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Kat Scott is from Bristol and joined Oxford Brookes University in January 2017. Her thesis title is ‘Orangutans in the New Frontier: Strategies for Survival in Altered Landscapes’.
I did my MSc in Primate Conservation at Oxford Brookes University so I already knew the faculty and staff quite well. I was offered the chance to conduct research at a field site in Indonesia, so returning to Oxford Brookes University for my PhD seemed like a natural fit. My first impressions were that everyone was very welcoming and incredibly supportive. The facilities available to students have improved immensely since I undertook my Master’s degree, so I am excited to have returned to the new site at Headington.
Having previously studied at Oxford Brookes, I felt that the Department of Social Sciences was the best place to return for my PhD. The staff are all leaders in their research fields, and although I have worked in my field for a long time, I knew that I could learn from them and increase my skillset. I needed a team that understood the location and situation I was heading into, spoke the language, understood the culture and religion, and could provide long-distance support for me in the field; Oxford Brookes University could provide all of this. I also love the community-feeling of the primate group and the networking opportunities with the MSc course alumni. I am grateful for the support I have received from the University despite being thousands of miles away in the middle of the rainforest!
Before starting this PhD, I managed a long-term orangutan research site in Indonesia. This involved managing staff, students and volunteers, organising data collection and general camp running. I learned so much from that role and was given many different opportunities such as presenting at an international conference and appearing in a National Geographic program about orangutans. I was given the chance to learn more about data collection in the field and more about the logistics and responsibility of running a remote field site. I developed as a person, scientist and mentor.
I instantly felt at home when I started my PhD and the new facilities at Headington are fantastic. We now have a great postgraduate library, bigger and better study areas, and the ability to acquire licence software and download remotely. The postgraduate team are supportive and helpful, and it has been easy to contact different departments and staff for assistance.
Previous research has highlighted that orangutans are able to exist within mixed agroforest landscapes; however, the extent to which this affects their health remains largely unknown, as is the number of orangutans that reside within these landscapes. Given the current situation however, it appears that orangutans are struggling to survive long-term in these disturbed areas. In 2012, research led by Prof Serge Wich advised that where forest is converted to plantation, over time over 95% of the original orangutan population is lost.
Exactly how great apes alter their behaviour in reaction to altered landscapes and their inherent risks remains uncertain but is of paramount importance for the long-term survival of animals whose ranges comprise of such habitats. Therefore, it is necessary to investigate whether and how the survival prospects of orangutans could be improved in these areas. This interdisciplinary study seeks to quantify this decrease by looking at disturbance (an oil palm concession) and the western Bornean orangutan sub-species.
This project has been designed in conjunction with International Animal Rescue (herein known as YIARI) in West Kalimantan in Indonesia. YIARI has been working in the PT Kayung Agro Lestari oil palm plantation for several years and have been taking data on the orangutans that live in two forested areas in this plantation. It is rare that access is given to work in such a controversial landscape; however YIARI have been given permission for research to be undertaken in this concession.
This research is important as very little is known about orangutan movements within oil palm; we know they exist but we do not know the extent of their behavioural plasticity in these areas. We need to examine if conflict exists in this plantation and explore mitigation strategies if necessary. Most importantly from this research, we need to understand how orangutans utilise this habitat and the implications for their continued survival if access to this area were to change.
Objective 1: Determine space-use patterns of orangutans in oil palm to examine movement and habitat utilisation.
Objective 2: Examine orangutan behaviour regarding activity budget and dietary composition in relation to food availability.
Objective 3: Quantify how important continued access to this oil palm concession is for this orangutan population using data regarding crop-foraging, dietary composition and oil palm shoot loss.
Objective 4: Assess whether there are any orangutan-human interactions within this plantation and assist with options for conflict mitigation.
It is expected that this project will be one of the first of its kind to shed light on orangutan behaviour in a monoculture. It will provide information on activity budget, nutrition and movements. Currently we do not know how much of the plantation orangutan utilise, or indeed whether they potentially live in the plantation. At this time, the anticipated results are that orangutans move within the plantation but we do not know the extent. Therefore, this project will fill in the gaps in our knowledge.
Implications of this project
First and foremost, it will be the completion of my PhD. I also hope to publish this study in a number of journals, as well as presenting my results at international meetings. In terms of orangutan conservation, the implications of this project will be important and far reaching. The training we will continue to offer staff within the plantation, with regards to a no-kill policy, corridor-creation and conducting research, will be invaluable if we are to empower local people to look after their wildlife. I will be evoking with the plantation owners on best practice guidelines for use in their plantation, which can then be rolled out to their other sites, as well as the potential to work with other companies. From a research perspective, this project will shed light on an aspect of orangutan life that has rarely been studied on a long-term basis. We will be able to begin to answer questions as to the scale of which orangutans rely on this landscape, how important connectivity is and how they are modifying their behaviour to cope with this change in environment. If orangutans are not coping in this environment, we can begin the work into mitigation strategies - looking into policies in order to protect these apes.
Given the sensitive nature of my project, I really struggled to get funding to study in an oil palm plantation. As I am a self-funded student, I got to a point in the field where I would be unable to pay my second-year fees. Receiving this scholarship was amazing and took a huge weight off my shoulders. It allowed me to reallocate my own money in the field so that I could purchase more equipment such as a new GPS, compasses and watches for the staff. Without this scholarship, I don’t think I would have been able to continue my field work or pay my programme fees.
I love being a research student. I relish a challenge, and nothing is harder than creating a project and self-funding it. I enjoy the social aspects of being a student; meeting like-minded people with great experiences that they can share and advice they can impart.
As you can imagine, working in the field comes with a plethora of issues. However, because I had already worked in a similar area of Indonesia for several years and had such a strong team at Oxford Brookes University, I never felt like any of these issues couldn’t be resolved quickly. There are always delays with the permits you need to conduct research, the weather is always problematic, and working in a foreign country produces problems of its own. With help from Oxford Brookes University and my previous work, my project evolved to meet these challenges and present solutions that kept all stakeholders happy.
The research training has been nothing short of fantastic. The inductions really set me up for what to expect from Oxford Brookes University and what they expected from me. Now I am back from the field, I can undertake training in software that is relevant for the analysis of my data. There is also the possibility of 1-to-1 sessions with different advisors which I think will be hugely beneficial for me.
At the moment, I am focusing on analysing my data and writing my thesis. I will also be presenting my work at an international conference soon and I am hoping to present at more over the next year. On completion of my PhD, I hope to publish my work and pursue a career in the environmental sector. Working with an oil palm company has really opened my eyes to the role that businesses play in conservation and the environment, so I am considering moving into this as a potential field.