What is the most extreme environment you or a colleague has worked in for research purposes and how did you prepare for this experience?
Dr. Bennett: I’ve always worked in the lowland tropics, so if you count mangrove and peat swamps as extreme… then yes that’s most extreme. In tropical peat swamps in Borneo, you’re knee deep in water all day and then camping at night in hammocks over the water. The peat can be up to 20 meters (65 feet) or so deep and it’s permanently flooded. Depending on the rainfall, it can be waist deep or much more. So, as you’re walking through those areas, you go between clambering over roots and clumps of spiny vegetation to then crashing through the other side in waist-deep or swimmable water all day long, then sleeping over it as well. With the added pleasure of large horse flies that bite you even through your shirt.
In terms of preparing for it, there’s not a lot you can do in advance apart from making sure that you’ve got lots of plastic bags to keep all your clothes in, and ensuring that you have at least one dry set of clothes to sleep in every night.
But when you’re in the rainforest, after the first few days when you run out of dry clothing, you’re always putting on damp, cold T-shirts and trousers in the morning. That’s just part of the routine. As long as you keep a dry set of clothes for nighttime, you’re fine.
If you were to speak to our viewership and urge them to join in on the fight for the preservation of one particular species dealing with imminent threats of survival, which would it be and why?
Dr. Bennett: That’s a difficult one! If you look on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, more than 1,000 species of mammals alone are threatened with extinction. In terms of groups of animals, a couple of groups of animals are really highly threatened across a whole taxonomic group. One is tortoises and fresh water turtles, where more than half of all species (there are about 330 species) are threatened. Primates, almost half of all species are threatened. So for those, we could lose a large number of species across an entire taxonomic group unless they’re much better protected.
Others that are really crucially endangered are the Southeast Asian Rhinos — the Sumatran Rhino and the Javan Rhino. They’re both so endangered largely because they’re sought after because of their highly valuable horns. Rhinos world-wide are under huge threat because of their horns. Tigers and African forest elephants are also under severe threat now from hunting for their parts (bones and ivory) for commercial trade.
But as a primatologist, the ones that are close to me are ones I’ve spent a lot of time with: the Proboscis Monkeys and Orangutans. Both are in a lot of trouble.
Historically for Orangutans, this has been due to a combination of habitat loss and hunting. Both of those things are still carrying on. Key Orangutan areas are still threatened by clearance, and a surprising amount of hunting of Orangutans still goes on, particularly in Borneo. They breed very very slowly because they are solitary, live at low densities, and each female only has one baby about every four to six years. So they can be knocked back rapidly by even pretty low levels of hunting. And, together with other great apes, they’re one of our closest relatives, so apart from the fact that they are incredibly beautiful animals, it would be just tragic if we lost them.
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