BY GUEST WRITER NATALIE OLIVER-CALDWELL
Growing up surrounded by nature in New Zealand, I’ve cared about the environment and animals since I was young, even convincing some of my friends I could speak with them. After hearing the famous primatologist and conservationist Jane Goodall speak in Auckland, New Zealand back in 2017, her contagious hope for the future changed my life trajectory for good.
Her caring and eloquent way of speaking can inspire anyone to care about conserving our natural world and I particularly remember her explaining that “only if we understand, will we care, only if we care, will we help, only if we help, shall we all be saved”. She grew my interest in primates, especially great apes with their cognitive ability and endangerment, and it’s led me here, to Suaq Balimbing, a small orangutan conservation and research station in South Aceh, Indonesia, where I’ve been a student volunteer for the past 8 months.
Not everyone goes on an adventure like this one and family, friends, and strangers alike are often intrigued about what our life is like at our isolated home. So, as I sit at a cluttered table inside one of the camp huts surrounded by tall trees and chattering monkeys, with electricity for the next 2 hours, Indonesian music and laughter coming from the balcony, I’ll give you a glimpse into this corner of the world, where an incredible population of Sumatran orangutans live, and what we’re doing at Suaq to protect their future.
To get to the station, or as we call it, camp, we first make our way to Medan – one of the biggest cities in Indonesia located on Sumatra Island. Next, we take a bumpy overnight van ride to a small village, then a 2 hour boat trip into the jungle. The boat trip is a highlight (if we can keep our eyes open), it’s always beautiful, we see Kingfisher birds, big lizards, and even monkeys jumping from 10m up in trees to SPLASH into the water, plus the occasional orangutan!
The orangutans at Suaq are different from any other orangutan population. You might have even seen them featured in the new Netflix series, Our Planet. They use specialised tools, make umbrellas from leaves, and build complex nests where they sleep or rest. They are far more social than any other orangutan population leading to quicker intellectual advances than other populations.
This special behaviour likely stems from the forest itself being unique. It’s a peat swamp forest, making it uniquely difficult to walk through, and secondly uniquely nutrient-dense, producing an equally dense availability of food. The abundance of the forest attracts plenty of other wildlife, like Gibbons and Siamang, Sun Bears, Thomas’s and Sundial Silvered Langur monkeys, Hornbill birds, Colugos, a variety of snakes and lizards, there’s even a Sumatran tiger family out the back of the camp.
Caroline Schuppli from The University of Zurich manages the research side of Suaq in collaboration with the local NGO Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program (SOCP), Yayasan Ekosystem Lestari (YEL), and PanEco Foundation. Researchers come from Zurich as well as local universities like Universitas Nasional in Jakarta, who we work with closely. My position here involves keeping the station running while collecting data for later analysis. The presence of researchers in the forest has a big effect on the protection of the orangutans. Together with the local people, the forest is regularly monitored and any illegal activity is reported on. The station offers a lot of jobs to the local people and is seen as a well-liked alternative source of income. As pictured below, we currently have five permanent research assistants, two student volunteers including me and Lara (a biologist from the Netherlands), one local student Tri, the camp manager, three rotating cooks- plus local young people who we hire on a rotational basis. We also have rangers who stay across the river, two are permanent while groups visit every so often to monitor the forest. We all work together to keep things going, and living in such close quarters, Lara and I feel like we’ve found a small family within the forest, a home away from home.
The camp is comfy and basic and sits up from the river on a small hill. Most people share rooms and we use water from an uphill stream for drinking and washing. Lara and I share a room which steps out into the dining room, it’s mostly taken up by a long table with bench seating where we all eat together or complete work. In the main house, there are another 4 bedrooms off the dining room, plus the kitchen, plus a bathroom. It contains an Indonesian style toilet, a big bath of water that we ladle out with a bucket for showers and flushing, plus plenty of spider friends. The rest of the assistants and workers stay in another couple of small buildings next-door. Off from the main house is a balcony, which during sunset is a perfect monkey watching spot, or at night, we sit and play cards or just sit and relax doing our own things. Normally though, Tri, Lara, and I are busy at the dining table finishing off work or planning and preparing for the next day.
An average day here consists of work in the forest, which is either searching or following. On a search day, we set off at 8 am, walking in the forest for an hour or so, then sitting for around 30 minutes listening out for any noise, and repeat until 5 pm. If we hear something, we look to find what it might be, sometimes it’s an orangutan and sometimes we find other wildlife. We get a little bit bored during the waiting times and at some point, my Indonesian conversation skills are exhausted, so sometimes I’ll bring a book or even a couple of times I’ve fallen asleep in my hammock. The next day, we’ll set off before sunrise to find the orangutan nests and follow their daily actions from below, recording everything they do until they make their night nest to sleep. We record where the nest is and set off the next day again. These days are tough, sometimes stretching up to 16 hours! We are fuelled by rice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with veggies plus some sort of protein. But mostly rice, as the people here say, ‘no rice, no strong’.
The more time I spend observing the orangutans, the more I get to know them as individuals. They each have their own personalities, quirks, and social ties. For example, Ellie (pictured below with the abundant belly), loves to eat (most orangutans here do but especially Ellie), and won’t stop even when it starts raining, plus she has quite the temper. 9-year-old Lois, also pictured below, has his own slow-moving style and seems to be in a dream most of the time. We see first-hand how important the bond between a mother and child is, how much learning they miss out on without up to 10 years spent in close contact. We watch them drive out unwanted lovers and make-up old rips in relationships when their kids start to play together. There is so much more to say about these animals and even more still to learn about them, and that’s part of the reason why we need to protect their home.
Alongside forest work, we also visit the local schools in the villages. There, we give presentations about the orangutans and conservation or even run colouring-in competitions. We recently designed and made an interactive game for the kids, teaching them about orangutans, the forest, and the benefits of protecting it. Everyone at camp gets involved in these visits, wrapping presents for the prizes all together and helping transport us to the school on the day, it’s always a great day and we can see the kids enjoy it!
Suaq has left a special imprint on me that I won’t forget when I return to New Zealand. It isn’t at all easy here, integrating with a very different culture, learning a new language, missing home, toughing it through long days in the forest and itching as I’ve never known before, but it’s been worth it for the incredible time I’ve spent with these animals and the sense of being a part of something bigger than me, that I hope will continue.