Orangutan conservation: A field update from our team

Orangutan conservation: A field update from our team

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Dr Nick Davies (Assistant Mammal Curator) brings us the second update from our team in Borneo, where they have gone out to assist our partners HUTAN-KOCP with constructing artificial bridges for orangutans and creating artificial nest boxes for hornbills. Nick explains how they got on:

“The first webbing bridge we made was taken to a tributary of the main Kinabatangan river. This bridge will create an important link between two patches of habitat. We named the bridge 'Mizlin', after our HUTAN - KOCP team colleague. We’ve been so lucky with wildlife spotting on this visit; on the way to the site to put up the first bridge, we saw a group of proboscis monkeys, shortly followed by our first orangutan sighting, a mum with her baby.

Preparing to raise bridge

Felicity, (a PhD student who works with HUTAN), recognised her as one she had already seen in the area. While we watched her we also saw a pair of Bornean gibbons. They are often heard at dawn calling but are hard to spot. It was a real highlight! Just when we thought it couldn’t get better we spotted another orangutan further up the bank!

A herd of elephant were reported nearby so we spent the afternoon trying to catch a glimpse. Although we had no luck this time, we weren’t disappointed, with sightings of a crocodile, a huge group of pig tailed macaques (who crossed overhead using a bridge) and many birds including a sapphire flycatcher. To top it off, a couple of bearded pigs swam in front of the boats.

Myself and Debi have spent time practising with the new camera traps, trying to work out the best way to set these to increase the chances of capturing images of orangutans on the bridge, however the first plans to put a camera trap on one of the bridges were ‘rained off’. Unusually for the time of year, the rain came as normal but stayed for the rest of the day. As the week progressed though, we managed to set up our first camera trap on the new bridge.

Overnight testing outside our homestay didn’t show anything exciting but proved it works! The camera traps will assess bridge usage by orangutans and other wildlife. We have had reports from guides and other researchers who have seen orangutans using the new bridges, including one of the bridges built on our last trip in 2011 which had distinctive hanging ends, but photographic evidence would be a bonus!

Bridge half raised

We haven’t just been constructing new bridges whilst we’ve been in Borneo – we’ve also been taking some down. Some of the old bridges have started to damage the trees; however the new webbing we’re using now is much less harmful to the trees, so we’ve been replacing the old bridges with new ones.

We also installed our next camera traps on one of the old bridges which had been in place for a number of years; this bridge is known to have been used by orangutans! By the end of our time here, we managed to build another bridge and also assisted the hornbill team.

In total, the hornbill team built five nest boxes using three designs. We all worked together at the end of the week for the task of installing two of the nest boxes the hornbill team had made. Our first job was to find the best locations. The orangutan study site had been chosen as an area, but there were six different locations to check out. A number of factors have to be considered including the height and type of tree, distance from branches, proximity to potential human disturbance and direction.

Nest box team

The hornbill team had earlier visited a helmeted hornbill site that was in a very large tree. Unfortunately such trees are difficult to find as the area is predominantly secondary forest. This area is one of the few areas where all 8 species of hornbill can be found in one place, but a shortage of suitable nest sites could affect the hornbills’ long term survival. Paul and Wayne managed to see all species apart from the white crowned hornbill whilst they were there!

After much discussion we decided on the best tree and the team got to work. Based on wild nest sizes (they normally nest in large tree holes) and zoo nest boxes, the nest boxes were large, around 90 cm high and 60cm wide.

Ken climbing tree

Made from old plastic barrels they were insulated and covered partly with concrete. This also made them quite heavy, but once the tree had been climbed we were able to quite easily hoist the nest box up into place, at around 15m high. It was secured and left hopefully to be used by one of the larger hornbill species. The second nest box was hung in a similar fashion the next morning.

All in all, we had a hugely successful trip with HUTAN-KOCP. With a smaller team than last time, we managed to build two new bridges, remove one old bridge, install some camera traps, build five hornbill nest boxes and put two up! Fantastic achievement from the whole team!”

I am Dr Nick Davies and I Act for Wildlife


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