My Return to Gunung Palung

By Caitlin O’Connell, Deputy Director

Hello to all our friends and supporters! I am thrilled to be back working with GPOCP again as the new Deputy Director, a position I started in July. I first traveled to Indonesia in 2010 as a first-year PhD student working with our Executive Director, Dr. Cheryl Knott. I spent the summer in Gunung Palung National Park exploring my ideas for my dissertation research and falling in love with the forest and the orangutans. I returned from 2013-2014 and collected data for my thesis on the social behavior and health of orangutans under different ecological conditions. Since completing my Ph.D., I have held postdoctoral positions at the University of Southern California and Rutgers University, continuing to study how changes and challenges in the environment impact the health of orangutans. For the last two years I have been a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, teaching a wide variety of biological anthropology courses and mentoring students. All the while, I have remained connected to GPOCP through continued collaboration on understanding the parasite infection patterns of the orangutans over time – an important indicator of health in orangutans themselves as well as the environment.

Dinner at camp during Ramadan in 2010. Long-time research staff members Rhanda (third from the left) and Hassan (third person back on the right in black shirt) and myself (right).
Most of the research camp crew in 2010, including long-time GPOCP/YP team members Hassan (far left in red), Wahyu our Research Director (in front wearing black), myself (towards the center in yellow), Executive Director Cheryl Knott (towards center and front in pink), and Cheryl’s kids, Russell and Jessica (next to and in front of Cheryl).

After taking on my new role as Deputy Director, I traveled back to Indonesia this summer for the first time in 9 years! It was a thrilling homecoming for me, reconnecting with team members I have not seen in a long while, seeing all our incredible programs in action and how they have grown over time, and visiting my favorite spot in the world – Cabang Panti Research Station. While there, I got to follow the orangutan, Bibi, who I spent many, many days with during my dissertation research. I was struck by the similarities between Bibi’s current dependent offspring, Bayas, and her older daughter Berani who was around Bayas’ age last time I was there. Both Bayas and Berani seemed to struggle with independence from Bibi a bit. I have an even greater appreciation for watching these mother-offspring interactions now, as I had my own children in the interim. Independence can be hard for both mother and offspring!

Toto and myself, watching an orangutan in 2013.
Examining parasites from orangutan feces in 2014.

While at the research camp I also got to reconnect with Hassan and Toto, two of our long-time field assistants that I have known since 2010 and 2013, respectively. We have spent countless hours together (I am suppressing the urge to go calculate those hours from the database!) following orangutans, chatting after meals, and having forest adventures. In the years since I was last at camp, there have been marriages, children, and other milestones among us, and I look forward to creating new memories with Hassan and Toto and the whole team. Many of our research and conservation staff have been with us for just as long, and it was so exciting to see so many familiar faces. Having people throughout our organization that have this long-term perspective to reflect on how things have changed over time is invaluable. I had the opportunity to visit many of our conservation programs and I was blown away by how they have expanded and the degree to which they are embedded in and driven by members of the local community. The village forest program, aquaculture for sustainable livelihoods, the use of drones for research and conservation monitoring – all of these (and more!) are new to me, and I have learned so much in just a few short months.

Caitlin with long-time research field assistants Toto (top) and Hassan (bottom) this summer 2023 at Cabang Panti

While I will mostly be working from home in suburban Philadelphia, I am so excited to be able to call the entire GPOCP/Yayasan Palung team my colleagues and co-workers. During my visit, I was so impressed by the breadth and depth of expertise in our organization, and I am eager to apply my own expertise and passion for conservation to furthering our mission and supporting all our programs and staff. I am looking forward to working together to improve the wellbeing of people, forests, and orangutans and sharing that journey with you all.