PHOTOGRAPHER PROJECTS: Orangutan Orphans

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by Suzi Eszterhas

Bornean Orangutan, Pongo pygmaeus, Caretaker with infant at bath time, Orangutan Care Center, Borneo, Indonesia *Model release available

Bornean Orangutan, Pongo pygmaeus, Caretaker with infant at bath time, Orangutan Care Center, Borneo, Indonesia, (c) Suzi Eszterhas

For years I have specialized in documenting the family lives of endangered species. This work has taken me around the globe, spending long hours with wild animal families for weeks, months or even years at a time. In all of my projects I try to incorporate the conservation issues that surround my subject or the latest research presenting fascinating discoveries about that animal and its environment.

Some of my most recent work has taken me out of the wild and into animal orphanages. In the past, I have spent a lot of time with both Bornean and Sumatran orangutans, photographing them in protected areas where they have the ability to live wild and free. But the truth of the matter is that these protected areas on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra are too small to save the species. More and more forest is lost every single day to bulldozing for palm oil plantations. Orangutans cannot live in a palm oil plantation; they need the diversity of the rainforest to survive. What’s worse is that plantation workers routinely kill adult orangutans and sell the babies as pets on the black market. The lucky orphans are found and confiscated by government officials. There are thousands of baby orangutans in various orphanages on these islands.

The orangutan rehabilitation program run by Orangutan Foundation International (OFI) is an astounding operation. More than 300 orphans are at the facility, and they need constant, around-the-clock care by their human caretakers. The caretakers carry the infant orphans constantly just as an orangutan mother in the wild would carry her baby. The infants even sleep in bed with their caretakers.

Bornean Orangutan Pongo pygmaeus One year old infant bottle feeding  Orangutan Care Center, Borneo, Indonesia-

Bornean Orangutan, Pongo pygmaeus, One year old infant bottle feeding
Orangutan Care Center, Borneo, Indonesia, (c) Suzi Eszterhas

Some of the photos of babies wearing diapers and drinking out of baby bottles may seem anthropomorphic, but these are not props. These are functional tools that are essential in raising an orphaned orangutan. For seven long years, OFI will care for each baby. That is the same length of time it would take a wild orangutan mother. And then the real hard work begins: trying to find a safe place to release them; safe from the hands of the palm oil industry.

Palm oil is a topic that is too long to cover in this short piece. But basically, palm oil is in almost everything. From the foods that we eat, to the soaps and lotions we put on our skin, to the cleaners we use to mop our kitchen floors—palm oil is an ingredient in everyday household products across the globe. It is incredibly difficult to live palm-oil free (many ingredients that contain palm oil are cleverly disguised and do not have the word “palm” in their name). Conservationists argue that there is no such thing as sustainable palm oil. Palm oil has already decimated forests in Southeast Asia. And it is now moving into South America.

I have used my imagery to help raise awareness and funds for OFI, which works tirelessly to care for hundreds of orphaned orangutans until they are old enough to be released into the wild. I was recently asked to be a Patron of the Sumatran Orangutan Society. As part of this role, I help increase awareness about the plight of the Sumatran orangutan (as a critically endangered species, there are only 7,000 animals left in the world), as well as using my imagery to raise funds for the organization’s projects, including rainforest replanting, human-wildlife-conflict solutions, and working to protect the remaining rainforest, which is under constant threat of being developed by the palm oil industry.

For more information about wildlife photographer Suzi Eszterhas and her photo tours to Borneo, please visit www.suzieszterhas.com.

© 2013 - North American Nature Photography Association
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