Since I’m at the halfway stage of my research, with over 2,000 hours spent in the forest searching for and following orangutans, I thought it would be a good opportunity to take stock and write about a few of the things I love, and some I hate, from a year studying orangutans and living in Indonesia.

The Research
In many ways, our field site at Sikundur is perfect for research. We have a lovely riverfront location for camp, the food is good, and it’s fairly easy to get here from Medan, the capital of North Sumatra. The forest is flat and dry, making it one of the easiest locations for studying orangutans, and as a result I’ve been fortunate to encounter a high number of focal animals (17 to date), often in the large social parties common to Sumatra. The dryness also allows us to go long periods without losing the animal due to distance (the longest I’ve done is 14 days in a row). I’ve been able to spend so many hours sitting underneath these amazing creatures that on a very intimate level I feel like I’m starting to know their personalities and to understand how their social relationships work. In terms of my Ph.D. progress (oh yeah, mustn’t forget that!) I’ve managed to record a huge number of long calls across different age-sex classes.

All that being said, grad students are renowned for whining about various things: stress, long hours, low pay, and never knowing exactly how well you’re doing. And, sure, I could complain about all of the above, but working in the field, I get a few additional hassles thrown in for fun! The amount of data I need to complete my Ph.D. would be terrifying if I was studying a social species in a captive environment, let alone wild, semi-solitary arboreal apes. I can never guarantee I’ll find an animal on a given day, and even when I do, some days are just horrendous. Getting up at 4 a.m. to schlep into the forest for a single ape that moves 45 meters, eats pandang fruit for 10 hours in a position I can’t even see, while it buckets down rain, is not what I’d call exciting!

However, even on those long wet days, I wouldn’t change a thing about the research, and I’m really grateful to USC for allowing me this long field time to produce my own project and truly learn about these amazing animals.

The People
It can be incredibly lonely being this far from home; relationships with friends and loved ones inevitably suffer, and as much as I love them dearly, my only company day-after-day has been six Indonesian field staff assistants who will look for any excuse to not go into the forest, so they can indulge in their favorite activities: sleeping and complaining about how bored they are not being in the forest! Then, just to top it all off, when you do go back to town, and finally have the chance to socialize, you’re chided for not being in the field!

It’s not all bad though. My Indonesian is finally fluent enough that I can laugh and joke around with our assistants, who really do work very hard, and I enjoy hanging out in the village, where I’m occasionally invited for dinner and community events. Three new students, John, Rosanna and Helen, have recently arrived from England to study Sikundur’s habitat structure and ecology with a focus on orangutans, gibbons and Thomas’ leaf monkeys, respectively. Having them around has brought a breath of fresh air to camp, and the field staff is excited to have different research projects to be working on.

For me though, the biggest benefit from working in collaboration with the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP) is that I get to be inspired every single day by some of the most effective and respected conservationists in the region, who have seen and done it all. For that reason alone, this past year has been the most incredible opportunity, and learning from the best will allow me to develop skills, contacts and knowledge that can only help me in the future.

The Forest
What we have at Sikundur may not be the most beautiful forest. All right, I’ll level with you—it’s been trashed in places thanks to government-sanctioned logging concessions in the past, and illegal efforts that continue even today. The trees are small, the forest is patchy, there are logging trails throughout, and there’s a lot of thorny junk to get impaled on. However, it is also some of the most important and interesting jungle in Sumatra, because it’s regrowth. In an ideal future, other logged forests will also be allowed to recover around the Greater Leuser Ecosystem, so our understanding of Sikundur’s habitat, ecology and biodiversity will allow better management decisions for these areas. Our camera trap project has been a wild success (despite four cameras being stolen), the area is still teaming with wildlife, including multiple species of primates, groups of rampaging elephants, prehistoric-looking hornbills, and a bewildering range of mammal species, including elusive small and large jungle cats.

The Sikundur Research Station is situated in perfect habitat for groups of elephants that roam around, and even come to camp sometimes! (Photo: James Askew)

Despite the resilience of our forest, the hardest thing for me to reconcile from this past year is my love for the people of this country and its culture with my experiences of how little regard there is for nature and how ineffectual environmental law enforcement is in Indonesia. Every day I’m in the forest I walk along logging trails. I hear the sound of chainsaws. I see new stumps and clearing where illegal loggers have felled the trees. Just this last month illegal loggers cleared a massive area and built a large pondok (a basic camp) in the exact place we’ve encountered orangutans most often over this past year, about 1.5 kilometers southeast of our own camp.

Illegal logging is a major industry in Indonesia, the area above is inside the national park, yet is rapidly being cleared out to sell the timber and for eventual conversion to farmland. (Photo: James Askew)

I also meet a seemingly never-ending stream of bird poachers because, “According to tradition, a good Javanese man does not only need a horse, house, spouse, and a keris, but also a bird in a cage,” writes Erik Meijaard. The people in the village, Aras Napal, are not Javanese, but every house has a bird in a cage.

Poachers are also a common sight at Sikundur. They’ll set up baited cages with ropes to pull the door shut, and then carry the birds out to sell. (Camera trap photo: Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme / Askew, Abernathay & Nowak)

People aren’t just taking small stuff or hunting for subsistence either. On my birthday, I ended up wandering around the animal market in Medan, a hub for illegal wildlife trafficking, including endemic, endangered primate species, and a frightening amount of birds. It was heartbreaking to see the monkeys, squirrels and birds I encounter in the forest kept in the worst imaginable conditions: always in tiny cages, crying out as they jostle for space on top of the dead.

Parrots sit in a cage waiting for buyers at Medan’s wildlife market. (Photo: James Askew)
An infant long tailed macaque sits in a tiny cage waiting for buyers at Medan’s wildlife market. (Photo: James Askew)

I’ve also spent time at SOCP’s Batu Mbelin quarantine and care center where I’ve seen orphaned orangutans finally in a safe place, but psychologically scarred from the experience of being literally ripped from their dead mother’s breast to be kept in a small cage and tortured for the amusement of a plantation owner, politician or police chief.

Bina Wana is one of the newest orangutans at the SOCP Quarantine Center. She came in to the center with her nose cut off and dangerously underweight. Hopefully, she’ll eventually be released. (Yarra Sohenthaler / Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme)

Thinking about these things makes me miserable, it makes me angry, and at times, it makes me feel hopeless. There doesn’t seem to be any appetite for changing the way things are either. In the past year, I’ve seen the patrol team for our section of the national park a total of three times, two of which were to ensure I was adhering to the Republic of Indonesia’s byzantine rules for foreign researchers. Indonesia does in fact have plenty of conservation laws, too, but enforcement is pretty much non-existent. My study species, orangutans, have been legally protected for over a century, yet there have been less than five convictions for their killing or trade, or for destruction of their habitat.

If something doesn’t change (and I would suggest enforcement would be the quickest, most effective solution), not only are orangutans going to go extinct, but also the spectacular forest, in which I’m lucky enough to spend every day. And all of the animals in it, are going to be gone, forever.