Conservation Research in Indonesia with Francis Cabana

Conservation Careers Blogger Marta Cálix had the pleasure of interviewing Francis Cabana, who is a PhD student researching the nutritional requirements of slow lorises as part of the Little Fireface Project near Jakarta. Francis is also the Research Coordinator for the project and he´ll be staying there for the next 14 months. In this interview he talks about how he got there and gives some advice for young conservationists wanting to do research…

Francis Cabana and Dr Anna Nekaris holding a slow loris (It´s a Wildlife).

Francis Cabana and Dr Anna Nekaris holding a slow loris (It´s a Wildlife).

Tell me a bit about yourself and what you are doing in Jakarta…

I’m 25, born in Canada, and I have a Zoology degree from McGill University. I always knew I wanted to work with animals but never knew the context. I started off working in a pet shop … then I decided that I wanted to do more for animals and had my heart set on being a zoo-keeper – which I did; I was a Zookeeper at Granby Zoo in Canada for 2 summers. Then, I was ambitious and found a Masters in England called “Zoo Conservation Biology” at the University of Plymouth. So I took the leap and did it.

When I went back to Canada something was off and I just wanted to do research. One of my courses at Plymouth was nutrition and I absolutely fell in love with it. Our professor, Dr. Amy Plowman, who is also the head of Field Conservation and Research at Paignton Zoo, offered me an internship at Paignton in nutrition research -so I quit my job and moved to England. I made no money since it was a volunteer internship and I spent all of my savings staying in the UK for that one year. I worked 5 days a week there and then a part time job 2 days a week. But I loved it and everything changed that year. My research with nutrition was relevant and caught people’s attention, in particular my research on primates, the cutting out of fruit from their diets completely. That put me in contact with Dr. Anna Nekaris, from Oxford Brookes University who works in slow loris conservation and who wanted me as her PhD student. Now I am working on site and gathering data for my PhD!

How long have you been in Jakarta?

I’m not actually in Jakarta; I’m in a tiny village about 6 hours away from Jakarta. I’ve only been here about 2 months now, having started the PhD in January. I am looking at slow loris feeding ecology – what exactly do they eat, and how much of it – my aim is to create nutritional recommendations that can be used to create the ideal slow loris diet and, more importantly, use it in rescue centres. These poor lorises suffer through poaching, transportation in bad conditions and being sold in markets. Then, if they are lucky, they are caught at customs and sent to a rescue centre – but many rescue centres don´t provide an adequate diet. Published survival rates are low and reintroduction rates even lower. I’m not saying rescue centres are bad, they aren’t; they are just so limited in terms of funds and where they can buy food from… which is why I want to use wild data to create the ideal diet for them using local and cheap food items.

What have been the main challenges of being over there?

Culture shock is definitely the biggest hurdle. It is just SO different! In Jakarta many people speak English but out here no one does.  I am learning Bahasa to communicate with our trackers. You can’t say what you think or feel, can’t express yourself… well it really takes a toll and you miss things you are used to, like your TV, your hot showers and baths, your clothes…

Javan Slow loris (Nycticebus javanicus) © It´s a Wildlife

Javan Slow loris (Nycticebus javanicus) © It´s a Wildlife.

You are also the Research Coordinator for the Little Fireface Project – what other research is being carried out, and what does the position entail?

Well, the Little Fireface Project is a long term project looking at not just lorises but all of the firefaces in our field site (fireface because when you shine a red light in a nocturnal animal´s eyes, it glows bright like a flame). We have two species of civets, binturongs, Javan ferret badgers, leopard cats etc… We have a couple of ongoing projects that require constant data collection and input and analysis such as sleeping sites, occupancy, feeding ecology, infant dispersal and mother-infant behaviour. Plus, because we are on privately owned land, we have to meet with every land owner often and chat with them; make them understand why we are doing this and, most importantly, how it benefits them. That is another part of my job along with working with the trackers.

What is your favourite part of being there?

It is a bit selfish but it´s knowing that I am directly involved in helping the lorises. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for that. Plus, I love the food! Indonesian food is amazing – I am vegan and I can easily find lots and lots of options.

What would your advice be to people who want to work in conservation, and especially those wishing to get into the research arena?

My biggest piece of advice would be to put your name out there. The biggest way to do that is to volunteer.  You need to work for free for a while – nothing is handed to you and there are dozens of people like you walking around. I know that sounds harsh but I was always told “just be at the right place at the right time” and I didn’t subscribe to that. You are much more likely to get in somewhere as a volunteer or placement student. Then, once you are in, you’re in. Basically you need to pay your dues in some sense.

One more tip – always say YES! Even if you don’t know how, SAY YES and figure out the details later, even if you are already on another project. Life is weird and there are no straight paths.

 When you took take internship that was a leap, you just took a chance and spent all your savings – how did you make that decision?

I made that decision by being completely unscientific and irrational. I thought I’d be happier in the long run, even if there was the potential of me being shipped back to Canada with loads of debt. I’m a bit scared of regret, not of regretting things I did, but scared of asking “what if I DID go to the UK?”

Final question – what is your favourite book?

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera.


Check out the Little Fireface Project and their volunteering opportunities:

And their Facebook page:

For learning more about slow lorises watch the documentary “Jungle Gremlins of Java”.

About the author


This post was written by Conservation Careers Blogger Marta Cálix. Marta is doing an Internship with Flora and Fauna International working on their Global Trees Campaign. She comes from Portugal and has a special interest in threatened species reintroductions and protected area management.


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