Tracking the Forest People

Tracking the Forest People

In the rainforests of Borneo, Erin Vogel '95 studies a group of orangutans in hopes of protecting this dwindling species.

By Adriana Nordin Manan '07 | Photos by Joram Berlowtiz, Jose Florez, Livia Haag, Tremain Jones, Adriano Lamiero, and Erin Vogel.
Illustrations by Robert P. Hernandez


 

Capuchin monkeys led to orangutans. Orangutans led to Kalimantan. The science path is direct.

The route to the rainforest is long and arduous. As Wilson puts it, “It takes a special person to work in the tropics.”

Anthropologist Erin Vogel '95, sitting at center, with fellow researchers at Tuanan research station in the Mawas Reserve in the Kalimantan region of the island of Borneo.
Anthropologist Erin Vogel '95, sitting at center, with fellow researchers at Tuanan research station in the Mawas Reserve in the Kalimantan region of the island of Borneo.

Vogel flies to Jakarta, then to Palangkaraya, is driven five hours (mostly off road) to the Kapuas River. A five-hour river trip ends in the small town of Pasir Putih, next to Tuanan, where the base camp is located.

Built on stilts, the base camp can house 25 people, though the norm is to have around 15 from Europe, the United States, and Indonesia.

The Tuanan research station is located within the Mawas Reserve, a territory managed by the government of Indonesia and the nonprofit Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOS). Vogel was invited to work at Tuanan through her colleague Carel van Schaik of the University of Zurich. Van Schaik is a leading authority on orangutan behavior and conservation, especially in the Indonesian regions of Kalimantan and Sumatra. While van Schaik and his colleagues take charge of the research that goes on in the site, BOS protects it from illegal loggers and carries out reforestation efforts around Tuanan. Vogel herself has instructed a dozen students from Indonesia, the United States, and Switzerland on data collection methods.

Vogel and her colleagues make it a point to involve Indonesian students in their projects. “For each international student that comes here, we pay for an Indonesian counterpart,” she said. “Otherwise, they would not be able to afford this kind of research.” Thanks to a National Science Foundation grant awarded in 2007, Vogel will soon be able to bring in at least five students from Indonesia and the United States to work with her in Tuanan and other sites on the neighboring island of Sumatra.

"Each time [loggers] bring us the babies we tell them that we cannot pay them and that they could go to jail. We give them gas money and offer them food, because that's common courtesy."

- Erin Vogel '95, associate researcher in the department of anthropology at UC Santa Cruz

Collaboration with the host society extends to work with Indonesian academics, primarily from the national capital, Jakarta. Vogel collaborates and co-publishes with two experts on primates from the National University (Universitas Nasional), and whenever she is in the country she gives talks. Familiar with the pressing circumstances the great apes are in, she is hopeful her research will contribute to the ongoing effort to save the orangutans.

“If the rate of deforestation continues or even decreases slightly,” Vogel said, “orangutans will be extinct in fifty to a hundred years. We don’t have a lot of time left, and I’m hoping that our research will allow us to understand the most important factors of diet selection and what plant species we need to focus on when carrying out reforestation work.”

Erin VogelAt her base camp, Vogel is frequently reminded that the illegal destruction of habitat continues. Loggers occasionally come to the researchers with baby orangutans. The mothers have been killed. The loggers are looking to trade the baby apes for money.

“Each time they bring us the babies we tell them that we cannot pay them and that they could go to jail,” Vogel said. “We give them gas money and offer them food, because that’s common courtesy. Plus, you’re never rude in Indonesian culture and must always keep your cool and talk to people with respect even if you don’t actually respect them.”

She is conversant in Indonesian and well aware of the choices the locals have to make in order to make a living. All the local assistants at the station are former loggers.

If they weren’t working with us they’d be logging, because that’s their only means, and I understand that. They need to survive, so we’re trying to provide them with other opportunities. Between our project and Mawas, we have about twenty to thirty locals working for us,” Vogel said.

 
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