Monday, September 16, 2013

How I met your OH

For the 15 days after our arrival, Indonesia was on holiday, so we were by ourselves at Cabang Panti. It was really up to us to run everything, including camp logisitics like cooking, cleaning, laundry, turning the generator on, etc. And we would be doing all of the fieldwork as well. Tim and Cheryl, who were here with their kids Russell and Jessica, were both working on their own projects: Cheryl was reviewing research logistics and Tim was doing some photography work for National Geographic. We also needed to collect project data in the absence of the workers. Jenn was doing the data collection, and I would help with the tree tagging and gps tracking. 

We spent a few days following Codet, Bibi, and Barani in the swampy part of the trails. My first couple days following, I realized what long hours we work here: a regular day of following usually lasts from wake-up time at 3:30am, until the OH (short for orang-hutan) makes their nest around 6:00pm. That's almost 15 hours straight, and keep in mind that the workers usually do this five days in a row (and only get one day off in between). After being here for a while, I think regular 9-5 jobs begin might begin to sound like a joke. The bright side of it though? We get to be outside all day, chasing after orangutans. No complaints here. 

The pace of the day can change in an instant: sometimes the orangutans are up in the same tree, feeding on the same fruit, for like three hours...and minutes can feel like hours. Other times, you can be on an intense chase behind a retreating orangutan, bushwacking your way through vines, climbing up rocks, crossing rivers, going down mountainsides, trying to keep up...and here, hours seem like minutes. No days are the same. It always pays to be on the lookout though, becauae you never know whn something interesting is going to happen. Everytime I'm out there, I hope to witness something special, like a mating, a male coming down to the ground, food-sharing, some cultural behavior like leaf-matress building, or agression between male orangutans. There are so many things we don't know about orangutans, but if you follow them long enough, you might see them do something that no one has ever seem them do before. 

That's what makes orangutan following so special to can exciting at times, boring at times...but you get to witness these crazy cool insights into the life of an orangutan, and see things rarely seen by other people. You begin to notice that different orangutans have different personalities, different tastes for food, who they like to spend time with, who they dislike. They each have their own personal lives, connections, and dramas. Everytime you follow, you get to learn a bit more about what their lives are like, and you start getting attached to them, the same way you get attached to the fictional lives of the characters in your favorite television drama. For a time, you get to be part of another world, different from your own. And what an interesting world it is.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Close Encounters of the Ape Kind

It's 4:30am. Under a moonless sky, the forest sleeps silently, and the serene silence and vaccuum of darkness is broken only by the sounds of leaves crackling beneath our boots and the spots of light on the forest floor illuminated by our headlamps. 

Jenn, Caitlin, and I were on the search for a group of night nests, made the night before by a group of the orangutans: Bibi, her young daughter Barani, and big flanged male Codet. By the time we made it to the location of the nests, it was still as dark as dungeon...the only things visible were the sillhoutes of the leaves and branches above, and the ground beneath us gowing with the red lights from our headlamps. Red light bothers the orangutans less than the normal white light, and the last thing we wanted was to wake them up before they wished (because we all know how that feels). We sat down quietly beneath the tree, and turned off our lights. It was so dark that if I held my hand up in front of my face, I would 't be able to see them. Now were just waiting for their awakening.

We didn't have to wait long. Suddenly, I hear the crackling of branches breaking loudly above, and feel a great mass moving in the tree. Codet, the big male, had awoken. Within seconds, he lets out a reverberating series of grunts, finally climaxing into a sequence of long, deep notes of bellowing hoos. 

I had never seen nor heard an orangutan before, not even at a zoo. And now there I was, standing less than 15 feet under this huge beast in the dark, in the middle of the rainforest. And I felt his power. My first thought, more excited than scared, was "holy shit." 

I can't remember which author, but I heard someone once say that the scariest thing in the world that you can write about is not ghosts, monsters, murderers, giant spiders, or anything like that. It's a locked door. Because what's behind that locked door can be anything. It's not knowing what's behind that brings the suspense. 

I'm not saying that Orangutans are scary. But I think the sentiment I felt when standing under that tree was the same as that door analogy. It was dark, I couldn't see anything, but in my mind I knew there was this huge beast standing above me. The suspense as I started hearing those branches begin to break was insane, as this unknown beast of an animal, which I had no idea what it was like, was beggining to materialize into my existence, and become real. Those evolved behavioral responses for self-preservation, the physical responses to what we call fear, start kicking in, and your heart starts pumping, you begin to feel extremely alert, and the hair on your arms begin to stand up. It's just a powerful instinct that we can't avoid. And when those other-worldly sounds of his long call reached my ears, I felt him so huge and so close that I couldn't help but feel powerless in its presence. 

That was my first encounter with an Orangutan. In fact, that was my first time seeing an ape in the wild (besides the boring old ones like the ones reading this blog). Since the, I've seen many more orangutans, but that moment I will remember forever. 

Monday, September 2, 2013

Tails? Do I look like a monkey researcher?

After my first day of settling into camp and organizing all of my belongings, I put on some field clothes, armed myself with a gps, a map, and a radio, and set out into the rainforest on my own for the very first time, on the search to find an Orangutan. If I found one, I was to radio camp for some reinforcements, and subsequently follow the orangutan to its night nest, which they usually build sometime around 5:30-6:00pm. 

The trails of Cabang Panti research station are very diverse, covering vast areas of peat swamp, freshwater swamp, forest lowland, and montane forest. Of course, given my love for mountains, I went straight for montane.      With my ears perked and my eyes peeled for any signs of ape friends, I must have spent about 5 hours tramping uphill and downhill through different ridges, valleys, and peaks. I even stumbled onto the river after hearing a raging waterfall from far away and following my curiosity to investigate...which led to a nice session of hopping, climbing, and scrambling, downriver on the rocks. 

While your ears can be your most powerful weapon for localizing orangutans, they can just as easily betray you. Which I learned the hard way. Twice. 

The first time, I was about 200m high on this trail, heading towards a small peak. Suddenly, I heard some branches shaking, exactly the type of sound an orangutan would make if they were brachiating from tree to tree. I went deep off-trail with sound as my compass. What did I find? Some damn tails, that's what...and Apes aren't supposed to have tails. It was just some beligerent macaques (no offense to monkeys). Now I found myself about 100m off trail, blockaded by treefalls on both sides, with nothing but some monkeys parading around mockingly. 

The second time, after returning to camp and switching my luck to the swamp, I thought I had an orangutan for sure. Again, I followed the sultry sound of shaking branches and the high hopes of finally seeing an orangutan for the first time. I see some red fur. Orangutans have red fur. This is it. One good luck up the tree with my binoculars and I have it. 

...Tails. Red Tails. It was Red Leaf Monkeys, the bane of orangutan searchers everywhere. These damn monkeys just don't have any respect. I returned to camp, wet, smelly, and empty-handed.

But as soon as I arrived, I heard some good news. Cheryl and Caitlin had found and were nesting an Orangutan. That only meant one thing: I was waking up at 3:30am the next morning. I had an orangutan to follow.