There’s no wow in Tawau

It’s been quite a few months since my last post – my apologies. I always said I’d blog when I had that rare combination of internet access + time (+ inspiration) and the first half of 2011 has been busier than I could have imagined.

So I’m currently lying up in glamorous Tawau with suspected malaria, awaiting test results. Which, for the first time, has forced me to push aside the work for a bit. It first hit me in the field, and I felt weak and disorientated. It quickly progressed to a fever, a hammering headache and shivering. It was a rough night in my hammock, with little sleep. All I wanted to do was put on all the clothes I had with me – a dangerous move when your temperature is already 3 degrees above normal. As it was, I resisted, popping painkillers to try to control the fever and just lay there listening, for once, to the sounds of the forest in the dead of night. I was taken to Tawau the next morning.

Two sleepless nights later, Avatar is on the TV (great film) and, right now, Colonel Quaritch’s words seem applicable to Borneo as for Pandora: “You are not in Kansas anymore. You are on Borneo, ladies and gentlemen. Respect that fact every second of every day. If there is a Hell, you might wanna go there for some R & R after a tour on Borneo. Out there, beyond that fence, every living thing that crawls, flies, or squats in the mud wants to kill you and eat your eyes for jujubes.” Don’t ask me what a jujube is, but Borneo certainly has all manner of diseases, as well as a trillion leeches, ants, wasps, bees, poisonous caterpillars, centipedes, assassin bugs, mosquitoes, deer flies, horse flies, black flies and ticks, all waiting to become acquainted with you. Not to mention king cobras, crocodiles, gargantuan reticulated pythons and charging elephants.

Recent illness aside, the months since my last post have been very productive on the mammal side of things. Mindful of the desperately short amount of time we have at our disposal before the ‘dozers arrive, every day is precious and can offer a new species, a new finding or a new insight. We’ve been running both live-trapping and camera-trapping concurrently, with the result that days off have been few and far between for my team (sorry, guys). But we now have an excellent foundation of sampling effort under our belts: >5,000 equivalent camera-trap nights and >6,000 equivalent live-trapping nights.

Data collection is continuing, but it is now up to me to begin to apply mathematical models which will help to make sense of all of these data in one (more-or-less) coherent framework. Ultimately, I am aiming to understand the system to the point where it is possible to make robust, defensible recommendations for conservation strategies. Scientists often prevaricate on communicating the results of their work to decision-makers for fear of making “biased inferences” (i.e. incorrect conclusions, caused by a lack of sufficient data). I’ve always strongly seen conservation biology as a science with a deadline: more than most scientific endeavours, it is constantly being challenged and pushed on by the day-to-day pace of human activity. Michael Soulé called it a “crisis discipline” in which “one must act before knowing all the facts”. What this means is that, whilst the mathematical models are essential for gaining insights from your data, we cannot be afraid to go that extra step and make clear, brave inferences beyond what the statistics may allow.

I’m reminded of the need for pragmatics on a daily basis: from the endless oil palm plantations I have to drive through to get to study sites or, whilst setting up a camera-trap, the rumble of a fully-laden logging truck winding along a distant road.

Anyway, see below for some highlights from the cameras so far…

Written September 2011

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This entry was posted in Conservation, Field work, Rainforest Fauna, Scientific Research and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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