San Diego State University: Field Experience in Indonesia Immerses SDSU Students in Conservation and Primatology

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This summer, three San Diego State University undergraduates visited Indonesia to learn about biodiversity conservation and primate behavior. The immersive field experience was led by anthropologist Erin Riley, who has conducted fieldwork there for more than 20 years.



The three-week trip, funded by the ASIANetwork Student-Faculty Fellows program, was delayed a year because of COVID-19 travel restrictions.



Anthropology majors Melissa Callado, Jadyn Skipper and Pedro Rios prepared by taking Riley’s Exploring Primate Behavior class (ANTH 355) and reading up on biodiversity conservation and human-primate interactions. They also became aware of how their backgrounds and viewpoints might impact their understanding of other cultures.



Once in Indonesia, the students attended a symposium on the island of Java on women in primatology.



“That was a great way for the students to learn about research being done in primatology, by both Westerners and also Indonesian scholars,” said Riley.



Next, the group proceeded to Gunung Halimun Salak National Park, a mountainous region where one of Riley’s Indonesian colleagues studies the Javan gibbon, an endangered ape under threat from habitat destruction and the wild pet trade. Stepping into the tropical rainforest invokes all of the senses, said Riley.



“Oftentimes when you find the primates, it’s not necessarily because you’ve seen them, it’s because you hear them: you’re constantly listening for different sounds,” she said.



Data gathering



The SDSU students shadowed Indonesian students in the forest as they collected data about the gibbons’ diet and health for their research projects.



The students also met members of a women’s empowerment community outreach project to learn how to make ecoprints: colorful textiles decorated with leaves and flowers gathered from the forest that the women sell to tourists.



“My students don’t speak very much Indonesian, and the women in the village don’t speak English, and yet they were able to work together to create these really amazing ecoprints,” said Riley.



Callado said knowing about how life happens in other regions “can make one very humble and also grow empathy. “I think it can teach us a lot about ourselves, having a different perspective. And it’s just gonna help us be more tolerant – and we need a lot of that in the world.”



After Java, it was on to the island of Sulawesi, home to many species of macaque monkeys. Here, they participated in workshops on biodiversity conservation and scientific fieldwork methods at Hasanuddin University. They also collaborated with Indonesian students on a project to develop educational materials about primate conservation.



“In Indonesia, people just assume monkeys are everywhere in the world,” said Rios. “A lot of the kids living in the national park or on the mountain aren’t even aware that they’re living in nature or in a protected area. They just think ‘oh, this is normal,’ but it’s like, ‘no, you’re living in a really special place.’”



The group then headed north to Bantimurung-Bulusaraung National Park, staying with a host family in a nearby village of Bengo. Inside the park, they tested out the fieldwork techniques they had learned in ANTH 355 and during the workshops by observing the behavior of moor macaque monkeys.



“For us, it was really a great insight into how you can do these observations,” said Callado. “You really need to know a lot about monkeys. They all have species particularities, but then they also have very individual ways of behaving. You need to know if it’s a male or a female, or if it’s a leader or not, and the social hierarchy of this individual..”



Riley has studied how the monkeys have adapted as humans have moved into their habitat, converting forests to agricultural land.



“That changes the landscape and it often can result in conflict between the monkeys and the people,” said Riley.



Future directions



Upon returning to the U.S., the students wrote reports on their experiences for ASIANetwork. They will also continue their collaboration with their Indonesian counterparts on the conservation education project.



The trip also opened up academic and career opportunities. All of the students are considering graduate programs in wildlife conservation and primatology. Callado secured employment with a conservation non-profit, while Skipper is continuing her study abroad adventures, this time in the Netherlands.



Riley obtained funding from the National Science Foundation’s International Research Experiences for Students program to support three years of human-primate conflict research training in Indonesia for SDSU students. Applications will open for next year’s Indonesia Fieldwork Experience in October.

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