Robbie Little credits his wet and muddy childhood for his passion for critters.
"I remember telling mom that I just wanted to catch frogs on Taylor Pond when I grow up," the 2008 graduate of Edward Little High School said. "I always wanted to be the crocodile hunter since fifth grade."
But crocs and frogs got a break this past spring while Little, 21, searched for something a little less slimy — the Bornean orangutan.
"I generally like more creepy, crawly things," Little said. "My favorite animal is bats. My second is snakes." Apes were not on the top of his interest list.
That all changed when the Bates College junior took the class "Conserving the Great Apes." Not long after, Little was brought to tears while filming a documentary that explores the orangutan's loss of habitat in Borneo.
With the help of the Bates College Phillips Student Fellowship, Little spent two months documenting orangutans and the destruction of their rain forest home in and around Gunung Palung National Park in Borneo. The Indonesian island is in Southeast Asia.
Finding destruction was easy. Finding orangutans was not. "The fact that I saw one was very, very lucky," Little said. "Orangutans are very solitary creatures" and not easy to find. They live in the trees, and the forest canopy reaches 90 meters high.
"It's kind of spooky when you see them in the forest," he said. "They look like people."
Little had only one chance to film the apes within the park borders before being told not to return. "The government knew about me but felt on the fence about me."
Little will say little else about government in Borneo. "I can't talk about corruption in my video because I want to go back. I definitely can appreciate the order and noncorruption in the U.S."
Much of his video focuses on the orangutan's habitat being cut down and the people employed in the process. Legal logging is taking place to clear land for a thriving palm oil industry. Huge tracts of forest are being clear-cut to make room for the crop.
The orangutans rely on the forest for the fruit they eat. As the trees are cut, their food source and shelter disappear. Patches of forest and the narrow stands of trees left along the rivers attract the few orangutans that survive.
Tour groups along the river marvel at the number of orangutans, but that is only because the orangutans are concentrated in such a small area, Little said. "When you see them in a bunch, that is not good. Those orangutans will die once the fruit is gone."
Like the orangutans, Little found the people who live off the forest in need as well. In addition to the palm oil clear-cuts, Little recorded the lives of illegal loggers who cut one dipterocarp tree at a time to put food on the table.
"They are desperate, just trying to make a living," Little said of the illegal loggers he met during his travels. "Even the illegal loggers were concerned about the rain forest being destroyed. They felt like they were destroying their future, but at the same time would say, if I don't cut down this tree today, I don't eat."
"Everyone you meet in some way was an illegal logger at some time," he said. "Even the mayor himself was once an illegal logger; that's how he made his living." The mayor introduced Little to the illegal loggers in Little's video.
Little teamed up with the Gunung Palung Orangutan Conservation Program while in Borneo. The nonprofit works to protect endangered orangutans living in and around the national park.
"I saw two happy wild orangutans and two unhappy orangutans," Little said about his two-month stay.
Little also filmed conservation workers trying to save a dying mother orangutan after she was beaten in the oil palm fields while searching for food. "I had trouble focusing because of the tears in my eyes."
The baby was found a day later, and the tears started all over. "Oh my gosh, I just saw your mother die," Little said he spoke to the baby orangutan, who died as well. "It's crazy to see the cause and effect of the palm oil."
Little, an environmental studies major at Bates, said he holds no bias against the oil, a common ingredient in the commercial food industry.
"Palm oil is a very efficient crop" when compared to other crops such as soy beans. I haven't boycotted palm oil. It's a great crop," he said. "My mom is trying to buy stuff without palm oil, but is having trouble. Palm oil is pretty much in everything."
Little would like to continue with his film project. A bout of malaria, corrupt police officers and a shady government have not deterred him.
"I will definitely go back. I have some good friends I can stay with. I would like to learn the language (Indonesian) and work on a more complete video," Little said. "I am caught up in the whole scene. Now I feel very connected to the issues."