Featured ‘Day in the life of’: Kat, a first year PhD student researching the effects of oil palm monoculture on orangutan behaviour.

Day in the life of Kat (PhD student): 

Selamat Pagi! I’m Kat from Bristol in the UK, and I’m a first year PhD student currently studying the effects of oil palm monoculture on orangutan behaviour and feeding ecology. I can talk for England, so here is my attempt at a concise summary of my current life. At the moment I find myself in the field, so this post is live from the rainforests of Borneo

I fell into working with orangutans by accident; my initial plan was to work with baboons and then proboscis monkeys (the complete change of continent was a surprise to me). However I’ve stuck with them and so far it has worked out really well for me. Before I started my PhD in January this year, I did an MSc in Primate Conservation at Oxford Brookes, followed by several years working in Indonesia in all manner of orangutan-related roles.  Eventually this resulted in landing a paying gig in 2014 where I managed the long-term orangutan field site of Dr Cheryl Knott in Gunung Palung National Park.

I then heard on the grapevine that a team were looking for a researcher to take the lead on a project next door to Gunung Palung, studying orangutans in an oil palm plantation. So after 2.5 years in a tent in the jungle and 4.5 years since my MSc, I went back to Brookes because, well… it was easy (and I got an alumni discount), but more importantly I knew I would be coming back to a strong and experienced support network. My experience in the area where I planned to conduct research (and the sweet sweet UK academic system) meant I could get back out into the field as fast as I could get my registration in and approved; so 6 months later I was back and ready to start collecting data. This project is important because ~80% of orangutans live outside of protected areas, and the demand for oil palm is insatiable, yet little or no research has been conducted on what this is actually doing to orangutans in terms of behaviour and feeding ecology.

When I’m back in the UK I do talks to different groups of people and I love it. It really hits home how lucky I’ve been but also how much work I had to put in to get here.  In order to get to this point, I’ve worked all manner of jobs to pay for work experience, university and travelling; gone broke more times than I can count and also lived at home for way longer than I should. It’s been hard work but ultimately worth it. My current travel total stands at 31 countries (and I am hoping to keep chipping away at the other 190-odd).

I don’t have a blog because after 14+ hours in the rainforest every day, I just don’t have time. However you can find me on Instagram and Twitter under KatPrimateGirl, as well as another Twitter account and Facebook page dedicated to primates called ‘Primate Earth’.  My current location means I am somewhat limited in what I can post, but I still try to get at least a picture a day on Instagram

Future stuffs …erm…. Ideally not getting sick out here and finishing my PhD… Watch this space I guess! I am aiming to complete by the end of 2019/beginning of 2020 so we shall see what happens!

My current life is weird so here it goes: a day in my jungle life when I go out searching for an orangutan.


5am: (or 4am if following an orangutan) A grumpy selfie just about sums up my mood. I hate hate hate early mornings but for some reason have never veered away from studying orangutans or any early-waking species for that matter! Due to the time-differences between the people I work with, I take 10 minutes to check my emails and also social media before I get out of bed.


5.30am: After a sleep-deprived attempt at yoga, I smash my first coffee of the day. I am a self-confessed coffee addict so this is the first of many cups throughout my day. I then head to the bathroom and splash cold water over me in-lieu of a proper shower (non-existent here as you can imagine) and then grab a breakfast of rice (usually a variation on a theme), some form of protein and fried vegetables.


6am: the organised part of me totally sorted out my kit the night before and not at 6am before running out the door and then back again because I forgot to put the SD card in my camera… again


6.30am: My chariot awaits (motor bike) and off we go to the forest. Due to the nature of where I work, we have to travel to and from the site by motorbike everyday. Depending on the area I am in that day, it can take ½ hour to 1 hour to get to the field.


7.30am: Get to the field, stretch my legs and I’m rainforest bound. The forest here is peat swamp which means tons of holes to fall in, vines to fall over and ants to get swarmed by. We meet the other team members coming out with us and follow one of the many trails that have previously been cut in the forest. We take care to walk each trail slowly looking for signs of orangutan life such as new nests, fallen fruit, crashing noises or smells such as a recent defecation (yep I know what orangutan poop smells like)


11:00am- second coffee break- buying a flask for the best thing I’ve ever done (despite Indonesian coffee having the consistency of sludge). It’s such a luxury to spend whole days in the forest and away from any sort of screen. Being alone here means that I spend way more time than is healthy on my phone and laptop, so it’s refreshing to have a legitimate way to escape that!


12.00pm: Bingo! After a few hours of searching, an orangutan has been spotted. This means my camera is out, GPS is on and the assistants begin to take data. We typically followed the animals until they make their night nest. Data is collected on ranging (via the GPS), food consumed (part, ripeness etc) and behaviour, amongst other things.


7pm: After a long day in the field, we mount the bikes and return to base. Data is input, media is downloaded and everything is put on charge. Then comes the all-important eating. Of course it’s rice: rice is life here. I think about food way more than I should, and I look at food on Instagram way more than is healthy for me in my current location, so I have to say I am quite looking forward to returning home at some point.


9pm: The time difference and my work schedule means that talking to my partner during the day is impossible so I try and contact him before bed. If he’s still at work then I spam him with my day in the field, other wildlife stories, food pics from Instagram (making plans for returning home) and random stuff from Reddit.


10pm: Not much to do at night so after some stretching, I kick back and watch reruns of Archer and catch up on emails. Me time is super important as it can get quite intense spending up to 14 hours a day in the field. I’ve recently taken up meditation and exercise, as well as catching up on much missed reading. My current book is ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of HumanKind’ by Yuval Noah Harari: I am really enjoying it and also have his second book ‘Homo Deus’ to read after. When my eyes get heavy (it doesn’t take long!) it’s lights out in Borneo for me.


I hope you all enjoyed getting a glimpse into Kat’s day out in the field!

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