Loyola Magazine

Orangutan see, orangutan do

Graduate research leads Kristin Abt, ’10, to the Orangutan Health Project in Indonesia

As a student at Mount de Sales High School in Catonsville, Md., Kristin Abt, ’10, started volunteering at the Maryland Zoo. She worked with rhinos, farm animals, and birds—but enjoyed the primates the most.

As an interdisciplinary biology and psychology major at Loyola in 2009, Abt used her experience working with animals in captivity to win one of Loyola’s Kolvenbach Summer Research Grants, which led her to a primatology field course at Danau Girang Field Center in Malaysia. She loved the food, the people, and living in that part of the world, but returned to the U.S. to continue her education.

Then, while pursuing her Master of Science in Sustainable Development and Conservation Biology from the University of Maryland, College Park, she started working at Orangutan Foundation International in Indonesia, where she helped in the care center, working with orangutans waiting to be released back to the wild.

When she heard about a six-month position opening up with the Orangutan Health Project (OHP) in North Sumatra, she applied and landed the job. The OHP, which was the first project to investigate the behaviors and ecological conditions to maintain health in wild orangutans, is the world’s only ongoing, long-term orangutan health research initiative.

“People from all over the world go there to trek and see the orangutans, and the research is looking at the effect that the tourism is having on the orangutans,” Abt said.

Abt conducted research and collected data to learn more about the ecological conditions of the forest.

“We collect fecal samples and watch what kind of diet they are eating,” she said. “The ones in the area where the orangutans generally see humans, they come down a lot closer. They are really curious. But the ones that are in the rest of the national park, they’re not used to seeing humans. They might get upset or uncomfortable or move away.”

At the same time, Abt also conducted her own research for her master’s degree, looking at the motivations of and contributions made by the volunteers who come from all over the world— including India, Singapore, Australia, England, and New Zealand—to help with the project.

Along the way, Abt has also found that there is something special about orangutans.

“Even the ones in the wild have their own personality,” said Abt, who is looking into Ph.D. programs or a long-term research/teaching position after she completes her master’s degree in the spring—and hopes to return to work with the orangutans again.

“You can use orangutans to get people interested in rain forest preservation. They are really great ambassadors for conservation because they are so similar to people. Naturally we feel really connected to them.”