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Editorial Ideas


RESIDENT SCIENTISTS CONTRIBUTE FEATURE COLUMNS

Involve resident or local scientists in contributing articles/stories to the local media. Whether they are writing about their own locale or places they have travelled to, there are numerous compelling stories about the value of biodiversity and the importance all species play in our world.

Topics may include:

  • How do changes to the environment threaten species?
  • Raising Babies - what's involved in returning orphaned elephants and orangutans to the wild?
  • What can you do to support the survival of a species?
  • What are the real costs of oil spills?
  • What about wild animals as pets?

Into the Heart of Borneo

(as submitted to The Sudbury Star, Sudbury, Ontario)

By Franco Mariotti, Staff Scientist, Science North
Entering the jungle of southern Borneo is, for me, a mix of trepidation and excitement.In one sense you have a feeling of fascination knowing full well that you are going to see creatures and things that you have never seen before. That is exciting! On the other hand, you are entering an environment that has a lot of danger. Borneo has the highest number of venomous snake species on the planet. One of them, the King Cobra, can reach a length of five metres, and when threatened can rear up to a height of almost two metres and stare at you eye to eye. But snakes aren?t the only things; the area is rife with tropical diseases such as malaria and Japanese Dengue fever that can easily make any healthy person bedridden for days at a time. Centipedes, leaches and large venomous spiders are common. The rivers have man-eating crocodiles and parasites that burrow into the skin?just a few of the things that can make a human a living target.

This is what is going through my mind as I motor up the Sekonyer River enroute to Camp Leakey. Camp Leakey is the location where, in 1971, the famous anthropologist Dr. Louis Leakey sent a young Canadian woman by the name of Birute Galdikas to study an animal that was considered by many biologists impossible to study in the wild. The natives, known as the 'Dayaks' in this part of Borneo, refer to this animal as "the person of the forest" ? otherwise known as the orangutan.
This is why I travelled to the other side of the world ? to see for myself and photograph the orangutan for a new traveling exhibit that Science North will be opening in the spring of 2011.

It was early April and I had hired a guide, Mr. Atta, and a boat driver, Mr. Howy, to take me upriver to Camp Leakey. It had rained earlier that morning. Not just a drizzle, but a downpour worthy of a shower nozzle. This was the end of the rainy season here but lately, due to climate change, the end of the rainy season was no longer predictable. Since I am traveling near the equator I cover my body from head to toe as much as possible to protect my head and body from the sun. By mid-day the temperature is 40 degrees C and rising. The humidity is over 80 per cent and stifling. By the end of an afternoon, I am exhausted.

The Sekonyer River is a milk chocolate colour derived from the decomposing vegetation all around me. Hours pass by as do the wall of trees on either side of me. Occasionally ripples radiate out from a point in front of the boat, where an animal has been scared by our boat. I watch intently to catch a glimpse of the crocodiles that inhabit the river, but without luck.

The river at this point is no more than 40 metres across and seems walled in. A green wall of trees encroaches on both sides and reminds me of scenes from Hollywood jungle movies. But this wall that delineates the shoreline is a fašade. There is no shoreline. If this was a river in Northern Ontario you would step ashore on sand or rock but here, in the jungles of southern Borneo, the land is so flat that the river continues far beyond the wall of trees, often as much as a kilometer or more beyond either side of the river.
Another hour up a side tributary and we arrive at a dock near Camp Leakey. The dock is more of a boardwalk since it is over 500 metres long before it touches dry land.

Mr. Atta, who years earlier had worked here as an orangutan field researcher, leads me into the jungle. As you enter the jungle one thing becomes very clear. You are entering a world that really is composed of two colours, green and brown. The green is the dominant colour and comes in hundreds of shades from the surrounding jungle vegetation. The brown is the colour from the stems and bark of that same vegetation. A wall of green occasionally broken by vertical lines of brown is what one sees. It is difficult for your eyes to focus on anything specific since objects blend into one another. Several times my guide 'Atta' calls me back on the trail to look at a particular plant that I had walked right by without noticing it. In one instance it was dozens of teacup sized 'pitcher' plants hanging from a vine. Each cup was filled with rainwater that traps insects inside. The trapped insects eventually drown and their decomposing bodies add valuable nutrients to the plant.

Occasionally a third colour can be seen. Small clearings caused by fallen trees reveal the blue sky overhead. These small clearings also reveal the upper canopy of the forest 50 to 70 metres above. Sometimes, large nest-like structures about a metre across can be seen in the canopy. Nests this size can easily be built by a large bird such as an eagle, but in this case they were built by the animal I had come halfway around the world to observe, the orangutan. My adrenalin starts flowing through my body and my excitement increases in anticipation of a close encounter. What would it be like to meet a red ape face to face?

Stay tuned?.
Franco Mariotti is a Biologist and Staff Scientist at Science North.


Into the Heart of Borneo, Part 2

By Franco Mariotti, Staff Scientist, Science North

I stared up at the forest canopy where, at fifty metres above the ground, an orangutan nest was silhouetted against the sky beyond. Straining my eyes and moving my head from side to side, I tried to get a glimpse of a red ape, possibly inside it. Mr. Atta, my guide, broke the silence, "old nest, no orangutan" he said. Looking at his watch he continued in his broken English, "It?s time for the feeding, come, we must go". He smiled, spun around and went off on the forest trail at a quick pace with me playing catch up.

I was soaked with sweat but now I was getting excited. We were heading to a feeding station in the middle of the jungle. At three o?clock, on every day of the year, orangutans come to be fed on a large three metre high wooden platform. This is the feeding station that acts as a grocery stop for those orangutans that have been rehabilitated back into the wild. They are rehabilitated because many of these orangutans were taken early in their lives from a mother that was shot, most likely as a pest at a palm oil plantation. The baby clinging to the mother no doubt witnessed this traumatic experience and was unsympathetically sold to someone as a pet. Having an orangutan as a pet is illegal in Indonesia but the law is toothless and is difficult to enforce.

Early on in her career of forty years, Dr. Galdikas not only studied wild orangutans but was the first to start rehabilitating orphaned animals back into the wild. It's a process that takes eight to ten years ? yes, that is correct ? eight to ten years to rehabilitate an orangutan.
A half-day away by boat, in the town of Pangkalanbun, is the orangutan orphanage where more than three hundred orangutans are being taken care of by one hundred and twenty native workers. The workers are 'Dayaks', natives who have lived in Borneo for millennia and who profess to have an affinity with orangutans; thus, the best caretakers the animals may have.

Animals are taught what food they need to eat in the jungle and which are the best branches and trees to make a nest. But what they receive from the Dayak workers is the most important thing of all ? love and a lot of tender care.
The released orangutans eventually make their way to the feeding stations. The food provided there acts as a survival measure while they are readjusting to the wild. And so the animals' visits to the feeding station vary, from those that come frequently to those that come once every few months to the few that are never seen at a feeding platform again.

Mr. Atta and I arrive at the feeding station and wait. They come from the trees. First, it's a female moving slowly in the forest canopy. Her silhouette grows bigger as she approaches. Clinging to her side is a baby, just a few weeks of age judging by its size. The female is moving slowly, alert for any threats such as male orangutans who can be aggressive at the feeding platforms. Unlike chimpanzees and gorillas, who spend a lot of their time on the ground, orangutans spend ninety-five per cent of their lives in the trees. They are built for climbing. If you look closely at their hands they have four long fingers and a long palm backed up by a short thumb. They have the most amazing feet and toes that look a lot like hands and fingers. Orangutans use all of their four limbs for climbing and they are superb at it.
The orangutan is now in a tree above the platform and looks down at us. Will she come close? I find myself holding my breath. Atta recognizes the animal and says that it?s 'Princess' with her new baby. Princess was a captive, now rehabilitated, and the baby firmly attached to her was born in the wild. They descend the slender trunk to the platform.

To the side of the platform, short trees begin to shake, shudder and another orangutan, by the name of Siswi, steps onto the platform. At thirty-five years of age Siswi is a dominant female and Princess moves back away from her. Siswi spends a lot of time at Camp Leakey, Dr. Galdikas's research station. She has become used to human visitors and is one of the orangutans that are often seen here.

Bananas and dorian fruit were left on the platform by the caretakers. Siswi is first at the food and grabs as many fruit as her mouth and hands can hold. Instead of disappearing back into the forest she climbs down the side of the platform and approaches me. Just metres away she stops and feeds. I marvel at her brown leathery face. I can see her rusty-coloured, coarse hair surrounding her face and covering her body. She finishes eating and lies down on her belly straddling a log. Occasionally, she stares at me and I stare back.
What does she see? What is she thinking of? I am told that she has been known to disappear into the forest for weeks at a time, totally living off the wild. It occurs to me that she is as much a part of this forest as a blade of grass or a beetle. Her day-to-day life follows the rhythm of a heartbeat rather than the ticking of a clock.

Suddenly, it starts to pour and within seconds Atta and I are soaked to the skin. Siswi stands up and, on all fours, walks into the underbrush.

Atta and I seek out the forest trail back to Camp Leakey. What was a few moments ago a dry forest trail is now a streambed with water rushing down the path. I feel like a wet sponge but I am lost in my own thoughts. In my mind I can see Siswi's face and her eyes. What if we really felt and believed that we too are a part of this world? What I am saying is, we as humans believing that we are truly a 'part' of this world. Not a species that is dominant or superior to all others but truly a part of this world like a blade of grass, or a beetle or an orangutan.

What if?

To help orangutans, visit Orangutan Foundation International http://www.orangutan.org/
Franco Mariotti is a biologist and Staff Scientist at Science North.