Orangutans Are More Like Us Than You Think

Tim Laman and Cheryl Knott, who have dedicated their lives to studying the great ape, talk about their new show on Nat Geo WILD.

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Walimah, an orangutan mother featured in the new Nat Geo WILD show, danglings from a tree with her newborn.

Biological anthropologist Cheryl Knott and photojournalist Tim Laman have dedicated their lives to the orangtuans of Indonesia's Gunung Palung National Park. Together with their children, they've made it a family affair to reveal new threats to the great apes in their rain forest homes. 

In the new Nat Geo WILD show, "Mission Critical: Orangutans on the Edge," Laman treks to remote locations and scales massive trees to document the secret lives of our endangered cousins, which are in decline due to deforestation and poaching. 

The program, which airs on Earth Day, Friday, April 22 at 9/8c, also tells the compelling story of an orangutan mother raising her baby—until a tragic event changes their lives forever. 

National Geographic caught up with Knott, director of the Gunung Palang Orangutan Project, and Laman—both National Geographic explorers—to learn more about their work.

What sets your new show apart from other orangutan documentaries done in the past?

We focus on wild orangutans that are living in the forest and not on orangutans in rehabilitation centers. This show will give viewers a real sense of what the trials and tribulations of the life of a truly wild orangutan are actually like, and the challenges that we go through to study and document them deep in the rain forest of Borneo.

What discoveries have you made about orangutans during your research at Borneo's Gunung Palung National Park?

One of my biggest discoveries was finding that hormones in female orangutans respond similarly to the hormones in women. When orangutans are losing weight, during times when there isn’t much fruit around to eat, they have lower hormonal levels, which makes it more difficult to get pregnant. This helps explain why they only give birth once every six to nine years—the longest interbirth interval of any mammal! I discovered this through developing a method to measure hormones in wild orangutans through field collection of urine and then drying the urine on filter paper to preserve it and then later analyze it in my lab. (Read more about Cheryl's work on orangutans in her own words.)

It's interesting that orangutan males prefer older, experienced females. Any other intriguing facts about the species that come to mind?

One of the other amazing things about orangutans is that they seem to have two types of adult males! One type is the large adult male with the cheek flanges that you usually see in zoos. But other adult male orangutans don’t grow cheek pads right away but they can still father offspring. They may stay in this "undeveloped" form for many years and eventually develop when the time is right. Some may never develop. This is called "male bi-maturism" and is very rare in mammals.  Our project is doing research in the wild, and also in collaboration with zoos, to try and determine what triggers adult male flange development.

An Orangutan Mother and Her Baby Photographer Tim Laman photographs a first-time orangutan mother and her newborn baby.

How do you work with local people in Gunung Palung National Park?

All of our conservation programs revolve around local people and our staff is primarily composed of people who come from the region. Habitat loss is the most serious threat to orangutan survival. So, we help people find solutions to problems that threaten orangutan habitat. For example, we have a community forest project that helps local people gain legal title to their traditional village lands, enabling them to preserve their forest for sustainable uses instead of selling them for timber or to oil palm companies. We also have a sustainable-livelihood program that helps people develop alternative income sources, instead of cutting down the forest for more agriculture. (See "10 of Our Favorite Orangutan Pictures.")

What’s the state of deforestation on the ground right now?

Small-scale deforestation in and around Gunung Palung National Park continues to decrease, but there are still a handful of villages out of the 32 that directly border [the park] where illegal logging is a major issue. This is something that we can and do address with our programs. Large-scale deforestation, for agriculture [oil palm] and mining, continues across the landscape and in most cases those companies are operating under government-issued concessions. There are at least three large oil palm plantations that directly border the national park. 

Is awareness of deforestation and the role of palm oil in the orangutans' demise reaching the public more? I saw a TV commercial of a girl and an orangutan signing about palm oil.

Public awareness is slowly increasing. There has been a bigger push from conservation groups like RAN (Rainforest Action Network) to put commercials on TV to grab the western audience's attention about the issue. And the people who care about wildlife and the rainforests are certainly more aware than they were tenyears ago. But as far as a Western audience, there's still a long way to go to raise awareness about this issue, because they are so geographically removed from it. (Read Knott's Reddit AMA from October 2015.)

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Laman roams the rain forest of Borneo looking for his next photograph.

Do you feel like role models for adventurous families? What advice would you give?

Find a way to take your kids into nature from a young age! Spend time as a family exploring whatever natural areas you have around you. And don't be afraid to travel with small children. It's definitely doable. If you start when they are young, they'll be experts by the time they reach middle school! (Read "Postcards from Borneo: My Rain Forest Family.")

What else do you want us to know about wild orangutans?

Through their fascinating biology and behavior they have much to teach us about what it means to be human. [The new program] focuses on an orangutan named Walimah that we’ve known since she was born. It’s been amazing to see her grow from being a newborn baby, to an inquisitive juvenile, to an awkward adolescent, and then a new mother herself. Unlike humans, orangutan females provide 100 percent of the care to their offspring. They don’t live in groups, and don’t have assistance from anyone else. Sharing food and childcare are key adaptations that shaped human evolution.  Seeing Walimah’s struggles highlights these differences for us.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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