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PhD in a pandemic: from Borneo to my bedroom | Katie Spencer

Back in January I was optimistic that 2020 was going to be my year. I’d finally bagged my dream PhD after years of studying, volunteering and working non-related jobs to get my foot in the door. Though anxious about the challenging year ahead, I was ready to immerse myself into PhD life. My first academic conferences were booked and I was eagerly preparing for a three-month trip to the Bornean jungle to begin data collection.


However, like most people, my normal working life came to an abrupt halt in March. The university closed down quickly and we all had to adapt to the “new normal” of working from home (or living at work, depending on how you look at it). PhD’s can be lonely and stressful even in normal circumstances. Being suddenly isolated from my peers - invaluable mentors to first year PhD students like myself - was the biggest challenge of lock down. Staying motivated when my morning commute consisted of moving approximately 1 meter from my bed to my desk was another problem, not to mention fieldwork being cancelled and switching to a year of data analysis instead.


Being directly affected by COVID-19 links back to the work I do as a conservationist; we are facing an era of pandemics, plastic pollution, extinctions and climate change as a direct result of our actions on the environment. The changes to our planet are so great that this period has been given its own name; the “Anthropocene”. This is a new geological age in which humans are the drivers of climate and environmental change and, unfortunately, the 6th mass extinction of life on Earth.


Biodiversity loss is greatest in the tropics due to expanding populations and international demand for natural resources. Southeast Asia, in particular, has faced unprecedented rates of unsustainable hunting and deforestation during the second half of the 20th century and many species are now vulnerable to extinction. The systematic loss of animals, particularly large mammals, coined “empty-forest syndrome” or “defaunation”, will become the norm unless we are able to minimise such large-scale hunting and forest loss. Defaunation is not just a conservation problem – it’s also a threat to human livelihoods as each species has a part to play in a functioning ecosystem that people rely on. For example, primates and bears disperse seeds that regenerate forests to store carbon and prevent climate change.

To prevent defaunation and the break-down of ecosystems, conservationists need to understand the drivers of defaunation so strategies can be put into place to protect wildlife and their habitats. My PhD will untangle the different environmental and human threats to large mammals in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) in collaboration with Chester Zoo, Borneo Nature Foundation (BNF) and the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE) at the University of Kent. The end goal is to locate hotspots of high-risk areas for large mammals and provide specific recommendations for on-the-ground conservation efforts to tackle population declines in Kalimantan.


Map of my study area with the seven camera-trap sites in Central Kalimantan (Bawan, Belantikan, Rugan, Sebangau) and East Kalimantan (Lesan, Kutai, Sungai Wain).


Data on mammal abundance and distribution has been collected by BNF over the last 10 years via camera-traps - remote cameras triggered by movement that generate a huge amount of data for animals that usually avoid humans. Hopefully (coronavirus permitting) I’ll be resurveying some of these sites over the next couple of years to investigate changes to mammal populations. Designing targeted conservation strategies are essential given the small financial budgets for wildlife conservation, which will likely dwindle further post-covid due to funding cuts.


Sun bears caught on camera-traps in Borneo. These bears are shy and elusive - cameras make it possible to study them without them knowing! Sun bears can be individually identified from the U-shaped pattern on their chest, which is said to look like a rising sun. Photos kindly donated by EnvEast & UKC student Jess Haysom, who is conducting research in Malaysian Borneo. I hope that I will have my own camera-trap photos next year!

To gain a deeper understanding of the extent of hunting and wild meat consumption across Kalimantan, including what factors influence these decisions, I’ll be working with an expert team of conservation social scientists at Bangor University. This research is more important than ever as there have been reports of increased hunting and deforestation as a result of regular income being lost during the pandemic. Additionally, China Health Commission has recently proposed bear bile - a digestive fluid obtained from the gall bladder - as a treatment for coronavirus. This is very worrying since bear poaching may intensify across Southeast Asia to meet this new demand, despite there being no evidence that bear bile is an effective treatment.

Map showing the extent of logging and deforestation across Borneo between 1973 and 2010. Deforestation removes natural habitat for wildlife and is usually accompanied by increased rates of hunting (CIFOR, link here).


Whilst this isn’t quite the year I had envisioned, I realise I am fortunate to have good health and a regular income; a privilege not everyone has had during this pandemic. The last 6 months have tested my “resilience” and “flexibility” as a PhD student (I think we can all put these attributes firmly on our CV’s now), but I’m hopeful that 2021 will be packed full of everything we’ve missed out on this year. Fingers crossed for Borneo 2021!



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