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How to work with orangutans with Emma Lokuciejewski

 Emma Lokuciejewski (pronouns: she/her) is a PhD candidate and orangutan scientist dedicated to unravelling the mysteries of orangutan behaviour and conservation. Emma shares her journey from a young fascination with orangutans to her current role studying these magnificent creatures in the wild rainforests of Sumatra as well as the steps she recommends taking to do something similar. Let’s dive into Emma’s fascinating world and learn more about her work with orangutans.

How to work with orangutans with Emma Lokuciejewski | #itsawildlife


“For some reason I was always interested in orangutans. I don’t know what it was about them that I just loved, but from a young age, I knew that that’s what I wanted to do as a career.”

From a young age, Emma’s fascination with orangutans set the course for her career. Inspired by their intriguing behaviour and unique personalities, she pursued a Bachelor’s degree in evolutionary biology at the University of Exeter, UK. It was during a field trip to Borneo that Emma’s connection with orangutans deepened, leading her to visit an orangutan rehabilitation centre and lay the groundwork for her future endeavours in orangutan research. Emma says –

“With orangutans, there’s definitely that human link – they have personality and when you look at their eyes, you can tell they’re also thinking back at you.”

From Rehabilitation Centres to the Wild

Following her Bachelor’s degree, Emma embarked on a master’s project focusing on post-release behaviour of orangutans at the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF). Emma says –

“They’re the organisation who rescue orangutans, usually from the pet trade, and then rehabilitate them and reintroduce them back into the wild.”

Here, she studied the success of rehabilitation efforts aimed at reintroducing rescued orangutans into the wild. Emma’s research revealed promising results, indicating that rehabilitated orangutans exhibited behaviour akin to their wild counterparts.

Transitioning to Wild Orangutan Studies

Through networking with various people in the orangutan line of work, Emma worked with Borneo Nature Foundation as a scientific advisor doing a lot of rainforest conservation before embarking again on her journey further through academia.

Building on her experiences, Emma transitioned to studying wild orangutans in Sumatra for her PhD at the Max Planck Institute in Germany. Unlike rehabilitated orangutans, these individuals have never undergone human intervention, offering insights into natural behavior and learning processes. Emma’s research focuses on juvenile orangutans’ learning and independence, shedding light on crucial developmental stages crucial for their survival. Emma laughs –

So that’s kind of my career – from start to finish”

A Day in the Life of an Orangutan Scientist

Emma’s fieldwork involves physically tracking orangutans in their natural habitat, observing their behavior from dawn till dusk. This entails trekking through dense rainforests, listening for orangutan calls, and meticulously documenting their activities at two-minute intervals. Despite the challenges posed by rugged terrain and adverse weather conditions, Emma finds immense fulfillment in witnessing orangutans thrive in their natural environment. She explains –

“Day after day, it’s very tough work in the rainforest – the jungle is dense, with flooding, extreme heat, bugs and dangerous animals – but it’s also very rewarding once you find the orangutans and see them in the wild.”

“So, it’s a balance of very tough, but very rewarding!”

For Emma though, when she hangs up her boots after the field season and returns to her lab and office in Germany to process her data – her routine looks extremely different!

Key Skills for Aspiring Orangutan Scientists

According to Emma, patience, attention to detail (as this will improve the quality of the observational data you collect!), and physical stamina are essential attributes for aspiring orangutan researchers. Fieldwork demands resilience and adaptability, coupled with a genuine passion for wildlife conservation. Emma encourages budding scientists to network proactively, leverage social media, and embrace specificity in pursuing their research interests.

Emma also notes the importance of networking – especially in smaller, specialized fields like orangutan-ology! She suggests you need to get your name out there, introduce yourself to people in the field and make a good impression – because many jobs within this field aren’t widely advertised! You can do this by emailing professors, going to conferences or even over social media.

She also says, if you have a project or question that fascinates you but don’t see it advertised – ask about it! – and know that your passion for the field is your biggest asset –

“In terms of becoming a PhD researcher, never underestimate your passion for something. If you really want to do something, then you can do it.”

The Intersection of Research and Conservation

Emma emphasizes the connection between research and conservation in safeguarding orangutans’ future. Her work aims to inform conservation strategies and enhance the effectiveness of orangutan rehabilitation and release programs. By bridging the gap between scientific inquiry and real-world conservation efforts, Emma hopes to make a tangible difference in orangutan conservation.

Orangutans are critically a endangered species and Emma reminds us the importance of prioritizing conservation –

“We also have to always remember that conservation should always be our priority. We can do such cool research, but you must always apply it back to the real world and make a difference!”

Emma’s dedication to her research exemplifies the profound impact of passion, perseverance, and purpose-driven science. As she continues her quest to unravel the secrets of orangutan behaviour and conservation, Emma inspires us to embrace curiosity, champion conservation efforts, and forge a brighter future for orangutans and their fragile ecosystems.


Want to hear more from Emma? You can follow her research and her adventures on Instagram @thatorangutanologist. What do you think? why not let us know or follow along for the adventure!

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