A globe, three researchers, and an orangutan
Gabriel Acala

The Pandemic Is Undoing Field Researchers’ Oldest Assumption

With the right partners, scientists don’t have to visit their study sites to get good data.

In the rain forests of Borneo, Sahril Ramadani wakes before sunrise to the high-pitched shrieks of gibbons. Fumbling in the dark, he packs up his essentials for the day: hand sanitizer, iPad, GPS tracker, watch, materials for sample collection, and lunch. Securing an N95 mask over his face, he sets out on a solitary search for orangutans.

Ramadani, 23, spends 20 days a month here at Cabang Panti, the research station for the Gunung Palung Orangutan Project in the southwestern part of Indonesian Borneo. The project’s fieldwork—the daily observations that have kept it going for 27 years—depends on his work and that of five other assistants. Outside the station, Ramadani uses his flashlight to locate a thin, white piece of string and follows it, some days as far as 900 feet, to an orangutan’s nest, perched in the forest canopy about 60 feet above the ground. Then, having logged his location, he waits until the primate wakes up. If the orangutan urinates, Ramadani is ready with a plastic bag to catch the urine. When the orangutan begins to move—often just to “walk around the neighborhood,” as Ramadani says—he follows it over the rocky, muddy, wet terrain. The long day is tiring, but Ramadani doesn’t mind. On his way back to Cabang Panti, he rolls the string from the new nest back to the closest trail so someone else can pick up the tracking the next day.

This tracking project is one of the longest studies of wild orangutans in the world. When it began, in 1994, it depended, like so many scientific studies, on the labor of one Western scientist: the American anthropologist Cheryl Knott, a professor at Boston University. It has continued largely uninterrupted this past year, even as the pandemic upended so many other research seasons, primarily because Knott has long gone above and beyond Indonesia’s policy requiring foreign scientists to partner with local colleagues. Thanks to the relationships she’s built, she was able to mobilize colleagues and research assistants in Indonesia to continue the work without her.

Knott’s collaborative model is an exception to a common practice that Asha de Vos, a marine biologist in Sri Lanka, calls “parachute science.” In many cases, Western researchers working outside their home countries come and go from field sites without taking the time to build scientific capacity in their research locale: A recent study published in Current Biology showed that in coral-reef research, for example, local scientists are often excluded from foreign research projects. But while critics have long pointed out that parachute science is unethical, the global pandemic has revealed that it is impractical, too.

For centuries, Western scientists have traveled overseas to study other forms of life. In the 1800s, European naturalists fascinated by the animals and plants of India, Africa, and other places foreign to them routinely killed and preserved rare creatures, hauling the specimens home for display in museums. Traditionally, Judeo-Christian religions maintain that humans are superior to everything else on the planet: “People are above animals, which are above trees, which are above rocks,” says Leeann Sullivan, a visiting professor of environmental studies at Colby College in Maine. Influenced by these beliefs, early Western naturalists assumed that the environment—and the flora and fauna that comprise it—was meant to be studied, and conquered, by humans.

Ecologists in North America and Europe are still drawn to the tropics. “We want to study biology where it’s most exuberant. And that tends to be in places we don’t tend to live,” says Taylor Ricketts, an environmental scientist at the University of Vermont who works in Costa Rica. “It’s an unfortunate part of ecology and sustainability science.” The relative wealth of funds available for European and American research also enables Western scientists to conduct work abroad; scientists in poorer regions, meanwhile, often scramble for funds to carry out research in their own countries.

To prevent foreign scientists from exploiting their living laboratories, some countries prohibit researchers from taking samples home, or require them to archive and store at least half of their collections in the host country. In Indonesia, where Knott works, all foreign scientists are required to work with an Indonesian counterpart.

More collaborative and inclusive international research programs, Sullivan argues, are not only a moral good but more sustainable in the long term: Research can continue during global interruptions like the coronavirus pandemic, and local knowledge can strengthen the science in vital ways. But cross-cultural partnerships also require researchers to change their practices, she says, “and reckon with the philosophies that underlie the work that they do.”

Knott first visited Indonesia in 1992, when she was pursuing her Ph.D. in anthropology at Harvard University. For her doctoral research, she was studying environmental influences on hormone levels in nonhuman primates, and she was considering using chimpanzees in Africa to pursue her research questions. But that summer, she joined her boyfriend Tim Laman—now her husband—in Indonesia, where he was studying strangler-fig trees for his own doctoral research.

The prospect of studying orangutans in Borneo was tantalizing to Knott, especially since orangutans have the longest inter-birth interval—the time between pregnancies—of any mammal. This interval is useful to researchers because it allows variations in the environment to be reflected in the orangutans’ hormones, and thus their health, Knott says.

The practical challenges of tracking orangutans began immediately. In Africa, where Knott had done some early studies, most of the Ugandans she worked with spoke English; in Indonesia, she had to learn a different language. She arrived that first year with a bahasa Indonesia dictionary in tow, and set about learning enough to communicate with the locals.

Getting to Cabang Panti involved an overnight trip up the river in a small wooden canoe, and Knott was struck by the vibrant beauty of the forest. One of her first field seasons fell during a mass fruiting year for the dipterocarp trees, which play a significant role in supporting life in the rain forests. Their bright red flowers littered the chocolate-colored water of the river like rose petals.

The research station, located right on the riverbank, was established by the American conservation biologist Mark Leighton in 1984. Leighton, who had worked as a research assistant for Jane Goodall in Tanzania, was inspired by her practice of employing local researchers, and he followed her example at Cabang Panti. When he went to nearby communities and extended offers of employment, he found that most people were intrigued by the opportunity to get paid for tracking animals and recording the flowering and fruiting of trees.

In the 1990s, when Knott arrived, Cabang Panti was little more than a raised platform built on stilts, with walls dividing the kitchen from a bare-bones laboratory. An unreliable generator provided intermittent electricity. At night, Knott and her colleagues would gather around candles and kerosene lamps.

Thanks to Leighton’s efforts, the research team was diverse, including Americans, some Europeans, and Indonesians. The Indonesians themselves were as multicultural as their archipelago nation: There were Dayaks—who are indigenous to Borneo—and Indonesians from Java, and Melayus. The team had to come up with a common way of communicating, and Knott jokes that they created their own dialect of bahasa: bahasa Cabang Panti.

Every day, Knott went into the forest and surveyed the orangutans, testing the method she had developed of measuring hormone levels from urine collected on filter paper.

The fieldwork only solidified the familial nature of the work. “You’re isolated, so you rely on everyone else,” Knott says. “You’re in the rain, you’re following the orangutan, crossing the river. You’re having these dramatic experiences together.”

A globe, three researchers, and an orangutan
Gabriel Alcala

From the start, Knott knew she couldn’t carry out her project alone. Orangutans, unlike humans, are adept at social distancing and are naturally solitary creatures; because they rarely travel in groups, Knott could only study one animal—or sometimes, a mother and a child—at a time. If she lost track of an orangutan, it might take her a week to find another individual. She began bringing biodegradable string into the field so she could tie one end to the tree where her study animal made its nest for the evening and walk it back to the trail.

While her graduate program didn’t explicitly emphasize to her or her colleagues that researchers working internationally should involve nearby communities, it was an obvious next step for Knott: In order to gather enough data, she needed more people, and Leighton had already shown that many of the people living near Cabang Panti were willing to help.

Knott initially put out a call for field assistants through those who worked under Leighton at the research station, and word spread. A handful of folks showed up for her first day of training, and one of them still works with the project. Most field assistants stay on for many years, Knott says.

Many of the field assistants she brought on had only an elementary-school education. They were eager to learn the scientific names of common plants in the forest, how hormones worked, and how to look for orangutans and record the data Knott needed—first with compasses and paper, now with GPS tracking devices and iPads.

When Knott wrote grant applications to fund her doctoral research, she included wages for her local research assistants in her budget proposals. By the time she completed her Ph.D., Knott had trained so many people that it just made sense to continue the project. “It’s such a big investment to study wild orangutans,” she says, “because there’s so much involved and [so many] people involved.” She also knew that her research assistants had come to depend on her for their livelihoods. But she saw that responsibility as an extension of the trust she had built with the team: Everyone wanted the project to continue, for both personal and scientific reasons.

Early on, those outside of the research station didn’t quite understand what Knott was doing in Gunung Palung. She recalls running into a few immigration officers who probed what she was really doing in the park: “Are you looking for gold?”

Knott, idealistic and earnest at the time, told them she wasn’t looking for gold, but was collecting the urine of orangutans and studying their hormone levels.

The officials were incredulous. “The idea that people were coming from America to collect orangutan urine … it was like, ‘Yeah, right,’’’ Knott recalls.

To bridge the gap between her research and the locals’ understanding of her work, she decided to invest in conservation outreach efforts, and in 1999 she founded the Gunung Palung Orangutan Project to support both orangutan research and conservation work. Although Gunung Palung is formally protected as a national park, illegal loggers have historically exploited it. Orangutans there have been threatened by habitat loss and sometimes poached for the illegal pet trade.

Through the project’s conservation arm, the Indonesian field staff visited local communities to talk about the research findings at Cabang Panti. It’s easy to think that whatever’s in your own backyard is normal, Knott says. “We really wanted to convey that it’s a special place to protect.”

Because of Indonesia’s requirement that foreign scientists work with an Indonesian counterpart, Knott had also enlisted the help of Wahyu Susanto, a scientist who was then studying orangutans in Sumatra. Susanto knew of Knott from her publications from Borneo, and wanted to work with her because he was interested in studying a different orangutan population. From the beginning, Susanto says, he could tell that Knott was kind and transparent, and that she was willing to trust him fully.

The community outreach gave Knott and Susanto an opportunity to satisfy locals’ curiosity about what was happening at the research station—and, in some cases, to hire them to help. Andi Abdul Sabta Pelari, a 34-year-old from a nearby community, started working for the Gunung Palung Orangutan Project in 2017. He had heard of foreigners working in Gunung Palung for years. “The rumor was there was treasure. [The researchers] came looking for the treasure,” he says. But after joining as a field assistant, he now knows that, as he says, “the forest is the treasure.”

Empowering locals to conduct conservation research requires Western scientists to let go of their long-standing assumption that they must do the work themselves. “If we want to create change, if we want to save our planet, then it shouldn’t matter who’s doing the work,” de Vos argues. “What should matter is that the work is done.”

Sullivan from Colby College speculates that the current U.S. reckoning over race, fueled in part by the Black Lives Matter movement, might further accelerate reforms in international research practices and in conservation in general. The history of scientific fieldwork is embedded in the broader history of Western forays into other countries, and shaded by the colonial and imperialist practices of the past. Those legacies have lingered, and Sullivan wonders if this moment is an opportunity for Western scientists to move beyond that history.

Knott isn’t the only researcher relying more heavily on her field staff during the pandemic, and the changes have come with practical challenges. The Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program, for instance, based at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, has struggled with pandemic-induced delays in shipping American-built GPS collars to its field staff in Papua New Guinea.

But shifting responsibilities to local staff has had many benefits, both tangible and intangible. When Monica Bond, a Swiss-American wildlife biologist based at the University of Zurich, couldn’t travel to Tanzania this year to track giraffes—a study in progress for more than a decade—she called on her local partners to help. James Madeli, the Tanzanian researcher now leading the fieldwork, was trained by Bond and her husband, the ecologist Derek E. Lee, in 2018. Prior to the pandemic, Madeli was only working three weeks a year and was primarily following directions from Bond and Lee. Now, he says, “we’re working more … double or triple the amount that we used to.” Over the past year, he and his team have become used to managing daily logistics, such as where to go to track the giraffes. “We’re independent in making decisions and organizing our work,” he says. “Our confidence has grown.”

Ricketts of the University of Vermont believes that foreign researchers could and should build on these experiences during the pandemic, and train their local field staff to the point where they are directly involved in coming up with and designing new scientific experiments. Ideally, he says, projects could be led primarily by staff researchers on the ground, and foreign researchers could visit and advise when needed. “That’s a really exciting way to reverse this problem,” he says.

Tanjung Gunung, the community closest to the periphery of Gunung Palung National Park, is a quiet place home to about 200 families. Houses made of cement and wood panels line the single-track road that runs parallel to the river, and families garden as children play in the fields. Residents once relied on growing rubber for a living, but as global prices fell and floods worsened by sea-level rise plundered much of their farmland, many families in Tanjung Gunung started logging illegally within the national park.

Over the years, that illicit work has provided much-needed cash to virtually all the families in Tanjung Gunung, says Midi, the head of the community. Loggers could earn about 200,000 rupiah a day, he says—the equivalent of about $14, but enough to buy food.

The Gunung Palung Orangutan Project offered an alternative to logging, Midi says. Field assistants like Ramadani are paid 2 million rupiah a month, about $140, and the project’s NGO provides scholarships to Indonesian students. The organization teaches organic-gardening methods to community members and talks with them about the long-term effects of logging on the forest. Over time, these initiatives have enabled people to stop logging, Midi says. “Now we can see the result. They did it very slowly—if they didn’t do it slowly it would have been hard to change people’s minds. You can’t do it all at once.”

Although Ramadani doesn’t plan to go to college, he and the other field assistants are proud of their scientific contributions during the pandemic. At first, he was nervous about taking on more responsibility. “But after I was trained by the senior [field assistant], I felt more confident that I could do all this work, and not be shy about asking questions,” he says. This year, Ramadani and the other field assistants have learned that they can carry on their work even in the absence of foreign researchers.

For her part, Knott is getting a bit restless sitting on Zoom calls, where she uses a photo of the Borneo rain forest as her virtual background. She’s eager to return to her second home to continue both the research and the conservation work. But while the pandemic derailed her plans, it built confidence and independence in her Indonesian counterparts who stepped in. Their newfound self-sufficiency is a boon not only for the research, but also for each other.

Febriana Firdaus contributed reporting from Indonesia.