Tag Archives: bonobos

Saving What Matters: Taking Sustainability Personally

I was asked to deliver a talk to the School of Arts, Design and Media at Nanyang Technological University last week.  As I was preparing, I recorded a rehearsal version of the talk and posted that on YouTube:

This version cut off the bottoms of the slides, which included some important source links and some other information.  That information is visible in this PDF: MM talk to ADM Sept 2015 v4


Dr. Merrill will discuss her research on rainforest apes, how these experiences moulded her views on sustainability, and how everyone’s choices shape the future. She will share her adventures watching bonobos (Pan paniscus) in central Congo, and orangutans (Pongo abelii) in northern Sumatra. She will talk about some of the threats to these endangered primates, and how they connect to the decisions people in Singapore and all over the world make about what to buy and do. She will show why these actions and choices have repercussions that are relevant to the well-being of current and future generations of people everywhere. She will provide examples of how we can make better choices, and explain how these choices can have greater effects because of the way humans have evolved to learn.


Conservation Drones?

When I was slogging through the swamps and slipping down the mud-slicked trails of Sumatra, following orangutans, I often daydreamed about how the right tech would make the job so much easier.  I even started to write a novel about it.

Now one of those gizmos I so wished for is a reality: small aircraft with cameras that can get above the canopy to see what’s going on up there from a much better vantage than on the ground.  And a colleague and friend, Serge Wich, who worked in Zaire and then on Sumatra at roughly the same time as I did (but always much more skillfully and proficiently over much longer timeframes), got some support from National Geographic to set the things up.  Here’s some video of my buddy Serge Wich talking to Nat Geo reporters:

and here’s a TED talk by his co-conspiritor at ConservationDrones.org, Lian Pin Koh:

Great job, team!


Published today in Science Creative Quarterly


Painful Topics: Primate Conservation

I realize that the title of my blog probably makes some think that I’d be talking about non-human primates a bit more.  But, despite the fact that I could be called an expert on them, I find it very difficult to devote much time or thought to these creatures that I love.  It simply hurts way too much.

Bonobo (Pan paniscus) - photo by FJ White

I went to Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) to study female cooperation among bonobos in 1996.  I had to leave after a couple months, in part because a civil war was brewing (it continues to simmer).  War is bad for any primate that’s unwittingly caught in the middle – for large monkeys and apes in Africa, it means an increased threat of poaching as well-armed mauraders move through their habitats.  In Congo, a lot of the money that keeps the war going comes from coltan – essentially, people like us buying electronic gadgets.

Sumatran Orangutan (Pongo abelii) - photo by M Merrill

So I changed my research topic to social learning in orangutans, and went to Sumatra in 1999.  While I was there, one of the research sites where I lived was being logged illegally.  I wrote letters and set up a website about it, but I wasn’t able to do much to stop it.  I somehow managed to get through analyzing what data I had and get my dissertation done in 2004, and I haven’t really been involved in primate research since.  The wounds just never healed right.

I face the pain from this every semester when I come to the place in the Introduction to Biological Anthropology classes I teach where I have to talk about my research and primate conservation.  It’s always a hard week.

Now I’ve been asked to co-present on great ape conservation with some of my colleagues at Cabrillo College, so I’m facing it at least twice this semester.  This also necessitated putting together some resources (though Renee found more of them) – I’ve posted those here: Great Ape Conservation.

I keep hoping someday this will get easier, it will hurt less so I can do more, but the news keeps getting worse.  So I try to focus on the things I can do here, just simple stuff like changing the entire culture of consumerism that is driving the destruction.

Wish me luck!