Meet Robert Rodriguez Suro – Orangutan Researcher and National Geographic Young Explorer

October 16, 2015

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national geographic young explorer


Last week, I wasn’t in New York City, Hong Kong, Tokyo, or any such city. Yet I found myself surrounded by skyscrapers. These skyscrapers were of an ancient form of architecture, preceding humanity’s invention of the skyscraper – a mere 20th century development – by hundreds if not thousands of years. I found myself in the jungles of Borneo, and the skyscrapers I’m referring to (some might call them the original skyscraper) are the towering trees of the tropical rainforest. Nature has been building upwards for millions of years, and their green jungles are, in many ways, much more advanced and complex than our concrete ones. Just 25 acres of Bornean rainforest may contain more than 700 species of trees, a number that equals the total tree diversity in the entire North American continent. But amidst all the life and biodiversity that surrounded me, I was on the tail of one very particular red ape: the orangutan.


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My name is Robert Rodriguez Suro, and I’m an orangutan researcher and photographer from Isla Verde, Puerto Rico. In 2014, I was awarded a National Geographic Young Explorer’s grant for a year-long research expedition, “The Lives of Orangutans” in West Kalimantan (Borneo), Indonesia. My mission is to uncover the mysteries of male orangutan ranging behavior. Male orangutans have huge home ranges, larger than most (if not all) research sites in Borneo. This means that in order to fully map out their territories, it’s not enough to follow orangutans within just the research site. Unfortunately, due to the difficulties of following orangutans away from research site, this is not often done. As a result, we are missing a lot of data regarding orangutan ranging and movements beyond the borders of research site, and thus have an incomplete picture of their home range. That’s where I come in.

For the past month, I’ve been living in the jungle. I spend every day following orangutans, or thinking and planning about how to follow orangutans. It’s not the typical job…there is no 9:00 to 5:00 schedule, I have no office, and no commute home. There is no shower and warm meal waiting for me at the end of the day. If I had a dress code, it would be “wear mosquito-repellant clothing”. But I get to go where no orangutan researcher has gone before in these forests. Nobody has tried to follow orangutans beyond the borders of my research site, and the data that I get will truly be new. But it’s hard work. On a typical day, I can be following these orangutans from 4:00am to 6:00pm (14 hours!), all the while hacking through the rainforest with my parang (the Indonesian version of the machete) in an attempt to keep up with them. Me and my trusty research assistant, Evan Sloan, do this every day in a row for up to 10 days, before finally returning to camp to camp to catch a break and plan our next follow. That’s our schedule for the next 10.5 months. We’ve only just begun.

In order to follow orangutans outside the borders of the research site, and map out their movements and territory, we need a few things:

First, a GPS. There does not yet exist a technology that that allows us to non-invasively tag and remotely track orangutans, and so in order to map out an orangutan’s movements, we must physically follow them with a handheld GPS unit. The GPS unit is vital not only for the research, but also for our safety, as it is our primary tool for navigation once we exit the research site trail system.



young explorers nat geo


Second, we need reliable methods of communication. I carry a satellite messenger, which I use to communicate with camp and keep them updated on our movements when outside the research site. It’s not perfect: it requires an open view of the sky, and so in order to send and receive messages, I must look for tree fall gaps in the thick canopy. Finding a suitable location to send messages can sometimes take a long time, so to keep in touch, we also use cellphones. It is incredible that in a place as remote as this rainforest, there are places with cellphone signal. We truly live in the future! (And if that wasn’t enough to convince you, as of this week, the entire Back to the Future trilogy takes place in the past.) It doesn’t work everywhere, but if you look hard enough you can eventually find a place with enough signal to send an SMS. We also use handheld radios for short-range communication. With all of these methods combined, we can stay safe and connected in case of emergencies.

Third, we need a place to sleep in the forest. The jungle floor, often times uneven and covered with many roots and stumps, does not lend itself for the use of tents. Instead, we use hammocks. Specifically, a lightweight mosquito-proof hammock made by Warbonnet Outdoors. In some ways, sleeping in a hammock resembles the way orangutans sleep: they sleep up in trees by bending and crushing branches into a nest shape, and pad it down with leaves for comfort and insulation. When I go to sleep, I feel a certain connection with the orangutan that is sleeping somewhere above me, as we’ve both figured out the comforts of sleeping off the ground.


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Last, but certainly not least, is food. This is arguably the most important part of our orangutan follow kit. To keep up with the orangutans all day, we have to navigate through tough terrain and obstacles like swamps, mountains, and rivers. This means we’ll be burning tons of calories. Since we’re already carrying a lot of gear, we decided to go as ultralight as possible with the food. Our philosophy is to pack as many calories as possible in the least amount of weight possible. In a country like Indonesia, this is easily achieved, as there are many high-calorie canned and processed foods available that are suitable for the field (think cookies, cake, canned sardines, corned beef, tuna, chocolate, peanuts, etc.). However, consuming enough calories to power us through our day does not necessarily mean that they are healthy calories that incorporate enough vitamins, minerals, proteins, and healthy fats (such as Omega-3 fatty acids) into our diet.

national geographic young explorer


This is where PROBAR comes in. The PROBAR Meal and BASE bars are the perfect food solution for a project like this: a high-calorie meal that is tasty enough to preserve our morale, compact enough to not encumber us on our adventure, and made up of natural, healthy ingredients that provide a large variety of the vitamins, minerals, proteins, and fats we need to stay healthy and fit in the field. We each have two PROBARS a day: a MEAL bar for lunch, and a BASE bar as a snack. The variety of flavors is great, and a great respite from our daily dinner of crackers and canned corned beef. Evan and I are very happy and lucky to be #FueledByPROBAR out here in the jungle. It makes a huge difference in our diet, and will keep us healthy and fit.


national geographic young explorer


Stay tuned, and follow my adventure along as I study orangutans in the rainforest for the next year, fueled by PROBAR.

Instagram – Robert Rodriguez Suro

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