Bittersweet in Borneo


Babysit­ter Sri playing surro­gate Mom.


I recently had the most delight­ful and heart­break­ing experi­ence in Borneo .  For one week I photographed the rescued orang­utans who live at the Inter­na­tional Animal Rescue’s center there.  Of the 48 orang­utans housed there most of them are babies, quite possi­bly the cutest babies of any species, anywhere in the world.  Their incred­i­ble and irresistible appear­ance is sadly one of the elements that contributes to their suffer­ing.  Every­one seems to want one as a pet because they are so damn cute .  I can vouch for the fact that seeing these babies stirs an invol­un­tary urge to cuddle and kiss them.  But I refrained and tried to keep a distance as I photographed them.  The truth is that they are wild animals who belong in the jungle with their mothers.  Sadly, all of these babies most likely watched their mothers being murdered by humans.





















The most common story that is heard from people who hand over these illegal babies is that they were found alone in a village or on a palm oil planta­tion.  This is not the reality.  I know from seeing wild and rehabil­i­tated orang­utans living within national parks that mothers would never allow their babies to wander off.  I have seen dozens of wild mother orang­utans and none ever let their babies venture out of arms reach.  There­fore, to acquire posses­sion of a baby orang­utan the mother must be killed.

The biggest threat to the orang­utans in Borneo is the devas­tat­ing defor­esta­tion and destruc­tion of habitat that is sweep­ing through the island, mostly due to palm oil planta­tions.  As the rainfor­est is removed to make room for the massive palm oil produc­tion the orang­utans are left with no home and nowhere to go.  Workers kill the adult orang­utans found on the planta­tions and keep the babies in hope of selling them as pets.















Ujang and Sigit







When the new babies arrive they are almost always terri­fied of humans.  We are not their family.  In fact, it is at our hands that their families were brutally killed and their homes destroyed.

The saddest part for me was witness­ing how many of the babies were initially scared of me.  Most would hide their faces from me and some would show signs of aggres­sion, raising their arms and throw­ing things at me.  Their fear of me was a heart-breaking reminder of what these poor babies must have gone through to end up here.  The trauma that they have experi­enced so early in life has scarred them, but these orang­utans living at IAR they are the lucky ones.  They have survived and they are being cared for by kind, loving people. They will not spend their lives tied up or in a cage in someone’s backyard.

In my attempt to spread aware­ness through my photog­ra­phy I find myself feeling uneasy.  I confess that spend­ing time around these sweet babies and photograph­ing them was a guilty pleasure.  I loved being around them and watch­ing every cute move that they made but not without the feeling of dread and guilt that comes with knowing that this is not where they belong.  I feel privi­leged to have had the oppor­tu­nity to spend time in their presence but not under these circum­stances.  Even now, as I write this blog and look through my collec­tion of sweet photos I strug­gle with a deep rooted sadness.  Wild animals are not ours to have as pets, to steal their habitat, nor to kill.


Our world is an unfair and imper­fect one.  It’s organi­za­tions like Inter­na­tional Animal Rescue that are fight­ing to make it better.  I can only hope that my photog­ra­phy will help in that fight rather than contribute to the urge that we humans seem to have to call every­thing our own.

Please go to Inter­na­tional Animal Rescue’s website to learn more about the plight of orang­utans and IAR’s incred­i­bly hard work to help animals around the world.






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7 Responses to Bittersweet in Borneo

  1. Jason Royko-Riehl says:

    Thank you for your insight­ful story, and careful telling photographs. /JcRR

  2. Congrat­u­la­tions on these wonder­ful photos. I can identify so much with your feelings — I help out one month each year at the care centre run by OFI near Pangkalan­bun, and know exactly what you mean. But I think it is that intense experi­ence that drives us to try and do something — I have to believe that even the small­est effort contributes something positive. So keep it up.

  3. Marcia Douthwaite says:

    Thank you for your commen­tary and these photos that touch the heart. We must continue to work to save their remain­ing forests and support the organi­za­tions that are saving them.

  4. Tina Takach says:

    Thanks for the beauti­ful pictures and all you do for the animals.

  5. patio M says:

    Thank you for these heart­felt and beauti­ful photos. Loving and working with animals is a bitter­sweet experi­ence, being part of the human race that brings such misery to these valued lives. I will share this with my animal rescue family. thanks and love your work. you make a difference.

  6. Thank you for the beauti­ful photos of the orphaned orang­utans & for educat­ing people about their plight. I too went to Borneo & met with the orphans at OFI’s Care Center and as much as i loved holding them & watch­ing them, I could never forget that this is a global tragedy. Please don’t buy the sustain­able palm oil BS which means don’t buy ANY palm oil! To learn more, watch YouTube’s The Sustain­ablity Lie. On my website, i too have written a piece with an accom­pa­ny­ing video about My Trip to Boreo. We MUST save these animals & the others as well as the indige­nous people and the forests themselves!

  7. Barb Hautanen says:

    I volun­teered with orang­utans at Samboja Lestari, Borneo. I feel fortu­nate I was able to closely observe these amazing creatures, but was devasted to hear the stories of why they ended up at this rescue center. Some of the orang­utans lived a semi-wild life on islands & that was beauti­ful to see. But, due to lack of space & money, many large orang­utans lived in enclo­sures with bars. To see these intel­li­gent human-like beings in concrete & metal cages was heart­break­ing. And, they were all there due to the greed & evilness of man.

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