest is and perhaps it seems as if I've been spending my days galivanting around the forest spotting cool animals! Though there may be some truth in this...there is a careful plan being carried out! So I thought it was about time I get a little serious (emphasis on the 'little') and explain what exactly I'm doing for my project.
First things first, if you've explored the project page of my website then you'll know that my project is investigating the effects of the 2015 Indonesian forest fires on the behaviour and health of Bornean orangutans. If you haven't, and want to find out more about the reasoning behind the project, I suggest you head to the 'Orangutan Research Project' tab. But since my latest blogs have been about my in-field experience, I want to reveal an average 'day in the life' of me so you can get a better idea of the work involved in my data collection.
I like to think of my project in three components: 1.) Behaviour - collecting data on everything an orangutan does (e.g. feeding, travelling, resting) from when it wakes up to when it goes to sleep. 2.) Urine - collecting urine samples to analyse for different molecules which can indicate their physiological condition. 3.) Parasites - collecting faecal samples to analyse for gastrointestinal nematode worms. By using information gathered from the behaviour and urine components, I will be able to compare the data collected from before the 2015 fires to after the fires to see if their behaviour and health has changed. The parasite component is slightly different as I have newly set up this methodology so there is no pre-fire data to compare with. Therefore, I am doing this to see if levels of parasites in orangutans are affected by the changing of the seasons from wet to dry.
Usually, if we do not know where the orangutans are, we conduct an orangutan 'search'. 3-4 people set out into the forest at around 8:30am after planning routes each of us will follow. The aim is to walk very slowly, stopping and starting, listening to every little thing in the forest because sounds are more useful than sight when you're amongst the densely-packed undergrowth. Heavy tree rustling and movement may mean that you've been lucky enough to bump into an orangutan. However, it's surprisingly easy to mistaken the sound as a squirrel, langur, gibbon or even wind! But when it is an orangutan, it's the best feeling. The first sighting of it lumbering through the canopy or sucking at termites on the forest floor never gets old. Especially as searching can go on for weeks without finding a single individual, which can be very demoralising!
Once we have found an orangutan, we will follow it until it makes a nest for the night. Then the next day, we have to get to the nest before the orangutan wakes up so we don't lose it! Unfortunately, orangutans wake up pretty early...meaning we have to wake around 4am and trek through the watery, hole-infested, root-ridden forest in the dark whilst still half asleep. It's not a part of the work I particularly enjoy... But once I'm at the nest and start to hear the forest waking up, things seem a little brighter! Once the orangutan is up and about, they usually go about their business and that's my time to shine. I have to be prepped ready to catch the urine, analyse it with a chemstrip straight away and collect any faeces to take back to camp for analysis. At the same time, behavioural data collection has to start, so one of the field team monitors what activity the orangutan is doing every 5 minutes. This 5 minute monitoring continues all day until they make their night nest again. We must go where the orangutan goes, rest when the orangutan rests, for sometimes over 12 hours. It's an incredibly long day, however usually I must return to camp early to analyse the urine and faecal samples, leaving the field team to carry on. I don't think I realised how exhausting following orangutans would be before I started the project. Although there can be a hell of a lot of sitting around whilst the orangutan eats fruit (for sometimes 2 hours straight!), just having to concentrate in the humid, 30C+ heat for such a long period of time drains your energy. I really do admire the field staff who do this all the time, and for some of them, have done so for up to 15 years!
Georgia, one of my favourite orangutans, waking up after a 1.5 hour-long nap. To be honest, I was happy to the rest too!
Cheeky chappy Icarus checking us out. I think he studies us as much as we study him! All of the orangutans we follow are habituated so they are used to our presence as carry out their daily activities as normal.
Science in action! Collecting a faecal sample to analyse for parasites later!
So now you know what all of my forest galivanting is for! And for those of you reading this who helped to fund me, I am incredibly grateful for your support. It has allowed me to make the project (and dream of mine!) a reality and you'll be glad to hear that everything is going very well so far! Stay tuned for more updates on the project soon!