SSC staffer completes conservation field work in Borneo

Posted on August 30, 2019

by Emma Carey | Program Coordinator

This past July, Miami University’s Project Dragonfly graduate program sent me to Borneo in Southeast Asia to learn about the effects of palm oil on the rainforest, and the conservation efforts to sustain wildlife in a fragmented habitat. We visited wildlife sanctuaries, stayed at the Danau Girang Field Centre and learned about the community-based conservation efforts that are facilitated by Hutan, a non-governmental organization that is dedicated to the conservation of orangutans and their habitat.

Along the Kinabatangan River in Borneo

While at the Danau Girang Field Centre, we got to accompany scientists into the jungle for their field work, tracking and taking data on animals such as civets, pythons, monkeys, and pangolins. I really got the sense of what field work in the rain forest is like on a day-to-day basis, and I loved seeing the scientific process first-hand. One undergraduate student that we met at the center used the “bycatch” of camera traps (motion-sensor cameras) set by researchers in order to track the movement of the Storm’s stork, a large bird that lives in the jungle, and created the largest data set for the species ever recorded! It is true what they say … there really is so much left in our world to be explored!

Planting a tree in the rainforest of Sabah, Borneo

For the second half of our trip, we stayed with families in Sabah, learned about community-based efforts in the surrounding area, and even got to sit in on one of Hutan’s outreach programs at a local elementary school. We saw elephants and orangutans in the wild, went on a night-time exploration of the Kinabatangan River, and planted trees with a reforestation team that is completely run by women. During my homestay and at the local school, I loved interacting with the kids, and was reminded that kids are the same everywhere you go!

My overall takeaway from Project Dragonfly program is that conservation is complicated. In the words of Dr. Marc Ancrenaz, the founder of Hutan, “Conservation is not about animals, it is about people.” Conservation is not just science. It also involves emotions, personal connections to nature, and people’s values. And, it takes time. In order to build enough trust within communities to create change, organizations need to spend years working to understand the needs of locals. The path to truly effective conservation is windy and filled with obstacles. Compromises among stakeholders (governments, community members and conservationists) are important to create the best long-term solutions.

Observing a wild orangutan mother and her baby. “Orang” means “people” in Malay and “utan” means “of the forest.”

The Bornean rainforest, home to animals such as sun bears, pygmy elephants, pangolins, and orangutans, is being deforested to make way for palm oil plantations. However, as the human population continues to grow, the need for plant-based oil in food is increasing, not decreasing. Palm oil is actually a more productive crop than other vegetable oils such as canola oil, sunflower oil, and soybean oil, which require even more land. It is also a more efficient crop than seasonal crops such as corn because it grows continually and doesn’t need to be replanted. Therefore, it is important to support palm oil producers that are farming sustainably. Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s app is a great tool to help you check that the products you are buying contain sustainable palm oil, and to tell additional companies to switch to sustainable palm oil as well! If all of us make small changes in our lives, we can have a huge impact on our planet!


Emma Carey will complete her masters degree in conservation biology from Miami University in Ohio in December 2019.


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