Portrait of Cheryl Knott, an anthropologist studying orangutans. Photo courtesy of Tim Laman and Cheryl Knott.
By Rama K. Ramaswamy
Wellesley STEM Expo 2019, part of the Wellesley Education Foundation, has announced that Dr. Cheryl Knott, Professor of Anthropology and Biology at Boston University and Executive Director of the Gunung Palung Orangutan Project in Gunung Palung National Park, Indonesia, will be the keynote speaker at the Expo on Aril 6. Dr. Knott will share her research on wild orangutans in the rainforests of Borneo in her address, “Face to Face with Orangutans.” This keynote address will be held in the WHS Auditorium from 2-3 p.m., and will be suitable for attendees of all ages.
As a biological anthropologist who studies, and works to protect, the wild orangutans of Borneo, Dr. Knott collaborates with her husband, National Geographic photographer Tim Laman, to create popular books, articles, and films on orangutans to help the public develop a greater appreciation for these great apes.
In 2014, Knott and her family began a blog about their Borneo-bound adventures. Pretty soon, it became a series of documented experiences, entitled, “Postcards from Borneo,” for National Geographic’s PROOF blog. This is a unique collection of firsthand experiences related by each family member, not to mention National Geographic-quality photos of the family, the forest, and the star attraction: the fuzzy, orange orangutans.
"I never really stopped to think whether I could have children and also be a field biologist running a long-term project,” Knott writes. “When I first traveled to Borneo with Tim in 1992 I had no idea that this would be the start of a lifetime committed to studying and protecting the orangutans of Gunung Palung.” Knott seems to possess a sui generis gift for communication - when she blogs or speaks, one feels transported to another world, under 160-foot tall dipterocarp trees, bathed in the appalling smell of durian fruit, surrounded by smiling orangutans.
Knott is keen on conservation. “If I hadn’t done this, it’s possible there wouldn’t even be a study site there now,” Dr. Knott says of her field-site being established as a national park in Borneo. “There’s been a real big change from 20 years ago when people [focused on scientific research] weren’t doing a lot of conservation work. Now, it is a necessity for field-based research.”
According to Knott's findings, orangutans, one of humankind’s closest animal relatives, are suffering from population decimation as human settlements expand and illegal logging rips through once-pristine forests. Orangutans only reproduce once about every eight to nine years. In the 20th century alone, the primates have experienced a 97 percent decline in their population, in conjunction with about a 90 percent decrease in their habitat.
Wellesley Education Foundation (WEF) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to advancing innovation and excellence in the Wellesley Public Schools. For further information, visit www.wellesleyeducationfoundation.org.