You may have heard that air quality in Singapore has been dangerously bad recently as a result of smoke from fires in Sumatra. One of the Cool Scientists from the book, Dr Emma Collier-Baker contacted me today to tell me that she has got involved in the campaign to save Aceh’s forests from destruction.
She asked if I could do anything to spread the word. I’ll be trying to get something into wider spaces than this blog, but this is the place to start. I must admit what I know about Aceh comes down to this:
1) It’s the northern part of Sumartra
2) It was the location of a long standing separatist war with the locals really not feeling like they belonged as part of Indonesia, and the rest of the world preferring to keep ancient boundaries intact than to listen to the will of the people – you know the thing that is supposed to be the core of democracy.
3) It suffered by far more deaths in the Indian Ocean tsunami than the rest of the damaged sites combined, but got less publicity because it was not a popular tourist location and point 2). The one good thing out of the tsunami (besides improved early warning systems) is that it produced a peace process which led to some form of local autonomy which has greatly reduced the violence.
However, with Sumatra as a whole seeing its forests razed for plantations, timber and as an accidental effect of fires lit to clear target areas it is hardly surprising Aceh is being hit as well, and the consequences are of course devastating. The video at the top gives an elephantine interest story to the wider tragedy.
I don’t really know what can be done at this point, but I will probably be interviewing one of Emma’s colleagues soon and hope to have some ideas to pass on then.
Meanwhile, I’ll say something about Emma. She came to my attention when she was still doing her PhD, measuring intelligence in different sorts of animals. There was some puzzlement because many dogs were “passing” an intelligence test that two year old children could pass, as good great apes, but seemed to be failed by most other animals, including some that were seen as smarter than dogs. The test was a sort of pea and thimble thing, with a prize placed in a container and the subject having to work out which container it was in. Emma discovered that dogs were solving the problem using a different method from children or other animals that passed, proving they had their own sort of intelligence, but confirming the idea that they are not as smart as apes at certain sorts of reasoning.
She has since expanded her research to a range of other animals, some of which I covered in the book. More recently she has got involved with Orang-outangs, which led to her efforts to save their homeland.
An curious side-note to this. Some of Emma’s studies have been on gibbons, and she told me it can be hard to get gibbons to sit the tests because they have really short attention spans and don’t want to stay still for testing, whereas gorillas, for example, have more self discipline. This came back to me recently when, in preparation for my recent talk on animal mating behaviour I got into a discussion about primate mating (something I know very little about and was worried people would question me on). My friend Kate told me that gibbons were the only non-human primate that is largely monogamous (at least of ones we have studied). The combination of short attention spans with monogamy seems counter-intuitive, which of course is usually the start of scientific interest.