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COVID-19 and Research Fieldwork: PONGO Alliance

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Under its Environment pillar, Yayasan Sime Darby’s partnerships with Management and Ecology of Malaysian Elephants (MEME), Marine Research Foundation (MRF) and PONGO Alliance are aligned with its aim to support world-class scientific research to translate results into action, while developing highly skilled local scientists, researchers and custodians. However, pandemic restrictions have not only caused additional challenges such as dwindling research and travel funds and stresses of working from home but also upended researchers’ data collection activities.

To understand the key challenges and opportunities faced by the researchers involved in fieldwork in these pandemic times, YSD interviewed PONGO Alliance Project Director Dr. Felicity Oram.

Dr. Oram (middle) engaging with estate workers who had reported orangutan sightings at a new planting area.



What are some of the highlights of your partnership with YSD in the financial year 20/21?

Although we were able to work in the field only from July through September 2020, we still made good progress, overall. In July, we retrieved the first camera trap images that document orangutan use of the bridges we installed in October 2019 to restore connectivity across a tributary within an estate. In August, we visited the Sabah Forestry Department, Forestry Research Centre with an estate partner to share knowledge about the project and gain advice to facilitate orangutan movement through an area that is currently overrun by invasive Rattan.

In September 2020, we surveyed a new estate with a forest patch that is likely a key part of the stepping stone network of “rest stops” for male orangutans moving across different estates between larger protected forests. We also worked together with estate staffs at several plantations to better understand orangutan behaviour and mitigate encounters, especially in new planting areas. All these engagements sum together to progressively inform the development of Best Practices for Management of Orangutans in Mixed Forest /Oil Palm Plantation Landscapes.

From October 2020, we used the time away from the field to reflect and analyse field data collected to date, and to prepare several scientific papers to underpin the development of an evidence-based best management plan. During the Movement Control Order (MCO), we raised awareness of the project by participating in various local, national and international virtual meetings and webinars. For example, we presented to groups from the local community in Eastern Sabah (HUTAN AGM - February 2021), to national audiences (The Habitat Foundation - July 2020, and Climate Governance Malaysia - January 2021) and even to an international group through a virtual guest lectureship for 93 initially very sceptical students, studying to become wildlife rangers at an American university (March 2021).

We have also maintained our engagement with field partners through our various WhatsApp estate partner reporting groups. This enabled us to continue receiving field observation reports from plantation staffs and to engage in ongoing discussions to progress the work forward on the ground, despite not being able to physically be on-site. We were even able to engage with a new estate partner virtually and to mitigate an incident by phone even though we have not yet visited this estate on the ground.

What were the challenges you face in the field before COVID-19?

A key challenge of this project from the onset has been to overcome scepticism and confusion on the part of both industry and various governmental and non-governmental conservation agencies. The concept of co-existence with orangutans in mixed forest/oil palm landscapes is new. The first step of this project was to learn how an already highly cryptic animal has adapted to drastic change. We have made great progress in this aspect of this project.

The next step is to reconcile the animals’ needs with people who now use the same landscape. Accomplishing this more challenging step requires a shift in both classical agriculture and wildlife management practice, with collaborations not only between the traditionally opposing interests of conservation and industry, but between competing industry players.

Therefore, it needs to be recognised that meaningful change toward co-existence is a dynamic process and progress may at times be slow and certainly will be uneven. Consistent, well-defined and progressive engagement over time is necessary to overcome this. We are very grateful for YSD’s visionary leadership as the initiating funder of this novel project and especially grateful for the increased support from YSD over the past financial year.

How has the pandemic changed the obstacles you face as a wildlife conservation researcher working on the ground?

This is an evidence-based project focused on what orangutans and people are really doing on the ground. Therefore, not being able to work in the field due to the pandemic is a major and ongoing obstacle to a project that relies on building collaborative field-based partnerships. Travel restrictions to manage flare-ups that change at a moment’s notice and general uncertainty related to new normal Standard Operation Procedure (SOP) continue to make scheduling ground engagements challenging. For example, we have had a 20,000-hectare survey and worker interview engagement planned since April 2020. Since then, it had been postponed and rescheduled 3 times. We are now hoping to be able to do this in August, but there’s no certainty at this point, that it will be possible.

Another challenge is that plantation staffs themselves are faced with increased workloads due to new SOPs, while at the same time the estates are trying to ramp up their production to pre-pandemic levels. In some estates, these expanded duties mean less time for the plantation staffs to work with us. Furthermore, since the nature of our work requires travelling widely to engage with various estates often in the same week, this can make it more challenging for us to comply with SOP requirements and riskier both for us and the estates that we visit. All we can do is to stay flexible, and do what we can, when we can.

What are the changes in strategies you employed to navigate the challenges brought about by the pandemic?

I In some ways, the pandemic has been helpful as it has given us a chance to reflect on what we have learnt so far, evaluate results and consider ways we can be even more effective going forward. For example, we have taken the time to research background materials to better understand relevant but broader issues that have come up over the course of our work on this project and work to create various scientific papers that underpin the development of best management practices as well as extend the national and international reach of our work.

We have also taken the time to do some virtual follow up questionnaires and phone interviews with current partners and the general public to better identify specific misunderstandings and misperceptions, so we can refine and improve outreach messaging going forward.

Have there been any silver linings for field researchers during these uncertain times?

In any field-based project with a very large engagement area and a very lean staff force, it is easy to always be busy! The opportunity to have some time where we are forced to stay in one place, even though it is away from the field, has afforded us time to synthesise the truly amazing results we have amassed so far. This has indeed been a very welcome respite in uncertain times.

But the true silver lining is the extent of ongoing field engagement that has been possible remotely with a few key estate staff collaborators “locked” inside the estates. Communicating frequently by WhatsApp, phone and Zoom, when possible, has given us the chance not only to continue to receive orangutan sighting observations, but to also address concerns, learn together and even mitigate situations more immediately and informally. This way, we have been able to get to know each other better and build trust in ways that the more formalised structure we often experienced previously during estate visits, did not seem to foster as well.

Despite all the tough challenges, what makes you motivated to carry out your work with PONGO Alliance?

What we have learnt in our survey work so far, is orangutans are making use of just about every “un-planted” area in the oil palm landscape and are even living in some small forests on privately administered land. It is truly inspiring and a key motivating factor that orangutans are clearly doing their part to try to keep their communities together, despite the drastic habitat change.

But this is only half of the equation. I am even more inspired and motivated by estate staffs on the ground who are participating with us, to actively contribute to real change in conservation outcomes for wild orangutans in mixed-use landscapes. This sums together to inspire and motivate me, as a conservation practitioner, that human – orangutan co-existence essential for the survival of wild populations, is in fact possible.

What are a few of your favourite facts/attributes about the orangutan?

I have been truly blessed throughout my career to have had a window into the world of this amazing great ape in several different contexts. I have looked after the species in the most adaptive environment a wild animal can face, that is, living in a zoo. I also have been able to observe the huge challenges orphans in rescue centres face to grow up without adult orangutan guidance. Finally, I have also had the amazing opportunity to collaborate with a community conservation team to study wild orangutans in a protected but degraded forest for my MSc and PhD study. What amazes me most about the attributes of orangutans across all this experience is their great intelligence, tenacity and self-possessed dignity.

Specifically, my favourite facts about orangutans:

• Wild Orangutans, despite usually feeding on their own, are not solitary. In fact, they live in very peaceful extended communities that function at the landscape level despite the fact not all individuals see each other often, or in the case of unrelated females, usually not at all.

• Wild orangutans have a well-developed and peaceful society that operates across distance with rarely any overt conflict. Female orangutans live on the ancestral land of their maternal relatives where they raise their offspring. Though they are intolerant of unrelated adult females, under normal circumstances they would rarely encounter any unrelated female. Though it is yet understood how male orangutan hierarchy works, even the largest orangutans, the flanged* males are gentle to all other orangutans, except other flanged males. But to minimise the chance of direct contact they use of specific vocalisations only flanged males can make. Unflanged males and adolescents of both sexes often meet up and even travel together at times. Anytime two related adult females are nearby each other, their respective babies always seek each other out to play. A “flanged” male is one with fibrous extensions on either side of his face and a large throat sac. Flanged males are twice the size of females and unflanged males.

• Wild orangutan mothers are fabulous! Compared with any other animal, they single-handedly invest more one-to-one time to teach each offspring everything they need to know to survive. Orangutan females spend 24/7 with one infant at a time, from birth to 7 years old. Then the mother continues to guide that same individual for another 7 years, while simultaneously caring for her next new baby. Orangutans reach maturity at about 14-15 years old. Males then leave the place where they were born, while females stay near their mothers for life.

Dr. Oram (4th from left) with representatives of Sabah Forestry Department – Forestry Research Centre staff and oil palm company partner Sawit Kinabalu during an outreach and sharing activity.

Dr. Oram presenting to groups from the local community in Eastern Sabah during the HUTAN Annual General Meeting in February 2021.

Dr. Oram was also one of the panellists during The Habitat Foundation’s Habitat Expert Series web forum “A Future for Primates in Malaysia” in July 2020.

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Last Updated:
27 Aug 2021
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