Orangutans Are Our Closest Relatives But We Are Neglecting Them?

Once a month award-winning National Geographic photographer Jayaprakash Bojan boards a friend’s houseboat and putt-putts down the Sekonyer River which wends its way through the Tanjung Puting National Park in Kalimantan.

For Bojan, this is his favourite part of Borneo where he can capture orangutans and proboscis monkeys feeding along the river. Just last month, he spied a whole family of proboscis monkeys swimming across the river.

“There was mum and dad with their babies on their back gently moving across the current to the riverbank on the other side,” Bojan tells National Geographic.

I have seen the proboscis monkeys dive 45 to 50 feet from the trees along the bank straight down into the water.”

For Bojan, the Tanjung Puting holds some very fond memories because it’s where in August 2017 that he photographed a male orangutan standing in the water staring straight back at him. The image captured the world’s attention and saw him pick up National Geographic’s Nature Photographer of the Year award.

“it was my first visit to Borneo and this male wading in the river changed my life,” he says.

Fast forward two years and his love of orangutans has grown deeper and what he tries to do is capture them on film slightly differently than a lot of photography.

Photo Credit: Jayaprakash Bojan

“I don’t want to portray them as this sad story. They are beautiful, strong, magnificent creatures that are larger than life and I want people to fall in love with them like I have,” he says.

“They’re not small creatures, they’re huge with some of the males growing up to six-feet high and they need a lot of space.”

Unfortunately for orangutans, the space for them to live in continues to dwindle drastically. Up to 80 per cent of the suitable forest in Indonesia and Malaysia has been lost in the last 20 years. Most of that habitat loss is because of agriculture and most of that can be attributed to the rampant expansion of palm oil plantations.

Making matters worse is the world’s hunger for palm oil continues unabated. According to the advocacy group the Orangutan Alliance who promote the reduction of palm oil, it accounts for 35 per cent of world edible vegetable oil production and 85 per cent of this is sourced from Indonesia and Malaysia.

It is used in about 50 per cent of packaged goods consumers purchase in supermarkets and shops, but it is not always clearly labelled. In fact, it has as many names as uses which range from it being found in biscuits to toothpaste, cosmetics and detergent.

The upshot is the world’s last orangutan habitats are being destroyed and although the Malaysian government has declared a moratorium on land clearing, there’s no real concrete evidence that it has stopped as yet.

For Bojan, who has just completed a documentary titled Disappearing Souls currently screening at a number of film festivals around the world, his photography acts as a conversation starter about the plight of orangutans. It allows him to passionately share his conservation message.

He spends hours with them in the wild and shares stories he’s heard about how special they are to the people of Borneo.

“You research the folklore of orangutans and they were always revered.

“One story talks about how humans learned about managing pain from them because the orangutans used herbs like ginger and other plants to relieve themselves from pain. Stories like this have been carried over the generations,” Bojan says.

Watching them closely for hours at a time he sees in their mannerisms, body language and their eyes that we are not very different.

“Sure, humans are the most powerful creatures but I hope we take note of what’s happening and start to care more about the natural world.

“I don’t know how long the planet will continue to take what we’re doing to it,” Bojan says.


Lead photograph by Jayaprakash Bojan

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