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July 31, 2013

Research Hobby Costly…But Wonderful

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Malaysian Borneo – One of my fun hobbies, other than swimming, trekking the jungle, traveling, snorkeling and growing tropical plants is research. I love delving into primary sources, preferring to make up my own mind about topical issues.


I like to read anything about Borneo, especially as it relates to nature. Books here, as elsewhere, are expensive and beyond my budget. E-books are a bit cheaper and save the cost of shipping, but by the time they are published they are usually out dated especially in the science field.


I have my Google Scholar set on Borneo, orangutans and Alfred Wallace, so any academic papers that surface generally make it to my in box. The problem is that they are always associated with some organization that charges for them. The cost just to download them has sky rocketed to, in some cases, over $40, way beyond my budget. However, none that I want to read are less than $35.


To overcome this dilemma, I write to the authors and beg a free copy. I usually offer them dinner when they come to Kuching, a rarity in this very out of the way location. Usually a visit here is a once in a life time stop over. You can’t stumble into this town; you have to purposefully want to come. So, I am safe with that promise and Suriani will not have to cook a meal.


I am very excited after reading the latest in depth scientific findings, usually eight or 10 pages with complicated math, graphs and other arithmetic talk that I assume means something to somebody but which I usually just skip over. It takes me maybe a delicious hour or two to decipher the paper; but when I am done, I want to share the latest information with others.


Group conversations with friends usually are about travels. One friend might be sharing information about a how-to journey to a remote island. He may be talking about the people, food, accommodations, beaches and costs. Somewhere midway into his exposition I will burst in and say “Did you know rats piss in Pitcher Plants and that is their source of nitrogen and not trapped drowning insects as previously thought?”


The conversation comes to a dead halt as I relate this new discovery with enthusiasm, throwing in scientific terms well beyond the lexicon of my friends. Not meaning to show off, mind you, but just my excitement about being on the cutting edge of new jungle knowledge. They politely listen to me, having absolutely no interest in rats and, especially, where they urinate.


I do have an outlet for my new found facts and that is the weekly column of the Malaysian Nature Society, Kuching Branch in the Sunday Borneo Post newspaper. I translate the dense scientific writing into what I hope is a lively piece complete with pictures that I have to beg from the authors. However, sometimes it is difficult to expand research into a 700-or-so word article.


For example, the latest news from researchers in Holland has shown that orangutans in Borneo spend more time on the ground than orangutans on Sumatra. They have spent two years researching this subject, taking pictures with trap cameras, observing from hides (blinds) and collecting reams of data – all neatly graphed.


However, in the end I have just one sentence “Sumatran orangutans spend more time on the ground than the ones in Borneo.” Then, of course, people who are still interested want to know why.


The paper reviews all the theories dating back to 1880s. Everybody in orangutan circles already knew they spent more time on the ground but weren’t sure why. The simple answer is and always has been and will be that there are tigers in Sumatra but not on Borneo. No orangutan would dare take his lady friend for a stroll and risk being consumed by a Sumatran tiger. Therefore, tree dating is the most common method of courtship.


There are some who take this idea further in wondering how orangutans “do it” as sex high in the canopy would be fraught with dangers with the positioning and the risk of falling 30 meters (90 feet) to the ground. I am sure someone is researching this titillating topic; in fact, I already know they are because I met the guy in a Kuching coffee shop who is espying on fornicating apes. I am a bit curious on this topic wondering how they manage on the branches or are Sumatran tigers a method of population control?


I will keep you posted when the research paper comes out, usually in a year or two.


…Life is good. . . . . .


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