By Natalie Robinson, Program Coordinator
For the past seven years I have been a part of the GPOCP/Yayasan Palung team, most recently as the Program Coordinator. In August, I said a bittersweet goodbye to my colleagues and friends at GPOCP/YP as I began my doctoral program at Rutgers University, where I am now a member of the Laboratory for Primate Dietary Ecology and Physiology in the Department of Anthropology.
I started my involvement with GPOCP/YP as an undergraduate student at Boston University, where I helped with data management and lab work, eventually completing a senior honors thesis on free simple sugars in orangutan foods. After graduating, I spent a year living and working at Cabang Panti Research Station, Gunung Palung National Park as a Research Assistant. It was then, after years of working with data in the lab, that I witnessed orangutans in their natural habitat and developed a deeper understanding of and appreciation for orangutans and their conservation.
When I hiked out of the research station at the end of my year-long stay in 2019, beginning the long journey back to the U.S., I saw three orangutans at the dam that marks the edge of the National Park and supplies water to the village of Tanjung Gunung. Accompanying me during that hike was Pak Edi, a porter at the time, who now works full time at the Rangkong research camp. We sat to rest our legs before the last section of the walk, and observed the three apes – a mother and juvenile, and another adult – as they foraged on the outskirts of protected land. It was rare to see an orangutan this far out from the primary rainforest and this close to the human settlement, let alone three! I became tearful on the final section of the hike out, reflecting on the life-changing year that I had and all the things that I would miss. I remember calling Dr. Knott once I reached the researcher house in the town of Ketapang to update her, and I told her about the orangutans that I saw at the dam. I told her I thought it was their way of saying goodbye to me. Instead, Dr. Knott told me that she thought it was a sign that I would be back again…
Shortly after returning to the U.S., the COVID-19 pandemic began, and I transitioned from working part-time on social media and donor management for GPOCP/YP, to working full time as Program Coordinator in the summer of 2020. I built up my repertoire of skills, learning more about the conservation program within GPOCP/YP, so I could continue to expand my responsibilities. I worked to oversee both the research and conservation programs, and served as the liaison between the Indonesia and Boston offices as everyone got used to working from home, adjusting as needed to keep our program running at full capacity. I learned to write and report on grants, manage donor relations, train research managers and assistants, ensure appropriate field data collection, conduct financial management and budgeting, create newsletters, maintain websites, and more. It was rewarding to shift my focus from field methods to understand the conservation- and management-side of operations.
After anxiously awaiting travel restrictions to loosen so I could get back to this special place, I was able to return to West Kalimantan for two months in the summer of 2022, and then again in January-February of this year. It was wonderful to reconnect with old friends, strengthen working relationships, and meet new people who also care about understanding and saving wild orangutans.
Throughout the time I’ve spent in Indonesia, I witnessed the welcoming of four new infant orangutans, attended three weddings, spent two of my birthdays in the rainforest, and learned one new language. I was also embraced by a warm community of lifelong friends. During my time with GPOCP/YP I’ve also seen many changes – COVID forced some necessary changes in structure and staffing, we welcomed new staff and said sad goodbyes to others, we rebuilt the research station, we moved offices. While changes will continue to occur, I take comfort in knowing that this program existed way before me and, thanks to the incredibly dedicated staff, will continue way beyond me.
Although it is very sad to leave GPOCP/YP, I know that this is more of a sampai jumpa nanti (see you later) than a selamat tinggal (goodbye). For my dissertation research I intend to conduct a comparative study between orangutans living at the Tuanan Research Station in Central Kalimantan, and those living in Gunung Palung. I can’t wait to return to Gunung Palung once the time comes.
I am incredibly grateful for the experiences – both personal and professional – I have gained throughout my work with the orangutans (and people) of Gunung Palung National Park. These experiences have enriched me with skills that I know will help me to succeed in my future as I pursue my PhD, and beyond. GPOCP/YP has helped fortify me with a wide range of skills and to develop a cultural and linguistic competency to collaborate with people of different ages, nationalities, and backgrounds. I am excited and humbled to see where this next stage of my career takes me.