I have to apologize for not uploading these posts when I had originally intended to; it has been a busy month, and the recovery process took longer than expected. But I lived to tell the tale and what a tremendous one it was:
The plane is such a marvelous invention. What a wondrous experience it is to view the world from just below the clouds, and even more so way above them. I was thrilled to discover I had three seats all to myself, allowing me to stretch out comfortably and doze off into a light (though often restless) slumber for about 9 of 15 hours. The overall flight was smooth and we arrived safely at Hong Kong. The group stuck together for the most part during our 4-hour layover and our TA, Mareike, was awesome for guiding us along. I remember my anxious anticipation for arriving in Indonesia and a chance to really get to know my Rutgers peers.
The flight from Hong Kong to Jakarta, though only 5 hours, was more tiresome then the first flight. I was unable to fall asleep, having just had a full night’s rest a couple hours before, and I felt more claustrophobic. However, I was able to switch seats with a woman next to JP, one of the Rutgers students also on the program, and the generally restless flight was a bit more bearable. Once safely in Jakarta, we met with Dr. Erin Vogel and awaited our drivers who would take us to the hotel. The first thing I noticed as I stepped out of the airport and into the fresh air was how un-fresh the air felt because of the heat. The humidity was practically tangible and I wondered if I had brought the right type of clothing despite the large amounts of thought and time I had allocated for packing for this trip. My worries were interrupted by the arrival of our cars and as I stepped in, I was struck by the fact that the passenger seat was on the left side and traffic flowed in opposite directions from that in the States. The roads were narrow, about 70% of the vehicles on the road seemed to be motorbikes, and holy shizzle were these drivers risky! I was amazed at how populated the capital was and the quaint beauty found in a landscape so different from our own. The hotel was about a 15 minute drive from the airport and once everyone organized their packs and ate dinner at the hotel’s restaurant, we were all pooped. Michelle, my roommate, (who would thereafter be my roommate for the duration of the trip) and I were asleep by 6pm!
At 3 AM we awoke to begin the day’s journey. We were to take a shuttle back to the airport and onto a 2 hour flight to Palangkaraya, a city in the island of Borneo. We arrived at Dr. Vogel’s rented “mess”, a house that researchers stay in to recoup and gather together their necessary equipment before their continued travels. There we met the Indonesian students who would join us and spend a week with us at the Tuanan Research Station in Central Kalimantan. We ate lunch at a nearby restaurant where I had gado-gado, a dish consisting of mixed vegetables in a delicious peanut sauce! Soon enough we were back on the road. AJ, Tom, JP and I along with 5 other Indonesian boys were in a slightly tight Volkswagen Type II. For the most part, the ride was a lot of fun, filled with laughs, discussion about the surrounding landscape, attempts to converse with the Indonesians and a 45 minute winding bumpy dirt road. It was evident that some of the peatland was languished due to patches of palm oil plants. There were also interesting streaks of red-tea colored waters amidst certain small ponds which I learned were to due to vegetation decaying and subsequently leaching tannins causing the PH to lower and discolor the water. Jeremia, one of the Indonesian students who sat next to AJ and I, was keen on socializing with us and practicing his mediocre English skills. At last, after 2 hours, we arrived at a river bank and our bags were loaded into one of the motor boats. Most of the group was able to get on the second boat. Don, Dr. Vogel and I however, got on a third boat that had a few bags, allowing us a comfortable 2 hour ride with enough leg room. Though long, the river was beautiful. On both sides we were surrounded by forest (besides the occasional short strips of small villages) and were able to catch glimpses of native birds, and see magnificent trees. The only disheartening views were those of blackened wood (from forest fires), sparsely filled pockets of forest (from illegal logging), and two logging boats on the river. I was angry and saddened, yet determined to learn why the government and majority of the population were indifferent to the clear destruction of unique habitat and consequent threat to species survival. I was heartbroken when Erin told me that a decade ago you could hardly see a single streak of light through the densely packed forest. After about an hour and a half, I noticed the water distinctly change from a dark blue-green to a murky chocolaty color which Erin relayed was due to gold mining up in the nearby mountains, producing pollutants that seep into the river and discolor it. It was like this for the remainder of the ride. Once we stepped off the boat and onto solid ground (or rather floating logs that served as the dock), we were greeted with curious villager’s smiles and our dear Professor Wendy Erb who looked so at home, the only thing that distinguished her as a foreigner was her substantially lighter skin tone. After some light conversation with the Indonesian students and the villagers, we hiked up an unpaved road for about 15 minutes and finally reached the Tuanan Research Station! A short walk on a boardwalk through the forest led us to our camp site. The room I shared with Michelle, faced the forest and consisted of two beds with thin hardwood platforms which we then placed our Thermarests on. I stuffed my extra pair of pajamas into my pillow case to use as a pillow. Luckily, our room already contained two mosquito nets so we didn’t need to assemble our own. The rest of the evening was delegated to relaxation, a dinner prepared by our 3 wonderful Indonesian cooks, and a lecture on Indonesian primate habitats. Before bed I took a nice cold mandi*. I was surprised at how with ease I adapted to the use of the mandi in the coming days. I slept soundly that night.
*[The traditional Indonesian bath where one takes a scoop dipped into a large container of cold water and pours it over themselves. Right beside the container was a squat toilet in which the water is also used as a means of washing oneself after going to the toilet . That was the one thing I could not find comfort in however- I would continue to use my own toilet paper for the remainder of the trip.]
Today marks the the first of the 5AM-9PM daily schedule we will shortly grow accustomed to. I awoke naturally to the sounds of the forest. The most characteristic was that of the gibbons “whooping”, and a male orangutan’s “long call”. I could distinctly hear different types of birds chirping and cicadas singing too. It was like a wonderful musical composition. I lay in bed for a few minutes listening. After breakfast, we were given a lecture on the distribution of primates in Tuanan, methods used to survey individuals, and surveying techniques (including, examining nest class/position/height and fruit trails). We were then split into 2 groups. Wendy took Michelle, Tom and AJ and myself. I got on my hiking gear, strapped my binoculars and compass around my neck, plastered some DEET on my face and any other areas of exposed skin, and put on my day pack. Once again, the moment we stepped onto the transect the sounds of the forest kissed my ears. I couldn’t believe how alive the it was. And more striking, I felt as if my presence served absolutely no purpose. I was but a grain of dirt in a thriving ecosystem. But let me not get lost in my own thoughts.. On this trek we were to conduct a transect survey by setting up data points of observed primate presence using the line-transect method. I used a GPS to plot 2 points (for every orangutan observed), in right angle set ups, and the distance between the sample point and the primate (the hypotenuse) could then be easily calculated. We first spotted Niko, an old, flanged** male orangutan on a tree eating kamunda fruit- their favorite. I was utterly breathtaken- I had just seen my first orangutan in the wild! It felt surreal… I marveled at his glistening blanket of red orange hair and gawked at his 200 pound size. After a few hours of trekking through the peatland which included blatantly failing to avoid mud holes rain boot-deep, a lot of sweating, seeing awesome insect and plant species, learning, cursing the humidity, and loving absolutely every minute of it all, we were able to catch sight of another orangutan, only about 13 meters above us grabbing a branch from the nearby tree and gliding herself to balance. With ease. With elegance. How suited they are for their way of life! Evolutionary biology is wondrous. After about 15 minutes of observation and quiet discussion, we made our way back onto the transect and returned to camp. Lunch was served and it felt so good to eat. Soon after we were given another short lecture and then we were off to the forest again. AJ, Tom and I, with Wendy’s supervision set up botanical 10m x 10m plots and used a DBH (diameter breast height) stick to measure trees with >10cm diameters. We plotted 4 trees in our plot, measured them and noted their species name & phenology. The lecture that night given by Erin provided an in depth look into the ancient peat swamp forest ecological region. In Borneo, this peat is in essence, thick layers ( > 50cm) of stored organic matter (essentially carbon) accumulated over thousands of years because of high rainfall and excessive heat. In wetlands like here, where drainage is poor, wood plant debris has accumulated above groundwater level which is why it sustains itself only from rainfall, aerosols and dust. This process results in poor nutrient availability and the leeching of organic molecules causes the water to become acidic. The rate of decay therefore is much lower than the rate of plant production, leading to an increase in organic matter. (This buildup is also what makes trekking through the peat very difficult in comparison to other forest types especially during the wet season.) It is such an interesting biotype, yet the most poorly understood. Unfortunately, it is also the one being the most threatened. Forest fires and excessive logging are destroying the habitat while also promoting decomposition of organic matter, thereby releasing a lot of carbon dioxide into the environment (Especially since peatland is such a huge reservoir for carbon storage).
**[Orangatans exhibit binaturism. Flanged: one of 2 types of orangutans that have big cheek pads on the sides of their face, a large throat sack and are considerably larger and more solitary than unflanged males]
Today was marvelous. At 6 AM Erin took 3 of the Indonesian girls, Putri, Nabela, and Mutia, and myself to follow Ekko, an unflanged male orangutan. AJ, Tom and JP caught up with us (led by one of the researchers, Rebecca) about a quarter of the way through, though they had just finished a behavioral chart on Niko who was on the first transect, only about a 100 meters from camp. Couldn’t blame them. These animals are wonderful. Though the trek was only about 2.5 kilometers, considering the difficulty in terrain, we got in an excellent workout. Erin, as skilled as she is in maneuvering her way through peat bog, got her right foot sunk in a wetter section of peat. I was right on her toes but was able to step to the left quick enough to place my right foot forward and keep my balance. A minute later, my left foot sinks into a hole. Go figure. I was able to pull myself out eventually but not fast enough to avoid Erin snapping a picture.. Ha, it was great. JP got tangled in some sort of spiky web, which Rebecca and Erin carefully removed. Eventually we were able to catch sight of Ekko. The group split into guys and girls because orangutans can get upset with much company. The guys stayed about 60 meters behind, on a tree, while the girls and I walked a bit more into the forest and went right underneath Ekko. He was marvelously close, only about 10 meters up the tree. For 2 hours we were to take behavioral data every 2 minutes. During periods of rest, which this big guy did quite a lot of (!), I was able to bond and socialize (quietly of course) with the girls. Though I had already begun to form a close relationship with the Indonesian girls, trekking through peat together definitely seals the knot.
Today we began our independent research projects. Emily, Meg and I studied bird biodiversity and quantity in the first transect of the forest. We strived to quantify and identify birds found in the unburned versus the area of the forest that had recently been mauled by a forest fire. It broke my heart being in it. From 5AM to 9AM we would take down notes on the number of birds we were able to locate & observe for 15 minutes every 25 meters on the transect. We would do this both morning and afternoon of today and tomorrow to extrapolate data from 2 different times of the day. My patience was tested, I must say, considering it was our first times bird watching so intently. Who knew those beauties would be so difficult to spot when we could hear them all around us! Thank goodness our TA, Marieke, a bird enthusiast was there to help. When we got back to camp many of the other groups were still out doing research however a few were also back. Allen, Don, Emily and I spent a few hours playing board games and enjoying interesting conversations. From 2:30-5:00, we were back in the forest. An exciting event occurred that evening: Niko emerged from the forest and onto the boardwalk of our camp! He was only using it as passage to reach a fruit tree in the outskirts of the forest, but I couldn’t believe how utterly close he was to camp. After dinner Emily, JP, AJ, Nebila and I spent the rest of the evening playing games and goofing off.
After our morning birding session, we spent a few hours in camp discussing our research project thus far and attempting to identify the birds with the use Birds of Borneo book. We attempted to go birding during the afternoon again however it started pouring.. And we just stood there, getting soaked by the clouds. Amidst all the humidity, we couldn’t have asked for anything more. I felt so genuinely happy. When we got back we began working on our presentations and then that evening we were taught how to make water filters by an education specialist in the village, Maya.
Today we spent the majority of our day in the village. We helped make water filters for the locals who haven’t been able to in the past because they lacked the funds. I admired their eagerness, compassion and gracious spirits. Though I was unable to speak their language and ask them about their sentiments regarding the water filters, happiness is evident in ways beyond speech. The children were the absolute cutest beings there ever were. I couldn’t help think of the disparity between American children and Indonesian children. They were sweet, friendly and trusting. American children have a more detached and cautious composure. It was wonderful to get to spend all day with the entire community together, local and foreigner, eating, dancing and getting traditional henna tattoos. Some of our group also played volleyball with the Indonesians; they were excellent athletes. I didn’t want to leave the village but unfortunately we had to go back to camp to do our presentations. Our findings concluded that their was less biodiversity among birds in the burned area of the forest that might be due to the lack of nutrition and shelter that is found in the denser parts of the unburned forest. Don and an Indonesian student did a census on reptile and amphibians in the forest and they found that their was more biodiversity in the forest edge due to the presence of a water source. The third project done by Tom, AJ, JP, Putri, Muia and Nebila was an in depth behavioral analysis on 3 orangutans- a full 12 hours of “following”. They found that the majority of the time was spent feeding and near the ground, 5- 10 meters above the ground, and about 40% (average of 3 orangutans) of the time resting. Flanged males have a home range so they were able to have more time to rest and have less fear to step near the ground to find food. The fourth and final project (from our group) was by Allen and Michelle. They examined biodiversity but rather than doing a census, they observed and recorded the types of species and quantity of creatures that came to one of the few food sources in the area- a fig tree about a hundred meters from camp.
The rest of the night, we packed for our leave from Tuanan the following day.