Climate change: above the tempest

Gail and I left Melbourne on a 6am flight on 11 August 2019, bound for Vanuatu via Brisbane.  There had been an Antarctic blast over south eastern Australia for several days and we were glad to be escaping from it.

Gail had told me of a news report which, in addition to describing the freezing weather, also mentioned that there were unseasonal winter bushfires in New South Wales.

As dawn broke, with us above the roiling clouds of the tempest, all was calm.

About 80 minutes after take-off we were reaching the boundary of the clouds.  Between breaks in the cloud I could see snow on the ground.  I estimated that we were above northern New South Wales, not far from the coast.  Rare snow indeed!

As I looked down on a snow covered village, I saw smoke from bushfires in nearby hills.  I also saw beaches beyond the plumes of smoke.  The fires were in remote country and so were probably not controlled burns.  It was a very worrying picture given the season.

The tempest would soon yield to conflagration.

To be continued …

Light of Life

My photo book contains a selection of momentary ethereal lights.  Here are captions for the photographs.

Front cover: just after sunset in winter from Princes Bridge in Melbourne.  The Yarra river seems luminous.

Some versions have a different front cover: sunrise over a mist-shrouded Ararat.

Page 2: just before sunrise, Brunswick.

Page 3: Sunrise, Brunswick

Page 4: Stonehenge inspiration.  Sunrise at the winter solstice, Brunswick.

Page 5: Hawaii sunset

Page 6: Sunset, Great Western, Victoria

Page 7:  Just after sunset, Hawaii

Page 8:  Rainbow, Melbourne

Page 9: Rainbow, Melbourne

Page 10: Rainbow, Cape Range National Park, north western Australia

Page 11: Rainbow, Bali

Page 12:  Sunset, Ningaloo Reef, north western Australia

Page 13:  Storm viewed from St Kilda Pier, Melbourne.

Page 14: Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne.

Page 15: Yarra River reflections, Melbourne.

Page 16: Rainbow, Puerto Williams, Chile

Page 17: Rain and shafts of sunlight mingle, Tierra del Fuego, Chile.

Page 18:  Sunset, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Page 19: Aurora Borealis, Tromso, Norway.

Page 20: clockwise from top left.  Sundog, Brunswick, 2012; total eclipse of the sun, Port Douglas 2012; Transit of Venus, Melbourne, 2012; total eclipse of the moon, Melbourne, 2011.

Back cover:  Sunset from Spencer Street Bridge, Melbourne.

Some versions have a different back cover: Morning colour at Philip Island.

Purchase the photobook.


Orangutans in Sumatra

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Gail and Charlie’s field trip to Sumatra, May 2017

We had a very successful trip, which was both enjoyable and informative.  It also presented a few challenges.  We are in no doubt that the work of The Orangutan Project (TOP) in re-establishing a viable orangutan population is successful and worthy of support.  TOP also has projects elsewhere in Sumatra and in Borneo.  Details are available on their website.

The Project

Orangutans have been extinct in central Sumatra for over a century.  The project, led by Leif Cocks as chief of TOP, has been running for 15 years and is based on 38,000 hectares of concession bordering a national park of 144,000 hectares.  They hope to take over another concession of 20,000 hectares.

A population of over 170 orangutans has been established.  These are mostly formerly captive animals who TOP staff have schooled in how to live in the wild.  The objective is to increase the population to 500 so that there is sufficient genetic diversity to support natural growth to 2,000.

There are also 150 elephants, about 40 tigers, some sun bears, and many other animals.  The Sumatran tiger is nearly extinct and this represents perhaps one-third of the total population left.  The elephants are tracked to minimise the risks to them and to minimise conflicts with local villagers.

They employ 200 staff working in a wide range of activities, including security.

Our activities

There was no vehicle access to the Bukit Tigapuluh camp because heavy rain had caused some bridges to be damaged.  So after our six hour trip by car from Jambi, we had a four hour walk, carrying our backpacks, over a very muddy track and wading rivers.  It was hot and humid, plus we had been out of bed since 3am to fly from Jakarta to Jambi.  We were all tired by the time we got to bed.

We went out with technicians to observe recently released orangutans.  They use telemetry, which is enabled by a small transmitter attached to the orangutans, to track them.  This process goes on for three years after release, to ensure that they are thriving.  We saw several orangutans, including some who were no longer being tracked but came to observe us!

We were attacked by leeches from the forest floor, so we lost some blood.

Three days later, we had the four hour walk out so that we could be transported to the orangutan sanctuary where jungle school is conducted, on the other side of the national park.  This is where orangutans are taught how to live in the jungle.  They are kept in cages and fed what they will eat in the wild, but they are released for several hours a day to learn about the jungle.  They are monitored by observers during this time.  They are also provided with enrichment, which develops their problem solving skills.

This photo shows construction of one enrichment activity, which hides fruit and bush honey in amongst leaves within a section of fire hose,  Many other enrichment designs are deployed.

In the evenings, Leif Cocks provided interesting talks on the various aspects of the project.

A thief in the night

One night, at 12.30 am, Charlie heard something shuffling across the porch outside our hut.  Then there was something banging a short distance away.  It was a clear night with a full moon.  In the shadows of the trees, an animal was banging something onto the ground.  It looked like an orangutan so Charlie woke Gail to have a look.  She thought it unlikely that it was an orangutan because they sleep in their nests in the trees at night.

A short while later, there were more noises outside and the animal was closer and not shaded by the trees.  It was carrying a sheet of some material in one of its feet.  Charlie called Gail again and it was agreed that it was an orangutan.

Next morning, we found one of our neighbour’s boots on the track and Gail’s poncho also, that was what it had been dragging along.  We had left waterlogged boots and clothes on the porch to dry.  We had also left small containers of sunscreen and insect repellent.  These too were on the track – they had been opened and a finger had clearly explored the contents.

Coming back from breakfast, we noticed a muddy handprint on our neighbour’s door.  It was clearly left by an orangutan.  The doors were not locked.

The full moon plus a clear sky had provided an opportunity for exploration and mischief.

Our learnings

The establishment of a new orangutan population is the best way to release captive animals.  In other areas we have visited, they have been released into areas with existing populations – this may limit the opportunity for growth of existing populations despite being a good thing for the released animals.

Palm oil plantations are destroying what little forest is left.  We knew this, but did not know that plantations for paper are also increasing rapidly.  This means we must reduce demand for both palm oil and paper.  About 80% of the Sumatran forest has been lost to plantations and (mostly illegal) logging.

Leif Cocks is looking to establish rainforest shade grown coffee so that locals can make money from the forest while orangutans can still live in it.

There are rubber plantations and orangutans can survive in these, so long as a range of food trees are also established (green rubber?).

This visit confirmed that orangutans are our closest cousins.  They are very intelligent and capable of learning at all ages.

Overall, we were heartened by the work of TOP.  It is increasing the orangutan population and both protecting and expanding habitat for orangutans and other threatened animals.

The forest is vibrant with a diverse range of flora and fauna living in a symbiotic relationship.


Orangutans and their habitat

Gail and I have visited forests on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra several times to observe orangutans and their habitat.  The continued existence of orangutans and the forests are in doubt.

We have also visited Uganda and Rwanda to observe Gorillas and Chimpanzees in the wild.  These too are threatened.  Our observations have led us to the conclusion that orangutans are our closest cousins. Not just in terms of DNA but also in the way they think and behave.

Orangutans are, in our minds, a test of our humanity.  Will we wipe out our closest cousins in order to satisfy our most selfish desires?

For Gail, most heartfelt are the animals themselves.  She sees wisdom in their eyes and has experienced social connections with them.  For Charlie, the forests are his passion – without them, many animals would not be able to survive.  Indeed, humans may not be able to survive without the forests.  Forests provide homes for insects needed for pollination of our crops; they contain medicines which are yet to be discovered, and they are our only proven technology for absorbing the carbon dioxide emissions our industrial lifestyles cause.

Our visits to forests, as tourists, has sent a message to governments and human inhabitants that the forests and their creatures are valued in both moral and monetary dimensions.  We have also donated to organisations which protect and improve habitats and care for creatures such as orangutans.  But now we wish to do more.

We are making a visit to Sumatra, in May, to go into the forest with the rangers and researchers of The Orangutan Project to observe and participate in their activities.  The Orangutan Project is a not-for-profit organisation which has been working in the field for many years and we will be travelling with its founder and chief, Leif Cocks.

We have paid our own fares and accommodation and we are raising a further $5,000 to donate to the works of The Orangutan Project.

If you would like to donate to this worthy cause, please do so at
Donations are tax deductible and information about The Orangutan Project is available at this page.

Fundraising closes on 28 April.