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!

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