I had always felt an affinity for wildlife, especially primates (even despite my aquatic affinities). I remember reading an article about Jane Goodall in a nature magazine for kids in our tiny elementary school library, and it honestly affected me. However a lifelong concern for primates, seeing them in zoos, and reading all of Goodall’s books did not prepare me for how would I feel when I was in the presence of Bornean orangutans as a visiting scientist in Malaysia. Everything else fell away, as I watched them move through my camera lens. I watched males swing, eat, and climb, then an elderly female looked my way. This may be anthropomorphizing, but I felt she looked through the lens and into me. I lowered my DSLR. It was incredibly moving, but very different from the beautiful rush of surveying breaching whales and acrobatic dolphins or wondering at macroinvertebrate food webs. Bornean orangutans are critically endangered and highly intelligent. They have an advanced capacity for tool use and distinct cultures. They are endemic to the island of Borneo in Asia, native to Malaysia and Indonesia on the island. Orangutans play an important role in seed dispersal in their forest habitats. Bornean orangutans primarily reside in the forest canopy of tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests, traveling long distances to find trees bearing fruit, but habitat fragmentation makes life difficult in multiple ways. According to the World Wildlife Fund, populations of Bornean orangutans have declined by more than 50% over the past six decades. The main threat to Bornean orangutans is destruction and degradation of habitat, chiefly due to logging and palm oil production. Indeed, the chief threats to many primate species are habitat destruction, hunting primate species for food, and the illegal wildlife trade. Bornean orangutan habitat decreased by 55% in the past two decades. In 2016, the IUCN asserted that of the six great ape species, four are “one step away from extinction,” including the Bornean orangutan. The other two great ape species—the bonobo and chimpanzee—are also endangered. Organizations like the World Wildlife Fund, Borneo Orangutan Survival, and Orangutan Conservancy are working toward Bornean orangutan research and conservation, advocating for reducing palm oil production and halting the primate pet trade, as well as effecting primate habitat conservation.
Photo and haiku by: Samantha Oester