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They Came, They Saw, They Counted

You think you've done some strange things on your vacation.
Mike Reed meets some people who spend their leisure time counting orang utans.

Orang Utan Hanging on Tree
©Wayne Tarman
Charming, knowledgeable, reassuring and professional, Carolyn Franklin has the air of somebody capable of handling large investment portfolios for well-heeled clients, something she did successfully for many years. But the financial world's loss is the scientific world's gain, as Carolyn is nowadays the Expedition Co-ordinator for Executive Expeditions, an offshoot of the Scientific Exploration Society in London.

Ashley Leyman, by comparison, looks every bit the committed scientist. Eloquent, passionate and intense, she is a seasoned conservationist and Director of the Orang Utan Society in Britain. I met these two unusual travelling companions in Kuching recently to find out about the Society's recent expedition to Sarawak.

MR: What exactly is the Scientific Exploration Society (SES)?

CF: The SES is a leading organisation in the field of scientific exploration, mounting expeditions worldwide, with a particular focus on biological research, conservation, community development, education, environmental protection and animal welfare. It's not really a "learned society" in the same way as the Royal Geographical Society or the National Geographic Society. Rather, the SES concentrates on the practical aspects of mounting expeditions, in conjunction with other organisations and individuals, very much in the spirit of its founder, John Blashford-Snell. We maintain close and warm links with the learned societies however.

MR: What was objective of your expedition to Sarawak.

CF : The main objective was to attempt to gauge the population density of the Orang Utans in Batang Ai National Park, on the border with Indonesia. This will allow us to estimate the overall population and provide a sound statistical basis for further research.

MR: How on earth could you work out the population density in a wilderness like Batang Ai?

AL : Very simple. We went in there and counted nests. That may seem a bit illogical to the layman, but its the most accurate way of evaluation orang utan populations. Every adult and adolescent orang utan builds a new nest each night, so accurate nest counts allow us to produce some very useful estimates.

MR: Is it easy to count orang utan nests?

AL: Absolutely not. You have to get out there in the jungle and hunt for them. New nests are not so hard to spot, but as they age they begin to look more and more like clumps of dead vegetation. We used five age categories for nests, and our observers had to spend a few days learning how to spot and evaluate them. We're eternally grateful to the national park wardens, the local Iban farmers, and Adrian Nayoi from the Wildlife Department for their help in doing this.

MR: What conclusions were you able to draw?

CF: No concrete conclusions as yet. We've got a pile of useful data, and the signs indicate that the population is stable and healthy. There is a lot more work to do, and we hope we can return to do follow up studies at regular intervals. Funding is always a problem, but the Great Apes of the World Conference is being held in Kuching next year, so that should help to make funds available.

AL: What encouraged me the most is the local recognition of the importance of national parks and wilderness sanctuaries. This is most apparent when you consider the almost symbiotic relationship between the local Iban farmers and the Orang Utan. The Iban leave the orang utan in peace, and in return they are able to benefit from jobs in the national park and earn extra income looking after tourists and selling their handicrafts.

MR: What would you like to do at Batang Ai if money were no object

AL: That's easy. We'd like to do an aerial survey, using a small airship to drift over the forest canopy. An infra-red detector would allow us to get a very accurate count of the orang utan population. There are very few big mammals apart from the orang utans in the area, a few sun bears and clouded leopards at most, and we hope to be able to recognise the different infra-red signatures of these animals.

MR: What kind of people took part in the expedition?

CF: They are mostly lay people from all walks of life. The only specialists are Ashley, Major Pat Troy, the expedition leader, and our team doctor. Everybody else has paid a substantial sum from their own pockets to be able to take part.

MR: Why would they want to do this?

CF: People are becoming increasingly bored with conventional holidays. Instead they want to use their leisure time to do something useful, and there are few things more useful than helping to save the orang utan. It's a great alternative to the usual kind of adventure holiday, it's a fantastic way to develop a real team spirit, and it's the most practical way to fund serious expeditions like this, with the participants bearing a significant part of the cost.

AL: Let's face it, there are probably less than 2,000 people alive in the world today who have actually seen a wild orang utan. We've just added another ten to that total, ten more people who are going to go home and tell all their friends and associates how very important it is to help safeguard these unique creatures.

MR: How do people get involved in these expeditions?

CF: We usually recruit through magazine and newspaper articles. We certainly don't have a budget for advertising so we rely on the press and word-of-mouth. We seem to attract people from all walks of life and all age groups, so we assign them to various expeditions depending on their on their interests, expertise and physical fitness. One thing that I would like to add is that everybody who takes part in an expedition is looking to get something out of it, and I am sure that they almost always find what they are looking for.


Further Information

You can contact Carolyn at:

Scientific Exploration Society Expedition Base, Motcombe, Shaftesbury, Dorset SPT 9PB, United Kingdom. Phone : 01747-854898 Fax : 01747-851351 URL :

Or Ashley at:

The Orang Utan Foundation, 7 Kent Terrace, London NWI 4RP, United Kingdom.

The expedition was hosted by Borneo Adventure and their base camp was the luxurious Hilton Batang Ai Longhouse Resort

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