Tag Archives: ecology

Fighting Fires in Tuanan – Urgent

This year is projected to be one of the worst on record for forest fires in Indonesia.  NASA reports that close to 8,000 fires have ignited in the forests and peatlands of Borneo, and some predict that this year’s El Niño weather cycle will continue into next spring, potentially matching the record-setting disaster experienced during the fires of 1997-1998.  Deadly particulates from the fires and the resulting smoke are threatening the health of people throughout SE Asia and also the wildlife in this region, including the endangered orangutan. The Tuanan Orangutan Research Project, run as a collaboration between Universitas Nasional Jakarta, University of Zurich, Rutgers University, and the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, is located along the Kapuas River in the Mawas Conservation Area. This area holds one of the largest populations of wild orangutans in the world and is isolated from major cities in the region.  We have been studying orangutan behavior, ecology and health in this region since 2003  and have accumulated over 50,000 hours of observational data collected by an international team of scientists (information regarding our projects can be found at the following pages:

http://www.rci.rutgers.edu/~ev140/TORP/Welcome.html
http://www.aim.uzh.ch/research/orangutannetwork/tuananorangutanresearchproject.html  http://peatland.rutgers.edu

Because of our isolation and the government’s need to allocate resources to the more immediate threats to human health and safety in urban areas, it is very difficult for the regional government to deploy fire patrol teams to this region, and thus we primarily rely on people from the nearby villages along the Kapuas River working together with our research team to monitor and fight fires in this area.

The fires are currently active just south of our research area and are quickly moving northwards. We are working closely with local communities to mobilize firefighting teams, but resources are extremely limited in the face of this growing imminent threat. We desperately need your support to save this valuable peatland forest and the critical habitat it provides for orangutans. A small donation goes a long way, and in this crisis situation, every dollar counts. Your donation will contribute directly to supporting the fire fighting activities currently underway. You can follow our fire fighting progress at our GoFundMe site below

https://www.gofundme.com/tuananorangutans

Tuanan project assistants work on putting out the fires (by Perry van Duijnhoven)

Tuanan project assistants work on putting out the fires (by Perry van Duijnhoven)

fires in the north study area (by Perry van Duijnhoven)

fires in the north study area (by Perry van Duijnhoven)

Tuanan fire team pumping water out of the peat (by Perry van Duijnhoven)

Tuanan fire team pumping water out of the peat (by Perry van Duijnhoven)

 

TORP assistant monitoring orangutans in the smoke

TORP assistant monitoring orangutans in the smoke

Tuanan forest

Tuanan forest

Otto in the smoke (by Wendy Erb)

Otto in the smoke (by Wendy Erb)

Life in the Field by Timothy Bransford (Rutgers University Doctoral Student)

Juni and Jane

Jane tries to remove a leaf from mom’s (Juni) mouth. Photo by Erin Vogel

Tuanan is one of the premier wild orangutan research sites in the world.  It is located in a peat swamp forest (one of the most important carbon sinks in the world) and has an incredibly high density of orangutans.  Still, the habitat at Tuanan is relatively marginal compared to many other tropical forests and orangutans, in general, have several adaptations to survive in this type of environment.  One characteristic is an incredibly long period of juvenile dependency: an orangutan infant at Tuanan will nurse for up to 5 years and stay with its mother for up to 8 years!  My graduate research aims to explore how an orangutan mother (orangutans are the largest arboreal mammal in the world) can survive through periods of fruit scarcity while supporting an infant for such a long period. What is her energetic status and how does it vary on a day-to-day or seasonal basis?  Are there any activities that help her survive along the way, such as eating particular foods at particular infant developmental stages?

Generally speaking, my research is broken up into several parts.  First, there is the behavioral observation of orangutans, where my volunteer, Rumaan, our amazing team of local Indonesian assistants, or I spend an entire day following a mother orangutan, taking special note of what she eats and for how long, how much time she rests, and how much time she spends moving between feeding/resting locations.  The behavioral observations are the base information we need to assess how orangutan mothers are doing.

urine sample

Urine sample collected in the early morning. © Erin Vogel

Idun collecting urine

TORP Field Assistant Idun collecting the first morning urine void

A second part is collecting the urine from the mothers we follow.  Urine is a gold mine when it comes to information about the body.  As you can probably guess, my focus is on the energetic information found in urinary ketones (which show fat catabolism), C-peptide of insulin (which show energetic status), cortisol (which show energetic stress), and creatinine (which show muscle mass loss).  Most of these analyses take place back at Rutgers, though.

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Tim Bransford climbing a tree to collect fruit samples

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Tim taking a break from collecting fruit samples and looking out over the forest

The third part, and the most exciting to do in the field, is the sampling of the food items that the orangutans eat.  This can include anything from leaves to fruit to bark to insects.  Unless we collect samples as the orangutans drop them while they eat, most of the time we have to climb trees to get what we need.  The trees can be anywhere from 10 meters to 30 meters high, and for me, the higher the tree the more fun I have.  Once we collect the sample, we must take it back to camp for processing, which includes cutting them into tiny pieces and drying it so we can have them analyzed for their nutritional components (protein, fats, carbohydrates, fiber).

I am a problem-solver at heart and drying food samples requires a ton of problem solving (especially ripe fruits because they have so much water in them, up to 99%).  There are several competing elements to drying fruit, and temperature is the most important factor involved.  To preserve the nutritional information in a sample, you have to maintain a relatively low drying temperature.  Unfortunately, low temperatures mean longer drying times and longer drying times mean more exposure to humidity and the potential for mold.  In the past, we have used kerosene ovens to dry samples, but the temperature is hard to control and the wicks must be monitored closely.  This year, I brought with me a food dehydrator and it has revolutionized the process.  The only problem is that for it to run the required amount of time, we need a constant power source (the camp generator is only on for five hours a day).  Enters one of my favorite hobbies…building stuff.  In order to solve the power supply problem, my friend Rahmatdi, Rumaan, and I built a generator with a 3000W alternator and a 6.5hp small engine.  Rumaan and I also built a nice platform for the generator, which is running smoothly as I write.tims fruit dryer motor

Field work requires a lot of thinking outside the box.  Every week brings with it a new obstacle to overcome and being in such a remote location means one has to understand what they have available and think of the best possible solution.  This is my favorite part of field work.  My least favorite part: flies and mosquitos, but who can really blame me on that one?

tim planting tree

Tim Bransford started his doctoral studies at Rutgers University in Evolutionary Anthropology in the Department of Anthropology in 2012. He is spending 14 months in Indonesia conducting his dissertation field work funded by USAID. Here Tim is planting trees with local school children as part of TORP’s environmental education project.