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Rutgers researchers study orangutans, forest fires

After publishing a paper on shorebirds and working in Costa Rican forests, Erin Vogel, a professor in the Department of Anthropology, got the experience she needed to begin studying capuchin monkeys in the wild.

Vogel began studying diet and behavior in capuchin monkeys in graduate school at Stony Brook University in ecology and evolution.

“All of my research has revolved around diet and understanding what cues primates use to detect food and select the diet they do. I look at how nutrition influences these decisions and how this influences health,” Vogel said.

In 2004, while working on her postdoctoral degree, Vogel travelled to Indonesia. While there, she worked with Rutgers, the University of Zurich and Universitas Nasional Jakarta on nutritional ecology and physiology. She eventually became co-director of the project, the Tuanan Orangutan Research Project.

Vogel's team usually works from a distance as they observe the behavior of the apes, getting as close as 10 meters from the orangutans. The orangutans sleep in nests that they build a few meters to 20 meters off the ground. Every morning, the researchers collect the orangutans' urine.

The orangutans have an interesting relationship with the local villages, Vogel said. 

Shauhin Alavi and Alysse Moldawer, doctoral students in the Department of Anthropology, both have had extensive interactions with the villagers about the orangutans.

“The flanged males, with the facial discs, have what we may call personalities. They never try to hurt us, but some of them do get aggressive. They’ll try to push trees over on you as a display,” Vogel said.

Vogel is working with several non-governmental organizations and the local forestry department to discuss recent fires in Indonesia. She has been researching alternative ways that local villagers can find income, without burning the forest for agriculture. 

There is also a fire patrol team turning into a logging patrol team at her field site. Their work is all in the name of promoting conservation.

“There are different kinds of agriculture that are sustainable. There are fisheries that are pretty important (and) rubber trees. Some areas have been growing mushrooms because they go for a lot of money in markets (in) Indonesia,” Vogel said.

Most families own their own plots of land in the form of family plots for agriculture operations like rubber or fruit trees.

“Land ownership, however, is very complicated in Indonesia and beyond my understanding as it is not very clear how people have become owners of the land they claim ... The forest we work in belongs to the government but is managed by the local forestry department and the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation," Vogel said.

The team works there with the permission of local village chiefs. The research team has to take precautions to bridge the cultural and linguistic barriers.

The team is mindful of respecting and understanding the culture of the local people, Vogel said.

"Most of our local assistants and students who come in from Jakarta are Muslim, although some are Christian. We have to respect and behave in a way that is respectful and considerate,, like how we dress or women and men interacting in appropriate relationships. All these different factors we usually don’t think about in the (USA),” Vogel said.

Because of El Nino, a weather phenomenon, the dry season has been longer and even drier this year in Indonesia. Those seasonal changes lead to less water in the surface of the forest. To counteract this shortage, firefighters have to look elsewhere for water to combat the fires, such as in rivers or drilling 30 feet to reach the ground water and pumping water out.

The recent fires in Indonesia are a result of small scale slash-and-burn, as well as large-scale palm oil companies, Vogel said.

Several of the large fires were slash-and-burn fires started by palm oil companies, Indonesia’s leading export.

“Palm is used in everything. I challenge you to go to the supermarket and find products that don’t include palm oil. Most processed foods have palm oil,” Vogel said.

This is a main part of the Indonesian economy, and there’s a push now in legislation to prevent new permits for palm oil plantations. If there are orangutans in the forest, it’s illegal.

That doesn’t stop locals and companies from finding loopholes. Some locals shoot the orangutans down so that they technically are not there.

A huge problem is how the laws are enforced. There is a lack of funding for enforcement and jailing of criminals committing these crimes against the environment. In fact, there are no police in the area of the research camp.

“If humans don’t change our behavior, there can be a trajectory to occur that could lead to extinction of orangutans within the next century,” Vogel said.

Orangutans are endangered. The population in Sumatra between 4,000 and 6,000 and in Borneo the population is 50,000 to 60,000.

“In the last few decades the rate of decline has been pretty strong. In Sumatra there has been a 50 percent reduction in the whole population,” Vogel said.

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