The Start of a Wild Year

By Rebecca Curtis, Research Assistant


I sit here on a flight to Istanbul on my way home to the UK for a family Christmas, excitedly looking over the plane food menu. The usually cramped seating feels luxurious to me. Turkish airlines isn’t half bad, but it’s nothing special. The reason for my positive outlook on Economy Class is that I’ve been living on a diet consisting mainly of rice, tofu and cabbage and I don’t remember the last time I settled down onto a fully cushioned seat. You see, I have been lucky enough to work with the Gunung Palung Orangutan Project since September as a Research Assistant at the secluded, peaceful and yet adventure-filled rainforest research base that is Cabang Panti. What’s more, is that I’m nowhere near finished! As we enter the New Year I’ll be racing back into that lush green forest to continue my training and gain more experience in wild orangutan field research for another nine fabulous months.
Rebecca processing orangutan follow data at Cabang Panti Research Station.
Gunung Palung forest is denser, more beautiful and more alive than I ever dreamed about while impatiently waiting for my visa back in the UK. I never expected it to be as magically wondrous as it is.  Did you know that if you sit below a tree in the dark, early hours of the morning (waiting for an orangutan to wake up, obviously), without any head torch or flash light, you might find the forest floor around you slowly becoming aglow? Staring in wonder at the illuminated ground, you realize it is a bio-luminescent fungus growing on the leaf litter, but this made it no less magical! In the evenings, it’s the air that sparkles rather than the floor, and I’ve found myself several times leaning out the windowsill of our upstairs lab and staring into the shadowed tree tops where fire flies twinkle.
The dense forest surrounding Cabang Panti Research Station. Photo by Rebecca Curtis.
My first encounter with an orangutan was a truly memorable one! I walked through the forest for the first time on my own learning how to use the GPS equipment when I heard the cracking and swaying of branches above. I slowly creeped closer towards the sound when suddenly the tree next to my shoulder began to viciously shake as whatever was above was climbing down! I raced back to the path metres away, and heard a loud kiss squeak ring out behind me. Trying to catch my breath, I stood on the path and peered around a tree to view where I was just standing. A large flanged male orangutan stood upright at the “V” of the tree trunk glaring at me angrily for giving him such a fright. “You and me both!” I thought as I slowly backed away down the path. Now more experienced in tracking orangutans, I kick myself for not following him. Since I am the “newbie” I don’t blame myself for leaving behind a very angry and very large male! Lately my encounters have been much more successful, and much less of a shock, although I have had to dodge a few falling dead trees aimed at me by mother Bibi, who doesn’t seem to be too fond of me yet. Her baby, Bayas, who seems less bothered by my presence, is beginning to venture from the safety of his mother’s torso, and he often stares at me as he swings upside down from a branch, biting and waving a twig. We have seen a lot of Bibi and Bayas the past few months, other individual females and a few young males, but alas no large flanged males! I’ll have to wait and see what the New Year brings!
Mother, Bibi, and her baby, Bayas, during a follow by Rebecca at Cabang Panti. Photo credit Rebecca Curtis.
As much as we intentionally try to seek out animal encounters of a certain great ape kind, a great deal of wild and wacky encounters occur at the most unexpected moments. A snake and a civet battle to the death at the bottom steps of our main house as you hobble out of bed in the early hours. You stroll down the path, focusing your attention on the tree tops, when you stop frozen mid-step as an otter scurries up the river bank and devours a fish only a few feet away. Lizards and rodents appear in buckets or paddling in the toilet bowl while spiders of all shapes and sizes cling to the corners of the concrete walls and roof panels.

Every day is completely different from the last, whether you’re clambering through thick-vined swamps, climbing rocky mountain tops or wading down a river. Many days I sit in our little wooden office upstairs in the main building, learning various detailed data files and programs we use for our valuable research data, and I am often distracted by the family of macaques that play in the tree tops just meters away. The more data I input into the files from our research, the more my knowledge grows, particularly on individual orangutans, the scientific methods of properly researching orangutans, and the botanical diversity of the forest.

The people that make up our team at camp all have completely different personalities and each brings something different to everyone’s experience at camp. The language barrier is often challenging, but I am satisfied with how much I have learned in only a few short months. Many evenings we play games where we take turns quizzing each other in our knowledge of our different mother tongues. I can’t wait to see how far my Indonesian develops by the end of the year!
I am so appreciative for all I have seen, learned and experienced in the first few months at this special camp in the depths of the Bornean Rainforest. Words cannot describe how excited I am to return and experience so much more than I could have imagined possible! 2017 could possibly hold my greatest adventures yet!