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Tuesday September 19, 2006

Life of adventure

FOR the greater part of the past 32 months, June Rubis has been rambling in the forests of south-western Sarawak.  

Muscle aches, leech bites and walking in sweat-soaked clothes day-in and day-out are all part of the job in her search for the elusive orang utan.  

She has also had some dangerous encounters, such as crossing paths with a Malayan sun bear, being bitten by fire ants in her hammock and her boat capsizing in rapids, plus the fear of being mistaken for an animal by hunters.  

June Rubis: ‘I feel very lucky to be paid to do what I do ... camp in the jungle and look for orang utans! Lots of people would pay for that opportunity.’
She sometimes spends as long as three weeks in the field but the Bidayuh lass is not complaining. “I feel very lucky to be paid to do what I do ... camp in the jungle and look for orang utans! Lots of people would pay for that opportunity. I can’t think of doing anything else that doesn’t contribute to wildlife conservation,” says Rubis, a biological science graduate of Simon Fraser University of Canada. 

Upon graduation six years ago, Rubis landed a job as researcher with the New York-headquartered Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Malaysia Programme. 

The field researcher for the Batang Ai-Lanjak Entimau orang utan project is conducting a population re-survey of the Bornean sub-species Pongo pygmaeus pygmaeus in the region that hosts the most viable population of the endangered Asian great ape.  

A typical day in the field sees Rubis and her field assistants waking up at 6am. After breakfast and packing their simple lunch of rice, vegetables, canned food or salted fish, they are ready for the long day ahead. They document orang utan nests, both new and old, in order to estimate the abundance of the creature. By the end of each nest-count outing, they would have walked 6km on mostly hilly terrain. 

“We often have an early dinner because by then, we’re tired and hungry. Anyway, light falls quickly under the thick canopy of the Bornean jungle, so it’s best to get things done before nightfall. After dinner, we plan the next day’s work. I like to get some reading done before I go to bed. Sometimes, we play cards and I listen to my field workers’ stories,” shares Rubis of life in the field. She is assisted by four field workers because of the difficult terrain and remoteness of the area. The workers help carry food supplies which have to last the survey period and drag the boat in shallow parts of the river.  

The soft-spoken Rubis recalls how some had initially doubted her ability in the field. “When I first started conducting fieldwork for WCS, there were not many female field researchers. You face a lot of prejudice from Malaysians. My first year was incredibly intense. I did a whole year of fieldwork without any field assistants in an area (Samunsam Wildlife Sanctuary) that locals wouldn’t want to go on their own because of illegal hunters and persistent rumours of a local pontianak

“There is great interest among local graduates of both genders for fieldwork now. I didn’t see that interest when I first started. Seeing new colleagues who are locals and female is a really good feeling,” she adds. 

Rubis is also working on her master thesis on the abundance of diurnal primates – proboscis monkey, black-banded langur, long-tailed macaque, pig-tailed macaque, Bornean gibbon and silvered langur – in the Samunsam Wildlife Sanctuary. 

She looks forward to trying out another survey method, which is to follow the orang utans in the forest and record the numbers that build nests. The steep terrain and swiftness of the orang utan would make this task challenging but Rubis remains enthusiastic.  

“Despite their size, orang utans are very stealth in the jungle. I once stood under a wild adult male that was only 7m off the ground without realising it. The best (experience) was when a mother and her infant, curious about us, came closer and watched us from above for about an hour.” – By Hilary Chiew 

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