Orangutans Paparazzi

Orangutans in Borneo

Here I am standing in the middle of the jungle with my camera ready to take a picture of one of the few remaining orangutans on earth living in the wild. After a very long wait, not a chance.

There were about 60 of us, from all over the world, to pick a rare sight of orangutans in the wild. We chose the Borneo’s Semenggoh Nature Reserve because of its success story with helping orphaned or rescued from captivity orangutans to re-wild. In the last 20 years of the programme, the surrounding forest thrives with a healthy population of young and adult orangutans, who are now breeding and living in their natural habitat.

Sadly, this million-year-old specie closely related to humans, having 97% of DNA in common with us, are seriously endangered and on the brink of extinction. And the situation for them is getting worse day by day. This is the result not only of deforestation, the palm oil industry and human overpopulation, but fundamentally of our total disconnection from nature.

As I was standing in the jungle and waiting for these beautiful animals to come out during their feeding times, my heart was trembling. I have never experienced such feeling before – there is something incredibly special about orangutans. Just feeling them in the forest made me very sensitive and filled my heart with love. Unfortunately, the reality around me kept pulling me back. We were all strictly instructed to be silent – any noise would scare wild animals away. And there we were: an army of 60 people chatting away over futile conversations, kids running around, photos clicking and all sorts of foolish behaviour. Honestly, if I was an orangutan I would NEVER come out to such sight. The scene reminded me of paparazzi running after celebrities. Orangutans must have felt like celebrities being haunted by cameramen and violated in their privacy. And I was there, part of that tragi-comic pantomime!   

It felt totally ridiculous to find myself in the midst of “nature lovers”, who could not keep silent and respectful. Are we really nature lovers? It felt as if we were the nuisance in that forest and all animals and birds were disturbed by our presence. We were totally unable to just do nothing and simply wait, tuning in with the jungle’s natural vibes. The whole situation was pathetic and frankly sad. In the first place: we are the cause of these animals’ extinction. And even when we try to re-wild them, we make money by bribing orangutans with bananas so that flocks of insensitive tourists can take photos. I felt totally ashamed. I felt something of being human has died in us. As more animals and nature get destroyed, our souls are becoming poorer and emptier. What we have done to nature, we have done to ourselves. 

Towards the end of the 2-hour visiting window, I overheard one member of the staff saying: “Do not worry, when the crowds disperse, the orangutans will appear”.  And that proved to be prophetic. We were about 10 people left, quiet and ready to go home when all of a sudden a silent gesture by the Reserve’s staff pointed us in the direction of the appearing orangutan. My heart sank, my eyes watered, and there he was. Playfully, a wonderful 6-year-old young male majestically made himself visible, as if posing for us – a total beauty! I will never forget him.

In conclusion, I would like to clarify that I totally appreciate the staff working at the Semenggoh Nature Reserve, who are orangutans’ true lovers. Their eyes were full of love and excitement for these magnificent animals. In no way I mean to discredit their incredible work. Their contribution is invaluable. I just wish they would shut down that forest and allow animals to thrive even further. I wish the Reserve to find an alternative way to raise finances and let orangutans enjoy their natural habitat undisturbed.