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Call of the Orangutan: Welcome to Camp

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Map Courtesy of Matthew Nowak, Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme.

It’s taken a bit longer than I’d initially anticipated, but I’m finally at my first field site, Sikundur in North Sumatra, which will be my home for the next eight months. The research and monitoring station is located in the east of the spectacular Gunung Leuser National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site, which is home to a host of endemic species including Sumatran tigers, rhinos, elephants and, of course, orangutans. Although the Leuseur International Foundation established the station many years ago, very little monitoring had been conducted since 2007. Beginning in early 2013 my host organization, the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program, refurbished the station’s facilities, re-opened 48 kilometers of trails and 20 phenological plots, and has managed the site with six permanent local field staff to monitor the orangutans.

Getting to camp is fairly easy: a three-hour car ride from the North Sumatran capital of Medan—through a ridiculous and horrifying ocean of oil palm plantations—is followed by a relaxing 45-minute boat ride up the Besitang River. In the future, when I don’t have so much gear, I’ll probably ditch the boat and take an off-road motorbike ride along the old logging trails instead.

Our camp is fairly small (as you can see below) and very basic, but it’s comfortable and provides the perfect base for conducting research. The wooden cabin consists of four bedrooms, a common area, a kitchen, a bathroom and our lovely veranda – perfect for relaxing in the evenings.

The research camp centers around a cabin built by Leuser International Foundation that was renovated in 2013

Walking in through the front door, you enter the common area, which has a table for eating and getting a bit of work done. One interesting thing to note is the lack of furniture in the house. Instead of chairs we make do with the floor or tiny stools called banku, common to Indonesia, which are around five-inches tall. Although they look a bit funny and take a bit of getting used to, they’re actually surprisingly comfortable.

Graduate student Raquel Vicente and field assistant Loga, discuss the day's follow in the common area

To the right of the common area are two large bedrooms, which the camp manager, Suprayudi, the field assistants—Supri, Ben, Luga and Irwan—and our cook, Ricki share depending on who’s around at any given time. To the left are two smaller rooms, one each for Raquel, a grad-student from Portugal, and myself. Actually, my room is tiny—lying flat there’s about three inches to spare between my toes and the kitchen wall—and it’s been noted on more than one occasion that it’s lucky I’m closer to the height of an average Indonesian than a typical bule. All of us sleep on thin mats, which again take a bit of getting used to, especially if the rats decide to act up, but after a 5 a.m. start and 13 hours in the forest following orangutans, you can normally pretty much sleep anywhere!

James' bedroom is just about large enough to fit in, and, despite appearances to the contrary, is very comfortable

Opposite my room is a small bathroom, which has a toilet and mandi. A mandi is the Indonesian equivalent of a shower – basically, a large tub of water with a bucket that you throw over yourself like an elephant. However, ours is rarely used since it’s much more pleasant to go and wash in the river, watching the resident long-tailed macaques play on the beach and in the trees on the opposite bank while you perform your ablutions.

A relaxing bath in the river after a hard day in the field is the highlight of every day

At the back of the house, the last room is the kitchen. On a couple of burners our cook, Ricki, knocks out massive quantities of rice (three meals a day), along with extremely tasty and fragrant sauces that coat exotic Indonesian vegetables and various different kinds of protein: tempeh, egg, fish and occasionally chicken. As cook, Ricki is basically holding the whole operation together, getting up in the middle of the night to prepare and pack breakfast and lunch for people going into the forest, keeping camp tidy, recording weather data, dealing with all the general daytime chores, preparing delicious snacks for everyone, all before finally cooking a big evening meal for a bunch of extremely hungry people. He is an absolute hero!

Ricki, the cook, prepares dinner for the researchers and field staff

In the evening, we all typically kick our boots on to the racks outside, hang our clothes on various lines in the vain hope that they might be dry in a couple of days, take turns to wash in the river, eat dinner on the veranda, and play guitar or practice Indonesian while we wait for the generator to be turned on for the short burst of electricity between six and nine pm required to charge all the electronic equipment.

All in all, camp is definitely basic and fairly rural (though you can get mobile signal if you tape your phone to the building’s struts or a tree), but everyone is happy to be here. It’s comfortable, the food is great and, most importantly, when you walk out the back door there’s a trail leading straight in to the Sumatran rainforest.

Walk out of the back door and into the Sumatran rainforest

James Askew About the Author: James Askew is a PhD candidate in Integrative and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Southern California Jane Goodall Research Center. His research is focused on orangutan behavior, specifically the “long call” and its role in social and reproductive relationships. Over the next 18 months he will be running a comparative study of three different populations at sites in Borneo and Sumatra. Follow on Twitter @jinborneo.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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