Many years ago when there were no humans, there were great apes, very similar to the ones we know today. New research is underway to uncover and understand the unique regional behaviors of wild orangutans. Because they are primarily solitary animals, it takes a while to find them in the forest. Researchers usually start preparing to observe them long before the sun comes out, because the orangutan is an early riser.
Orangutans can only be found in two places in the whole world: Sumatra and Borneo in South East Asia. Within those islands they only live in the remaining rain forest area. One of those areas is a national park called Ganung Palang, which is basically the last stronghold for wildlife due to the rapid changes occurring in the surrounding areas.
There, photographer Tim Laman, his wife Cheryll Knott who is a professor and researcher along with a National Geographic young explorer, Robert Rodríguez, have documented orangutan behavior that had never been seen before. They have been filmed making pillows for their nests and even fashioning umbrellas to keep themselves dry when it rains.
One of the most impressive concepts researchers discovered was that culture is not limited to humans. One interesting cultural behavior they observed in the orangutans at Ganung Palang is that they make a kissing sound by pursing their lips, much like humans do. Sometimes they take a handful of leaves, kiss it and then throw them. This behavior is used when they see an unfamiliar orangutan or a human. It’s sort of like a regional greeting.
In 2016 orangutans became critically endangered. They only have babies about every seven or eight years and this, along with the destruction of their habitat, has caused their numbers to decrease more rapidly than scientists had initially thought. It will be a race against time to document the cultural variations between them before they disappear forever.
This project, which has been going on for over twenty years, offers a unique look at the habits of wild orangutans and our need to protect their habitat.