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


Orangutan Profiles

We observed Jip’s birth on Feb 14, 2006. This was the first birth observed at the Tuanan field site since we began there in 2003. Jip will remain with his mother, Juni, until he is approximately 7-9 years old. Juni is a master at inding termites in dead trees and pushing the trees over to get them out.
NikoNiko is approximately 20 years old and is the dominant male in our forest. He spends most of his time giving long calls and patrolling the forest, and the females. He has been the dominant male since we started working in Tuanan. He weighs about 350 pounds. Niko, at times, has been known to chase after researchers. We try to keep our distance.
JerryJerry is approximately 4 years old. He was a newborn infant when we started our research at Tuanan. His mother is Jinak, and if we are correct, his sister is Juni and that makes him Jip’s uncle. Jerry is our most curious orangutan and often tries to get too close to us, so we have to be very careful and back up when he gets too close.
Juni is an adult female who we stimate to be between 10 and 12 years old. She gave birth to her first offspring, Jip, in February 2006. We think she is Jerry’s older sister, but we are currently doing the genetic work to verify this.
KondorKondor is approximately 6-8 years old. She is at the age when she should be dispersing from her mother, Kerry.
Usually, when mom gives birth, the older offspring disperses on her or his own. Soon Kerry will force her to disperse. Kondor still relies on her mother to push over dead trees for termite foraging, one of the hardest skills to acquire.
Despite the dire predictions, working with orangutans is not a grim business. “There is Jerry, a four-year-old who is very playful and interested in us,” Vogel said. “He is definitely the funniest orangutan we have. He still lives with his mother, Jinak, and plays with his sister, Juni, who has her own baby, Jip. Jerry is really interested in and tries to touch us and the cameras. The rule is to stay away from them, to avoid changing their behavior, and to just be able to observe them.”

Vogel’s days with “the people of the forest” begin at 3:30 a.m. After walking to the orangutans’ nests from the base camp, Vogel waits for about half an hour until the orangutan to be followed that particular day rises and begins searching for food. She follows one individual throughout the day, as orangutans are solitary animals, a practical choice since most trees would not be able to provide enough food for larger groups. There are exceptions to this however, when orangutans get together in the trees and have what Vogel calls “parties.”

“Sometimes, in the big feeding trees, networks of females come together,” she said. “You can sometimes have two females with their infants, and when the infants get together they’re very happy. You can just tell that they’re going ‘woohoo!’—ruffling trees and playing for hours while their mums sit and eat.”

For orangutans, parties are an important form of socialization, Vogel said.

“Unlike other primates, female orangutans don’t groom. They tolerate one another and sometimes rest and stay close together, but they don’t groom. You sometimes find females and male parties, or even with two females and a male, but rarely one where males come together.”

The reason for this is the sexual competition among males, especially between the dominant flanged (“moon-cheeked”) orangutans, with prominent cheek pads like Niko’s, and smaller unflanged ones. In parties where unflanged males are in the company of females, the sight of a flanged male will send the unflanged males running, Vogel said.

Orangutans’ daytime naps, complete with quickly fashioned mini-nests, leave Vogel no other choice but to take a short siesta herself. Unrolling her hammock, she ties herself a resting spot that keeps her dry, away from the swampy waters below.

“Sometimes I bring a book or just sleep myself,” Vogel said. “You need to be able to sit down when you’re out for twelve to fourteen hours a day. The mosquitoes are horrible, and DEET is the only thing that works. There have been cases of malaria among the researchers before, but you get used to the mosquitoes—eventually.”

A study of food would not be complete without taste testing, and study of orangutan diets is no exception. Vogel does not hesitate to eat what the orangutans do (though she draws the line at meat and insects), figuring that what is safe for an orangutan will be safe for people as well. “Humans are so similar to them, and they’re much bigger than we are. If they can tolerate the food, then we should be able to.”

When the orangutans are not in the trees, assistants—one on the ground and one in the trees—collect food samples. Orangutans also are sloppy eaters—and Vogel tastes things that fall to the ground (mostly fruit and plant shoots).

“Sometimes [the food] tastes really horrible and leaves a bad taste in your mouth, but I’ll try it anyway,” she said. “I won’t eat a lot of it though, unless it tastes good and I’m hungry.”

An eating orangutan above can be trouble for anyone standing below. Food that is spit out by orangutans tends to be high in tannins and alkaloids, leaving a very bitter taste. Some of plants are related to poison ivy and poison oak and can burn one’s skin and even dye it black. People have allergic reactions to some of the fruit, Vogel notes, and form blisters that can fester in tropical weather.

In other words, Vogel’s job is no stroll through the rainforest. “Sometimes when I’m waist deep in swamp water and I’m sweating and covered with mosquitoes and my fingernails are full of dirt and I’m tired and miserable, I think to myself, ‘Why do I do this?’” she said. “Then I realize that this is what I love, and when I am in the forest I am most at peace and content.

“People don’t go into academia for the money, and I think of this as a really wonderful way to give back to society. I really like mentoring students, and if I can turn someone on to science and to primates and orangutans then I’m doing my job. If I can make a difference as far as saving some of these highly endangered species, then I am doing something right. So, really, I’m out there to make a difference, and that’s what I want to do.”

-Illustration by Robert P. Hernandez

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