Written 7/9, posted 7/11 due to wifi availability
I am currently sitting in the “service” tree house a quarter mile from camp. It’s around 8 feet off the ground up a rickety ladder. I came here in an attempt to get service but after 30 min and only one successful WhatsApp message I’ve more than contented myself with laying back against the tree, closing my eyes between typing and enjoying the breeze, which you can’t feel at camp between the trees. It’s nice to have few minutes just to sit and recollect my thoughts as the last couple days have been so busy and exciting!
Last time I wrote I had only see Kerry and Ketambe once for 15min or so; that alone was an awesome experience but the last few days have brought more than I ever expected. The following day (Friday 7/6) we spent the morning using techniques we had learned from Ibu Suci (the head professor from University National Jakarta who brought 9 students to the research station at the same time as us) and Erin (our head professor) to determine the health and type of forest we were in from a measurement called DBH or diameter at breast height (1.3m). The technique itself is somewhat self-explanatory from its name.
The head of my group is a man named Pak (respectful term for an older male) Odom who was actually the one that found the perfect location for the research station over 15 years ago. His journey to Orangutan conservation is a fascinating and impactful one as he came from a village that ate orangutans and grew up with this as his only thought about the animal. Now as one of the most dedicated Indonesian born conservationist, an absolute expert of all things jungle and a genuinely kind, caring and jolly man, it’s always a pleasure to be in his group for forest excursions and chat with him about his experiences.
The afternoon brought much excitement for everyone as we had another chance follow Kerry and Ketambe this time for 2 hours instead of 15 minutes. As I mentioned in my previous post, the research assistants keep a carful log of all sorts of data including activity, height from ground, distance from offspring if applicable ect. every 2 min for the whole day which can lead up to 1,800 data points daily. This amount of data may seem excessive but it helps the researchers calculate a really accurate picture of how Orangutans spend their day and is important in answering the whole range of research questions that the scientists here pose. To get a feel for the researcher assistants work, we were assigned groups and mimicked the assistants job by recording all this data at each 2 min mark; don’t worry the assistant continued to take data so our lack of experience didn’t taint the data put into the stations records!
It was a similar rush the second time I saw this pair of orangutans in the tree tops and I got decent footage of both of their heads poking out from behind trees as they snacked on one of the local fruits named Kemunda (Kemunda is also edible by humans and the taste is somewhat bean like rather than what we might consider fruity). I was pretty exhausted after the 2 hours were up and while I was remise to leave the orangutans, I was equally happy to head back to camp and remove the film of sweat and bug spray coating my body with a cold Mandi. A Mandi is a type of shower which consists of duping cups full of cold water on your head from a 30 gallon bucket. It was a bit odd to get use/figure out, but it is honestly the most refreshing part of each day.
That night after dinner, we discussed our main research project which we would be collecting data for during the next two days at Tuanan. The three options given us were a biodiversity survey of the forest with Pak Odom, a study of the primary and secondary succession occurring in parts of the forest burned in 2015 fires with Ibu Suci, and the third was a longer Orangutan following experience with the research assistants. While the first two sounded very interesting and the third was the most time intensive and physically demanding, I was motivated by more chances to see the Orangutans and opted to do follows (the term the use to describe following the orangutan around the forest) with the assistants. The two Orangutans being followed while we were at Tuanan were Kerry&Katambe and Ekko. Ekko is supposedly the largest flanged (protruding cheek tissue) male present at Tuanan and he would have been incredible to see but Erin, keeping in mind I was filming for the documentary, assigned me to Kerry&Ketambe instead, since Ekko spends the majority of the day sleeping while Ketambe likes putting on a show.
I was up the next morning at 3am and out on the slippery board walk made of 2 by 4s by 4am. Armed with my head lamp (the only way we could see anything that early in the morning), two full bottles of water, granola bars and my camera I was ready for the excitement I knew the day would bring! It was still pitch black when we arrived at Kerry’s (the mama orangutan) nest we all sat in silence on the forest floor. The next 45 min was a steady lightening and waking of the forest as the sun rose and bug, bird and primate alike all released their wake up calls into the trees. Kerry work up at 4:50am and Tono (our accompanying research assistant) stood under her nest just as she woke up with a plastic bag on the end of a stick to collect a urine sample. Urine is helpful for the researchers in determining stress levels, fat burning, health ect. and is collected daily from the Orangutans being followed.
Kerry immediately took off, and we, as well as Ketambe, were in hot pursuit after mom. Thus began our day of running and resting. Kerry would travel a couple hundred meters at a time and then would rest and or eat anywhere from 10 min to 2 hours. During these times I did my best to make my way around the forest floor and find the best angle to see Kerry, Ketambe or both so I could get could footage and pictures. This wasn’t an easy task as the canopy in the jungle is thick and even in spaces with leafy openings, Kerry and Ketambe were always back lit making it difficult to see their faces. Also during this time we (Gab (American), Silvi (Indonesian) and I) got a chance to talk to Caroline who was a researcher also accompanying us for the day. Caroline is a French American who, after receiving her masters in France, received funding from University of Zurich to come do research at Tuanan. Her year of research ends August 1st so she was happy for the chance to come out for a full day follow during her last two weeks there.
About 9 am Ketambe had had enough of eating Kemunda in the tree tops with mom, and decided to come down to about 5-10 meters above the forest floor. It wasn’t till he did this that I realized how poor my visibility of him and Kerry had been before. He was clear in view with beautiful lighting and he was having a blast! Swinging on vines, hanging about by just his feet, kiss squeaking (a classification of primate sound that can express distress but in this case expressed curiosity) and staring at us, Ketambe spent the better part of the next two hours being the perfect model and cutest little one. Orangutans in general, especially babies, also like to break branches off of trees and throw them to the forest floor. Ketambe thought this was especially funny since we all ducked and covered as he chucked his bits of forest at us. On more than one occasion I got a faceful of branches because I was looking at my camera screen rather than realizing that the branch I was seeing thrown on my screen was coming straight for my head but thankfully none of the branches Ketambe could break off were of really substance. So, other than a couple of stray sticks and leaves that fell out of my hair during my mandi later, I escaped Ketambe branch bombardment unscathed.
Around 11:30am the afternoon group of students came to replace us in the forest and we headed back to camp along transect JH and WS. Back at camp we collapsed from our morning on the floor of the common area and took some time to gulp down water and munch on some fruit left on the table. That afternoon I did laundry with buckets left out by the kitchen. Since I’ve washed my laundry by hand before in camping situations, this wasn’t an odd experience for me as it was for some of the others. However what was a challenge was trying to dry clothes in a 80+% humidity climate under the shade of the jungle trees. There were plenty of clothes lines around in the shade so I began to hang my dripping clothes on one of these when Pak Ottowan came over.
Pak Ottowan is a key member of the research station as the maintenance man, husband to one of the cooks and in-house cat lover. I don’t think I’ve mentioned up to this point, but the station itself owns two cats who they brought with them as kittens from Palankaraya (they use to have 3 but Nina got eaten by a python #ripnina). Practically, Leo and Tigre are there to keep down the mouse/rat population but their emotional support for researchers who are there for months at a time is also a huge bonus. They’re both very happy cats that love to be cuddled and one can often find Pak Ottowan with one on his lap, the other at his feet and a huge grin on his face. So this, along with his tendency to play practical jokes on all involved while giggling at himself and other, makes him the jolly old fellow of Tuanan.
Pak Ottowan however only speaks a word here and there of English, so when he came over to me hanging my laundry and shook his head no, I didn’t know exactly what he wanted. I thought at first he might be joking but he insisted and managed to say “no sun”. I knew the clothes wouldn’t dry well since they were under all that shade but there were no sunny spots to hang them so I just stared at him blankly. Finally he beckoned for me to follow him so I packed up my stuff and wandered after him down the boardwalk towards the village. He led me to a secret little cove I didn’t know existed that was in full view of the sun and was lined with clothes lines. He grinned from ear to ear and pointed and I thank him, hung up my laundry and he led me back to camp. So Thanks to Pak Ottowan I didn’t have to shove moist mildewy moldy clothes back in my pack!
For the rest of the day we laid in hammocks set up in the forest, did some class work and filming (an interview with Ibu Suci) , enjoyed dinner with a presentation from the Indonesian students and headed to bed early. The next day I had the afternoon shift so I used the morning to interview Erin and film more shots of the station itself. I also got a chance to organize my room which had become quite a tangled mess since it was almost always dark in there(there was only power each day from 4pm-9pm) and I had been so busy with the class work. We headed back out into the jungle at around 10:30am. Erin went with us and stayed for the first hour during which time I found out she had been the one who found and named Ketambe and therefore had a special place for him in her heart. After Erin left we were with our two research assistants, Sui and Abok who are both from the village. Sui lives there with cousins and Abok is married with two daughters (and I think a son but I didn’t meet him) who I became good friends with. Sui and Abok are longtime friends and quite a hysterical duo. From their setting up of hammocks when Kerry was napping so they could nap along with her to straight our pranks, they made my last day in the forest a jolly time. The only moment of crisis was when they, who were usually calm over just about anything, saw a type of wasp buzzing near us and said “move! Move! Move!”. They told us afterword that the sting of that particular wasp is so painful that people have been hospitalized for it. Glad to have had the experts there with us to alert us of the danger we didn’t even recognize!
Kerry had apparently had an exhausting day of eating and napping so she built an nest early that day at around 4pm. Once she and Ketambe were settled down we took our leave and with an SD card full of fabulous footage headed back to camp. At camp we began to synthesis our data from the past two days into understandable graphics of Kerry allotted time for each daily activity.
Then on Monday we got to sleep in a bit till 6am (I know I sound crazy but waking up at 6am instead of 3 really felt like sleeping in) and headed to the village a 7. As a part of our trip fee, we had all contributed to the purchase of three wells for the village so they could have fresh ground water rather than polluted river water. Some of the village men are trained by the Indonesian army in installing hydrants throughout the forest to protect from fires so they direct us all in the best wats to help install these wells. The wells consisted of a series of specialized pipes bore into the ground around 18meters using pressurized water. Because this area is a peat swamp forest, reservoirs of clean water lay relatively close to the surface and make creating a well an easy process as long as you have the funds to purchase the materials which is what we were able to provide.
Spending the day in the village also meant the chance to play Frisbee and volleyball (the local sport of choice) with the kids while work that we couldn’t help with was being done. It also was a great reminder of how much cooler the jungle was in the shade of the trees rather than out on the white beaches of the villages. We all learned the hard way that near the equator one application of sun screen in the morning simply isn’t enough.
The village woman cooked us an AMAZING chicken soup with local vegetables and a bit of chili peppers for lunch that day. Even though eating hot (both in temperature and spice) soup in the middle of the blazing sun and sweat wasn’t exactly refreshing, it was totally worth it for the taste. After some more filming, playing with the kids and a group picture with students and villagers alike in front of one of the three wells, we headed back to camp to mandi and pack.
My bags are almost all zipped up and waiting for the last few items to be stuffed in in the morning when we roll out. Since I packed up quicker than expected, I’ve been able to come out to the tree house to relax and reflect. The past couple days have been so amazing and jam-packed I can’t really comprehend how much has happened but sitting here and writing it all out has helped me realize yet again how thankful and blessed I am to be on this trip. Were head back to Jarkarta and then Bogor in the next two days so I’ll write again when I have the chance to update you all with the adventures from the next leg of our trip! Till then!