Celebrating Twenty-Five Years of the Gunung Palung Orangutan Project

By Cheryl Knott, PhD, GPOCP Executive Director
On October 7th I was honored to receive a 2017 Pongo Environmental Award for “significant field work furthering our understanding of the Bornean orangutan as well as dedicated efforts to conserve the species and educate the public over the past quarter century.” The award was presented at a gala benefit event in Pasadena, California, by Dr. Gary Shapiro on behalf of The Orang Utan Republic Foundation – our partner in the Orangutan Caring Scholarship.
Executive Director, Dr. Cheryl Knott, at the Pongo Award’s Ceremony, sponsored by Orang Utan Republic Foundation on October 7, 2017.
Has it really been 25 years since I took my first “boat trip” upriver to the Cabang Panti Research Station and fell in love with wild orangutans?  I remember the moment that I knew I had found my life’s work. Since dawn I had been following the adult female orangutan, Kristen, who had both a small baby and an older juvenile in tow.  I was on the MT hill, a short distance from our camp, and was lying on my poncho, to get a steady view, as I watched this little family through my binoculars.  As they deftly maneuvered from tree to tree, along the edge of a rainforest gap, rare afternoon sunbeams penetrated through the foliage, highlighting their brilliant orange fur. This magical place had it all for me – magnificent creatures I wanted to protect, research questions that were begging to be answered, the most beautiful rainforest I’d ever seen, and the friendship and bond I felt with the people of Indonesia.
I’ve had the privilege to witness the most jubilant and the most tragic moments in the lives of wild orangutans.  One of my most poignant experiences was being with Kristen during her final days in 2010.  The video below tells this story.
Dr. Cheryl Knott talks about the death from old age of wild orangutan, Kristen, in Gunung Paling National Park
Dr. Cheryl Knott talks about the death, from old age, of wild orangutan, Kristen, in Gunung Paling National Park.
On my last day at camp this summer I had another amazing moment with a wild female orangutan.  I was with my daughter, Jessica, and we hiked out to meet up with my research team and the BBC film crew that was spending the month with us filming orangutans. Bibi, and her baby, Bayas, were on the ground, eating termites. I was amazed at how totally habituated they were – I counted 9 people just a feet away from them, separated by only a few bushes.  What a far cry from my first days at Cabang Panti, chasing after orangutans who had no interest in being followed.  We’d come to the point where a mother and baby would tolerate our presence, and not even look in our direction. I’d never been so close to a wild orangutan before!  Bibi spent almost an hour in that spot, seemingly oblivious to our presence, as her baby played on mom and grabbed some termites for himself. What a way to celebrate my 25th year milestone.
Dr. Cheryl Knott and the original research team in 1994-1995.
But, this project is so much more than just my own journey. I’m so thankful to the dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people who have also devoted significant chunks of their lives to studying and protecting wild orangutans with me in Gunung Palung. There are the research managers who spend a year or more managing a thousand details of the project – everything from collecting fecal temperatures to sorting out the latest logistical supply run. They are the backbone that keeps the project running. There are the volunteers, who chip in wherever they are needed – providing that extra set of hands to make sure nothing falls through the cracks. There are the students who come to learn about wild orangutans, and make their own contribution to unlocking their secrets.  And, of course there are the field and lab assistants who are there day in and day out, rain or shine, and have spent more hours following and observing these magnificent apes then I can ever hope to spend. Everyone from our Research Director, Wahyu Susanto, to our camp staff, keeps the project humming.
The Research Team, August 2017.
On the conservation side, the Program Managers and Field Directors provide the day-to-day direction and guidance that have helped us make a difference for orangutan conservation. Our dedicated conservation staff have spent years devoted to the task of safeguarding wild orangutans and their habitat.  They never give up and are always finding new ways to inspire and work with the local people and government to protect one of Indonesia’s rarest wildlife treasures.
GPOCP Conservation Staff (and friends) July 2017.
Our sponsors – UNTAN, RISTEKDIKTI, LIPI, the Eijkman Institute and the National Park Directors and staff – have made this work possible. And, it never would have happened if my husband, Tim Laman, hadn’t first brought me to Gunung Palung in 1992 so he could measure his fig tree seedlings, high up in the canopy, as our first stop en route to Africa.  Russell and Jessica -seeing your love for this magical place makes it even more special.  Thank you all!  I’m looking forward to what the next 25 years will have in store!

Dr. Cheryl Knott and Dr. Tim Laman, in the top of a Dipterocarp tree, Gunung Palung National Park, 1992.