Setting up a research camp

by Cam Webb, Research Associate
April 18, 2011

Setting up a research camp

The gibbons’ whooping song is the defining melody of the Bornean dawn chorus. They tend to only sing on days that promise to be fine, and so one’s spirits always rise on hearing them, assisted by the expectation of a great local cup of coffee and the resinous smell of woodsmoke.

I’m a research scientist at the Arnold Arboretum, and this is how days begin on our expedition to the inner valley of Gunung Palung National Park, in West Kalimantan, Indonesia. After several years of proposal-writing and pilot work, and several months of logistics preparation, we have just begun the fieldwork for our new National Science Foundation-funded project on the biogeography, ecology and informatics of Indonesian trees. ‘We’ includes co-PI Sarah Mathews, senior Indonesian collaborator Teguh Triono, and a large number of supporters. Our research project will document the forest composition at five sites in Indonesia, which, combined with DNA analysis of all the trees, will help us understand how different groups of trees have moved historically through the region, and how their differences in drought tolerance have evolved.

This blog (or should I say “Webb blog!”), will share some of our experiences over the next three years in the remote forests in Indonesia. I hope to convey some of the fun (and frustrations) of doing field biology, and the excitement of analyzing and sharing information and photos about beautiful, threatened plants.

We hiked into this site last Tuesday (March 29) from the nearest village. It was an eight-hour trek, through heavily (illegally) logged forest and finally into the pristine core of this precious but embattled national park. Along the way, we saw a female orangutan with baby, and a sun bear, encouraging signs that despite the logging and hunting the wildlife in this valley is persevering. The core team, which has worked with me over the last two years, includes two local para-taxonomists (Acun Hery Yanto, a recent forestry graduate from the local Tanjung Pura University, and Endro Setiawan, a member of the park staff) and two tree climbers, Edy and ‘WX’ (yes, that’s really his name!). We are joined on this trip by four local villagers: Suryadi, Misjan, Hermanto, and Kasa. In addition, we hired five extra people to help carry a month’s supplies to the site.

Arriving not long before dark, we had to choose a campsite. Acun and Endro had done a pre-trip survey in January and picked a nice spot on a bank of the main river that drains the interior basin of Gunung Palung. However, when we arrived, we saw that the site was mostly swept clean of leaf litter, a sure sign that the river had recently flooded through this spot. We instead chose a safer site one hundred meters downstream on the main river above a smaller tributary stream. Hanging a large, blue plastic sheet between two trees was all it took to make a temporary camp for the night.

Setting up our home-from-home

Setting up our home-from-home

The next day, everyone got to work setting up a more permanent camp, situated to avoid cutting any trees. We now have three shelters: a cooking and supplies tent, a main sleeping tent, and a research area. Acun and Endro are sleeping in a yellow dome tent, I’m in my wonderful Hennessy hammock, and the locals have stretched rice sacks between poles to make comfortable camp beds. We also brought a small gasoline generator to power our three laptops and to charge cameras and cell phones. We didn’t know if there would be any cell phone signal in the valley, but on the following day we scouted for coverage and found a very weak signal from a hilltop Indosat tower a half-hour hike away. Indonesians are enthusiastic consumers of all forms of social networking media, and everyone on the team brought their phones. Although the signal is too weak for reliable phone calls, text messages work fine.
All in all, quite a pleasant setup. I’m pleased to report that the ants and mosquitoes are far less annoying here than in our house in nearby Sukadana. The leeches and seed ticks, on the other hand, are quite numerous!

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