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.
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.