Thursday, May 16, 2013

Vet in the Jungle: Tracking Orang utans for conservation

Esther T. tracks orang utans in the jungles of Borneo. Photo by Amanda Hoepfner.

Smallanimaltalk is interested in vets getting out and helping the world. We interviewed Dr Esther Tarszisz, who is about to forgo the comforts of civilisation in the name of PhD fieldwork.

1) Who are you and what do you do? 

I'm Esther (AKA Dr Fabulous) and I work at Sydney Animal Hospitals - Inner west, as well as ( infrequently these days) at North Shore Veterinary emergencyhospital.

I'm also doing a PhD through the University of Wollongong on orangutan ecology. The title of my PhD is “Gardeners of the forest: Quantifying the role of forest fauna in seed dispersal using orangutans as a case study”

2) Why does a small animal veterinarian undertake a PhD in conservation?

Well, I guess the question is really why does someone who wants to work in conservation work as a small animal vet? I initially started vet so I could get into wildlife. What with needing experience and various other life experiences, I have gotten into wildlife work in a very circuitous manner. However, I don’t regret this as I have come to realize how much I (generally) enjoy clinical work and physical interactions with animals as well.

I did a Master’s program in 2006, worked on some overseas projects as a volunteer and eventually started this PhD. 

An orang-utan pausing in the jungle. Image by Amanda Hoepfner.

3) Okay, so you are collecting orangutan poo. How will this save the world?

Well, seed dispersal and germination are crucial for maintaining natural forest ecosystems; orangutan populations are decreasing rapidly in many areas, owing to human activities, yet the impacts of these losses on forest processes such as seed dispersal, and thus how these might be mitigated, are very poorly known.

This research also serves as a potential model for understanding the importance of other forest fauna in, and effects of losses of these populations on, seed dispersal and ultimately on forest structure.

4) You have travelled to the jungles of Borneo for fieldwork. Can you enlighten us on the challenges of jungle life? 

Mouse poo!!! I tried waging a war on it in my room for a few weeks when there last time but eventually had to concede to the mice and now just have all my stuff in boxes. Lack of fresh fruit & vegies. There is no constant electricity in camp (5 hrs/night using generator) so we only get fresh stuff on market days. Bugs! I just except that I’ll be itchy for months as there are loads of mosquitos as well as other creepy crawlies. The peat-swamp is really difficult to walk on – you can get sucked in up to your thighs, like quicksand, but I just pretend I’m a big kid and playing in the mud (probably because I am, mostly, a big kid). And it’s a kick-ass lower body work out.

I found Belize much more challenging (spent 3 months volunteering on a program collecting Jaguar poo!) as the bugs there were horrifyingly bad – I had spots all over for about 6 months and I was so itchy I would scratch in my sleep (and got really bad infections!). Borneo seems easy in comparison to that. 

Orangs are very comfortable in their natural habitat...but it keeps shrinking. Image by Esther Tarszisz.

5) Are you packing any treats to help you survive?

My Kindle – the single best thing for field entertainment. The battery lasts ages and I can download >100 books on it.

In terms of food treats - well you can get chocolate (but it’s not Cadbury’s!) in Palankaraya which is the closest town. OuTrop have a house there so when I need to use the internet every few weeks or so I can get some sweet stuff then. Cheese and bread are the 2 main things I’ll miss as the bread is like eating white sugar and the cheese doesn’t deserve the name, I’m glad I can’t read the ingredients. Oh and wine, there’s none of that but it will just make a nice shiraz all the better when I get back.

6) what is it like seeing an orang utan in his or her home environment?

Pretty awesome. They are funny animals. I saw a female orang take sips from a pitcher plant like she was holding a tea cup, and I’ve seen big males crash to the ground and then act like a cat that has just fallen – ie like nothing happened and it was meant to be that way. I had a big male get upset and aggressive when there were too many people around. It’s a little scary – but you just get down low on the ground and don’t make eye contact. Much like with drunken males coming out of the pub looking for a fight – it’s mainly posturing. The babies are also super cute.

7) What can the average person do to ensure the survival and wellbeing of orang utans?

PLENTY!!! The biggest threat to orangutans is habitat destruction to make way for palm oil plantations. Palm oil is in so many packaged products as diverse as bread, biscuits, chocolate, chips, sandwich spreads, instant noodles, shampoo and shower cream. BE AWARE of this and buy products that DON’T have palm oil in them – I buy shampoo that has been sustainably produced or doesn’t use palm oil as well as having a cruelty free label.

Also supporting programs like OuTrop which have a charity wing.

8) A PhD is a long haul. How do you keep the motivation?

Ah, well it comes and goes. Sometimes I need a good talking to either from myself or my supervisor. It’s hard doing mainly self-directed study. With vet there were so many assignments and assessments that you have to constantly keep on top of things, whereas the payoff with this is far down the track.

Setting a 5 year plan and working towards it has giving me a lot more focus than I had a year ago – I am pretty firm in what I want to do next and why I need to keep going to finish the PhD.
A young orang utan makes tree climbing (whilst doing the splits) look easier than we suspect it might be. Image by Esther Tarszisz.
10) Any advice to veterinarians and future vets who want to work with wildlife? Or potential PhD candidates?

Get experience – volunteer as much as possible. I did volunteer zoo keeping while I was studying to be a vet and helped on a koala project. Then I did a Masters in wildlife health and population management and then volunteered for projects in Zambia, Botswana and Belize as well as some in Oz. I also did a course in Wildlife Chemical Immobilization in South Africa – that was AWESOME!!!

If you are already a vet be prepared that vets and biologists don’t always see things the same ways. Vets have such intimate knowledge of animals as individuals, as well as understanding things like herd health whereas biologists tend to understand ecological systems more. Multi-disciplinary teams are great, but one has to learn to be politic.

PhD candidates – love your topic! Research is by its nature repetitive and often can be boring for long stretches. Even watching amazing animals can become boring if you are tired, wet, dirty and are being ravaged by mosquitos. If you can accept that, then research may be for you.