Studying how the forest fires of 2015 have affected the behaviour and health of orangutans

Research Blog

Aby Gwynn, Masters student from University of Exeter

My name is Abi and I’m a masters by research student from the University of Exeter collaborating with BNF and CIMTROP-University of Palangka Raya. I am studying how the forest fires of 2015 have affected the behaviour and health of orangutans in the Sabangau peat swamp forest. I am very passionate about this work as forest fires have fragmented remaining orangutan habitats, which were already irregularly distributed, causing isolation of populations now in extreme danger of dying out. For such an imminent and significant threat, the long-term effects of forest fires on orangutans inhabiting peat swamps have never been quantified. Therefore, by analysing long-term activity data and collecting urine and faecal samples to indicate physiological condition, I aim to investigate if orangutan behaviour and health have changed as a result of the fire.

I am fortunate to have been recently awarded the Allan Robertson grant from the International Peatlands Society to support my research. Allan Robertson grants are awarded to young peatland researchers carrying out research or practical work, or young professionals in early stages of their career in managing peatlands or peat industry. This grant will contribute to my subsistence in the field and field guide assistance whilst in Indonesia, allowing me to fund a long data collection period.

If we know how damaging the fires have been to orangutan populations inhabiting peat swamps, in comparison to other threats and populations on Borneo, I hope this information can aid in targeting
conservation action more effectively. Furthermore, having evidence of how orangutans are affected by fire may contribute to future legislation for the protection of peat swamps, which would also improve the prospects of other peat swamp-dwelling species.

Another reason for the financial support of this project is that there is little parasitological data for Bornean orangutans (compared to Sumatra), and even less of these are in peat swamps. The environmental conditions in peat swamps (such as acidity and low oxygen levels in the peat) are likely to cause the parasitological community to differ compared to other forest types and hence have different consequences on the immune resilience of peat swamp orangutans. I have set up an in-field parasite lab to allow faecal samples to be analysed more easily in the hope that it can become a long-term monitoring scheme. If it is possible to make this long-term, we will be able to create a large database of orangutan parasites for future comparison when environmental change occurs.

Also supporting this research is the Royal Geographical Society and the Thomas and Elizabeth Williams Scholarship from Swansea Educational Trust.


Bornean orangutan in the haze of fire 2015
Photo by Bernat Ripoll Capilla | BNF | LLG UPT CIMTROP