Learning about landslides and orangutans with Cassie Freund


Cassie Freund is a tropical forest ecologist and Ph.D. student at Wake Forest University. Her areas of interest and work are widespread: while she currently focuses on studying landslides in the Peruvian Andes, she also loved working on orangutan conservation projects in Indonesia. Read on for a peek into Cassie’s work.

“One time a disgruntled male orangutan tried to push a tree over on me. He wasn’t happy that I was looking at him.”

Cassie Freund Talks About Being a Field Scientist, Orangutan conservation, and Ecology of Landslides

Minu: What do you currently work on? 

Cassie: I am currently doing my Ph.D. on the ecology of landslides in the Peruvian Andes. We know that forests are dynamic and always changing, but the way that we study forests doesn’t reflect that – most research is based on long-term, permanent plots in mature forests. This type of research is really important, but we’re missing a big part of the story by ignoring areas of forest that are rapidly changing and developing after natural disturbances. In the Andes, the main disturbance type is landslides, and I’m interested in understanding their role in regulating biodiversity and carbon storage in the ecosystem. Landslides are predicted to become more frequent with climate change, so this is a timely project.

Minu: On your blog, you mentioned that your short research experiences in Indonesia turned into a long time research project. What made you stay?

Cassie: I worked in Indonesia on and off for 5 years, and am actually still wrapping up projects that I started while I was there. Two things made me stay: First, I loved the peat swamp forest system that I was working in. Peat swamps are this really squishy, messy, wet place to work, but they are surprisingly diverse and play host to some of Indonesia’s most famous species, like orangutans. We know very little about the ecology of these forests, except for what’s been gleaned for primatological studies. Second, people and culture were great. Every province within the country is unique, with its own language and food and landscapes. It was an exciting place to do research – and to take vacations from said research! Now I’ve moved my field site to Peru, which is vastly different but also a really great place to work.

Cassie_peat swamp
Climbing a 30-m tower in the peat swamp.

Minu: Tell us more about the ‘Gunung Palung Orangutan Conservation Program’? What are the conservation issues with Orangutans? 

Cassie: GPOCP is a community-based conservation organization that works to protect orangutans in and around Gunung Palung National Park, which is in West Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo). The main conservation issues with orangutans are the conversion of forest to oil palm plantations and farmland and poaching. GPOCP has a number of programs, including a wildlife crime investigation unit, sustainable livelihoods initiatives, and environmental education, to get people living in the Gunung Palung landscape involved in orangutan protection. This helps get local and provincial governments interested as well.

“People think that ecologists spend all of their time outside rolling around in the dirt. That’s the highlight of our year, usually, but the rest of the time (9 months of the year for me) is spent sitting in front of a computer reading journal articles, sorting through data, and writing papers.”

Minu: Any crazy fieldwork stories that you would like to share? 

Cassie: Well, one time a disgruntled male orangutan tried to push a tree over on me. He wasn’t happy that I was looking at him. That’s probably my craziest field work story. My favorite story from Peru is the day that my team had to hike about 14 kilometers round trip to transport some equipment out of our field site. That’s not that bad distance-wise, but the first 7 km spanned a 1000-meter increase in elevation with 40 lbs. on our backs and we were very tired by the time we got to the top. But we were rewarded with an amazing sunny day and had spectacular views of the mountains. We could actually see from the top of the Andes all the way down to lowland Amazonia. The view made the hike back down much more tolerable!

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Tell us your favorite and the least favorite thing about your work. 

My favorite thing is climbing landslides and standing in places that no one has ever ventured. My least favorite thing is entering the data from field notebooks into Excel after a long field season. My data from this past summer include information for about 11,000 individual landslide plants and putting all of that into the computer can be pretty time-consuming.

What is one common misconception about your field among the public?

People think that ecologists spend all of their time outside rolling around in the dirt. That’s the highlight of our year, usually, but the rest of the time (9 months of the year for me) is spent sitting in front of a computer reading journal articles, sorting through data, and writing papers.

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2 thoughts on “Learning about landslides and orangutans with Cassie Freund

  1. Good reading Dr Minu.
    So nice of you to share ur talk with other researchers.
    Amusing to read abt Cassie ‘s encounter with an Orangutan. They can be quite unpredictable sometimes.
    The bottom line is that ”research is no monkey business”

    Liked by 1 person

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