Business & Tech

ON THE JOB

BU biological anthropologist aims to understand, protect orangutans

Cheryl Knott (left) and daughter Jessica Laman observed a wild orangutan in Gunung Palung National Park in Indonesia.
Tim Laman
Cheryl Knott (left) and daughter Jessica Laman observed a wild orangutan in Gunung Palung National Park in Indonesia.

How do you collect urine from an orangutan? Very carefully, and by using a forked stick with a plastic bag or by throwing a plastic sheet under the animal when it starts to urinate. That’s after a week of trying to track down one of the elusive great apes in the Bornean rainforest — trekking through mud, ducking under thorny vines, evading leeches and snakes, and staring up at the leafy canopy. But after years of studying the solitary primates, Boston University biological anthropologist Cheryl Knott, 55, knows orangutans intimately and fears for their survival as their numbers have dwindled.

Collecting the urine from female orangutans is part of her research on whether the availability of food — preferably exotic rainforest fruit — affects female reproduction. Her research has shown that hormones in female orangutans peak when fruit is most abundant in the forest.

“I feel rewarded knowing that I’ve helped to protect this critical population of wild orangutans, and made a significant contribution to our understanding of orangutans, great ape biology, and human evolution,” said Knott, who teaches classes at BU on “The Ape Within,” as well as primate and human sexuality and behavior.

Knott spends summers with her family in Indonesia, supervising field staff who follow orangutans with GPS units and computer tablets to record data. Knott’s husband, Tim Laman, is a field biologist and wildlife photographer who met Knott when they were graduate students at Harvard University. He has been documenting their adventures for National Geographic.

Over her two decades of observation, Knott says, orangutan numbers have declined, but the population she studies in Gunung Palung National Park in Indonesia remains a stronghold for the species. Knott’s research project is one of the longest running studies of wild orangutans. She also works to protect them through her organization, the Gunung Palung Orangutan Conservation Program.

The Boston Globe spoke with Knott about what it’s been like to devote so much of her life to these intelligent and unique red apes.

“Looking at other animals, including orangutans, gives us insight into our own behavior and the similarities and differences we share with the apes. The word ‘orangutan’ actually translates to ‘person of the forest’ from Malaysian and Indonesian words — orangutans are literally the persons of the forest, and they have unique cultural traditions that they pass on through social learning. One of these cultural behaviors is kiss squeaking, a sound they make when they’re threatened. At our site they do this by kissing into leaves, something that isn’t seen at most other locations.

“Orangutans have long birth intervals — about seven to eight years — and I’m trying to understand their reproduction, and why they grow so slowly.

“My research site is in the core zone of Gunung Palung National Park, one of the most important regions of orangutan habitat remaining in the world. Our team of researchers have logged thousands of hours of observation, collecting samples for analysis and also observing behavior. One of our current projects is using drones that fly above the rainforest canopy, counting orangutan nests and then estimating population density with this information. This is much faster and more efficient than trying to count them from the ground.

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“My summer expedition used to start by dugout canoe with an outboard motor, but now we usually hike in eight miles from the nearest village. The main camp building has room for the camp staff, with a lab on the upper level, where we process our samples and conduct data analysis. My family and I stay in a smaller hut along the river, which is very pristine — you can drink from it.

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“Once we find the orangutans, we follow them through the forest, watching them high up in the trees, until they make a nest for the night. Being so close to these wild apes is fascinating. When they wake up from their nests and look down at you, I can see the intelligence in their eyes and feel a connection. Something different happens every time I’m out there. Last summer, one of our very habituated females was on the ground eating pithy plants with her baby on her. We were incredibly close to them, watching them through the vegetation, for a long time. That was really amazing.

“It may sound romantic, but there’s also a lot of management that goes into directing a project, often from afar — including fund-raising, grant writing, and permitting. I’m in daily contact with my staff in Borneo about grants we’re writing, data collection protocols, the status of different permits, supplies we need, or just the latest unique orangutan observations. Soon we will be buying our tickets to Indonesia for the summer. It takes five different flights to get there — but it’s worth it to get the chance to learn about these amazing animals and help safeguard them for the future.”

Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at cindy@cindyatoji.com.