Monday, June 23, 2014

The Kutai Experience

Early morning along the river In Kutai National Park
I have to admit, I was warned in advance: you can make all kinds of plans, but once you're in Indonesia, you never know how it's going to go. That was definitely the case for the latest segment of this project. Originally I was going to spend this week visiting Kutai National Park and then an oil palm plantation with the UTEP student team focused on a project that uses imaging technology to track the progress of forest cover and to categorize habitat type (primary forest, secondary forest, agriculture, settlement, etc).  The plan was to observe first hand how orangutans make a living in natural forest and try to cope in the plantations that are replacing much of Indonesia's forests. However, an injury on the team (don't worry dear readers, all turned out OK) forced an early return from Kutai to Smarinda (5 hr drive). So a day later I returned to Kutai (another 10 hr round trip) with a different UTEP student team focused on ecotourism, and did not get to see the oil palm and eucalyptus/acacia paper plantations up close. In between Kutai trips we wrapped up the sign and animal enrichment projects with Mulawarman University (UNMUL) students at Kebun Raya Botanical Garden.

UTEP and UNMUL students and staff with one of the finished signs,
and a timely orangutan photobomb by Hercules

UTEP - picks up!

Landmark at the equator - I've driven across 6 times now on this trip!
Kutai National Park is approximately 2000 sq km, located on the central east coast of East Kalimantan province in Indonesia, on the island of Borneo (Borneo parks map). Unfortunately, even this protected area has not escaped serious damage from illegal encroachment by logging, mining, and settlers. In addition, large fires in the mid-80's damaged much of the primary growth forest, though with time that is recovering as secondary forest. There are 2 areas of the park that are accessible to tourists - Sangkima and Prevab. Prevab is more remote and less damaged, and must be accessed by a 30 min boat ride from Sangatta.

Just getting to Sangatta is a challenge! Rain and Indonesian
roads is a bad combo.
Boat ride to the camp

Along the river in Kutai

We spent a day and night at Prevab, where we were able to observe orangutans and other forest critters. The camp at Prevab is quite rustic, and not for the delicate traveller. So considering the conditions and the ongoing damage to the park, it will need a lot of infrastructure improvement, enforcement of forest protection, attention to orangutan welfare, and attention to guest safety before it can become a serious ecotourism destination. We knew what to expect, and the wildlife and forest experience were definitely worth the effort.

Students cross a foot bridge in Kutai

Lunch at the Prevab camp in Kutai
Students chatted about educational programs
and opportunities in each other's schools

Shelf mushrooms on a log in the forest
Huge tree in Kutai

Feeling short in this forest!

Many different types of mushrooms were
springing from the moist forest floor

With the help of park guides, we were able to observe 4 wild orangutans - 2 sets of mothers with offspring. The orangutans in Prevab are somewhat habituated and tolerant of human observers, so we were able to watch them foraging for fruit and tasty vegetation for several minutes at a time. It was so impressive to see them move easily through the canopy of the forest, pulling some leaves closer for snacking, and using the flexible branches to swing across to the next tree. We could also see several orangutan nests - beds of vegetation they make almost daily for sleeping safely and comfortably in the canopy.

Can you see the orangutan high in the trees?

Here's a zoomed in version... she is checking us out too!

Orangutan watching

We hiked some trails during the day and at night, and found lots of interesting animals, especially invertebrates and amphibians!


We woke up before dawn the next morning, packed up camp, and took another longer boat ride to see proboscis monkeys (named for their large noses - see proboscis info) along the river. They were shy though, and I only got a brief view and no pictures. Several other monkeys, and birds including kingfishers (stork billed kingfisher), sea eagles (sea eagle info), and broadbills (black and red broadbill info) also made appearances along the river. Now we have made it back to Balikpapan, and will catch a flight to Bali tomorrow. We are headed for West Bali National Park next, to check out Bali Starling (aka Bali Mynah) breeding and recovery programs, as well as community based ecotourism. More on that for you next time!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Busy Day at Kebun Raya Botanical Garden

11 year old orangutan at
Kebun Raya UNMUL Samarinda
Today was a very busy day finally getting to work for Kebun Raya UNMUL Samarinda (KRUS), the education forest and botanical garden managed by the University Muluwarman (UNMUL) near Samarinda. We have visited KRUS twice already during our stay in Samarinda. Those visits let us explore the grounds and get to know KRUS, and talk to the faculty in the Forestry School at UNMUL who are responsible for the facility. One of the major goals of this UTEP project is to make some improvements at KRUS.

KRUS is an Education Forest used by UNMUL for student projects and classes, as well as being open to the public. There are some amusement facilities (paddle boats, train, bumper cars, local food cart vendors) to make it a family fun destination - one of the few outdoor fun destinations available in crowded Samarinda. The facility now also houses several animals that are rescued from illegal pet trade, injury, or habitat destruction. While there are several large enclosures with lots of climbing and playing structures for the orangutans and the sun bear, many of the other animal enclosures are very small and do not provide much comfort or behavioral stimulation. Most also have signs that have faded away or broken, and there isn't any education info for the public.

Small gibbon enclosure
Gibbon at KRUS

Sun bear enclosure at KRUS - nice!

One of the orphan orangutan enclosures at KRUS
Lots of toys and climbing structures!
So today, after previous days of planning and buying materials, the UTEP students and I worked with UNMUL students and faculty to make frames for educational signs that the students designed and will have professionally printed, and to make enrichment devices to improve the daily lives of some of the animals. We aren't finished, the students will have a couple more days to keep up the work!

UTEP and UNMUL students working on signs

As for bigger solutions to the cramped housing, that will take longer than the 2 weeks we have left here. I'll provide a document with recommendations to the KRUS managers, including some enclosure modifications, animal care, and enrichment strategies. Luckily, there are some folks already involved at KRUS who have some very similar ideas but need the support and resources to make it happen. They are from an organization called the Center for Orangutan Protection (COP), and they are already the primary caretakers of the orangutans at KRUS. They designed and built, with volunteers, the climbing structures in the larger enclosures, and they have a lot of knowledge and ideas about enrichment and improving animal care at KRUS. COP also helps rescue "pet" orangutans and orphans, are activists trying to raise awareness and fight forest destruction for palm oil plantations that are rapidly eradicating vital orangutan habitat and creating more orangutan orphans and injuries, and holds training workshops for Indonesian zoos to improve their standard of animal care. I hope that together we can spread some of the love to the rest of the KRUS residents!

One of COP's eye catching trucks 

Breakfast time for orphans - these guys will hopefully
make it back into the wild after COP staff help them learn
forest survival skills and they are big enough to be on their own

Me with veterinarian Dr. Iman and Area Manager Dhani from COP

And finally, just for fun, I have to tell everyone that most of the Indonesians I have met like taking pictures and being in pictures, and they LOVE taking pictures with us foreigners! So we are now in a LOT of photos with a lot of very friendly Indonesians, and on who knows how many Indonesian Facebook pages! So here are a couple of groups of school kids at KRUS who were very excited to pose with us. The UTEP students are teaching as many as they can to put their "picks up" too!

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Ecotourism and Bontang

My latest adventure was not incredibly exotic or thrill-inducing, but it was a slice of the behind the scenes work that has to happen to advance conservation efforts. I spent two days with 4 UTEP students attending an ecotourism workshop in Bontang, a city on the coast of East Kalimantan, 3 hours drive north of Samarinda.

The workshop was sponsored by our partner Universitas Muluwarman, and included an impressive assembly of officials from local and regional government, the University, Indonesian National Parks management, tourism officials, and scientific experts on forestry, ecosystems, and primates (including Dr. Anne Russon and her project manager Purwo Kunkoro, who study Kutai's orangutans - you can learn about their project here: Kutai Orangutan Project). We were all gathered to provide multiple viewpoints on the development of ecotourism to Kutai National Park (Kutai NP Info). I provided information on the risks to the health of apes from interacting closely with people, and how we keep the primates at the zoo safe from human diseases.

Ecotourism, it turns out, is a controversial topic. On the one hand, it has the potential to provide economic benefits for people in ecologically valuable areas, in a way that preserves and values the natural attractions instead of extracting their natural resources through mining, logging, etc. However there can be very negative impacts from bringing even eco-minded tourists into these special places, and too often the profits get funneled away from the community and into big tourism companies or government.

The possible negative impact on the endangered orangutans of Kutai is a major concern - tourists in areas with primates can bring diseases like tuberculosis, hepatitis, and flu with them, which can infect and harm the primates. Having lots of people around can also cause long term stress, reduced populations, and lead to conflict between the apes and the people, especially if the apes become accostomed to seeking food from people. The park is already under pressure from illegal logging and illegal squatters taking up residence along the road into the park. There were many voices of caution, including many Indonesian experts in these fields. Hopefully their government listens to them to develop the most sustainable tourism program possible, with appropriate limits and controls on access to areas with orangutans.

Since pictures of a room full of people in a workshop are not very exciting, here are some photos from the nearby fishing village of Bontang Kuala, where I went for dinner one night with some other workshop participants. It's a village on stilts in the mangroves with boardwalks for roads, which are shared by pedestrians and lots of motorbikes! I have never seen anything like it, but it is not unique in Indonesia. To get the full effect, you have to imagine the frequent "clackety clackety clackety" of motorcycles driving over loose boardwalk slats...

Bike on the boardwalk in Bontang Kuala
clack clack clack clack...

Mangroves in Bontang Kuala

Fishing boats andboardwalks 

Future World Cup contenders playing on the boardwalk "field" in Bontang Kuala

Preferred mode of transportation!!

Finally reached the end of the boardwalk

Moon over the water as we ate dinner at a boardwalk cafe in Bontang Kuala

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Visit to Sun Bear Educational Center

Selamat malam, everyone! Good evening!

Yesterday was a long day of traveling and checking out a couple of conservation sites along the way. We stayed in a hotel in Balikpapan (in the state/province of East Kalimantan on the island of Borneo) Sunday night after arriving by air from Jakarta (on the island of Java). It was a quick flight on Garuda Indonesia, the leading airline in Indonesia. Because Indonesia is made up of many islands, it is common to either fly or take ferries to get between cities on different islands, and ferries are pretty slow!

After loading up in the bus provided by our University of Muluwarman colleagues, Pak Rudi and Pak Irawan (Pak is a respectful way to address men in Indonesian, Ibu is the equivalent for women), we drove to Kawasan Wisata Pendidikan Lingkungan Hidup (KWPLH), outside of Balikpapan. This is an educational facility that houses rehabilitated sun bears. The bears are rescued from poachers and the illegal pet trade, where they endured inhumane conditions, and sometimes permanent injuries. This facility is a great model of a well designed center for conservation education, it was a pleasure to visit and the bears are very well cared for. KWPLH Website

Welcome to the Sun Bear Conservation Education Center
Heavily forested sun bear enclosure on the left
Lush tropical trees and plants throughout the Center

KWPLH has about 9.5 hectares of space, with a main bear enclosure that is about 1.3 hectares. The enclosure is essentially natural growth forest, with some added amenities including a holding building for the 5 bears that inhabit it. Visitors can observe the bears from a boardwalk along the outside. KWPLH staff make sure visitors do not bring food or water on the boardwalk, which could draw the bears away from their more natural foraging, and are careful to educate visitors to be quiet since the bears are shy. Caecilia guided us on our tour, and she expertly answered many many questions from our group. Much thanks to Caecilia for hosting us so enthusiastically!

We saw 4 of the bears on our visit, and it was a blast to watch them in the heavily forested area pulling on branches to get fruit, climbing, and digging for bugs. The bears get supplemental fruit and bugs in their diet since in the wild, it takes much more than 1.3 hectares to naturally provide enough bugs and fruit to feed each bear. The center also had a very impressive educational area with many graphics about every imaginable sun bear topic - what they eat in the forest, what threatens their survival (deforestation for agriculture and mining, poaching), what it's like to grow up as a sun bear, the tools we use to research how they live in the wild, and many more. There were also graphics about all of the other species of bears, including our North American species - brown bears, black bears, and polar bears. Caecilia is planning to visit the US soon, she is determined to see grizzlies!
The sun bear is the mascot for Balikpapan

Bear climbing a tree to get to some fruit

Some of the great graphics at the Sun Bear Education Center:

After KWPLH , we also stopped at a research forest managed by the University of Muluwarman. This small section of forest is used to study plant succession, reforestation rates, and propagation of the important types of trees in the forest for reforestation.

Our group split up after that, and I continued with 4 others on a 3 hour drive to Bontang for an Ecotourism Workshop that started today. The road trip was an adventure in itself - Indonesian roads, traffic, and driving are pretty wild, not for the faint of heart! Let's just say the "lanes" are a bit fluid, there are mopeds and motorcycles sneaking in and out constantly, and passing is frequent and bold.

I really wish I had video of the drive to Bontang - but that might actually be too scary to post anyway...