On the trail of the orangutan whisperer

An insight into filming orangutans in Sumatra as they prepare for their jungle school graduation and life in the wild.

101 East - Orangutan whisperer blog

The mechanics of capturing “real life” on camera can lead to some bizarre situations that the audience usually never gets to see.

This photograph was taken as we raced through the steamy jungles of Sumatra filming The Orangutan Whisperer.

The orangutan whisperer is the pony-tailed guy on the left, West Australian zoologist Leif Cocks. He is carrying seven-year-old orangutan Dora on his back while our cameraman Mark Dobbin desperately tries to get his shot in the pouring rain. Cocks’ Indonesian colleague, Julius, points out where six-year-old orangutan Suna needs to climb. Suna has got one hand on him for support while she uses the other to scratch her head as though in disbelief at the human shenanigans going on around her. I’m the guy on the right.

WATCH: The Orangutan Whisperer

Dora and Suna are orphans, or, as Leif puts it, “refugees of the forest”. Their mothers were killed by illegal loggers and the two female orangutans were to be sold into the illegal pet trade until Cocks’ animal rescue squad saved them and placed them in an extraordinary programme called the Orangutan Project.

The Orangutan Project takes rescued orangutans through jungle school – a series of stages that culminates, we hope, with graduation back into the wild.

It’s part of Cocks’ decade-long fight to prevent Indonesia’s orangutans from becoming extinct. And, so far, it’s working. Nearly 200 orangutans have been released into an area where none had previously been seen since the 1830s.

Dora and Suna are a long way from graduating. They sleep in cages at night and go out with technicians each day to learn how to find food and make nests in trees to avoid the tigers below.

On this day, as the cages opened and Dora and Suna draped themselves over Cocks and Julius, Cocks warned us that the “classroom” was far away. If we took too long getting our shots or it started to rain, he said, the orangutans would hightail it into the forest and we’d lose our only chance to film them.

Suddenly, there was a crack of thunder. Everyone panicked. We raced through the forest as fat tropical rain thundered down and the two orangutans hung on tightly. At one point Dora even snapped off a palm leaf and put it over her head as an umbrella.

As we arrived, Cocks and Julius pointed out the tree Dora and Suna should be released into, and that’s when this photo was taken. Seconds later, the girls went wild, bounding up the tree and swinging through the canopy, gobbling fruit.

But when it was time to get down, they refused. Technicians raced through the jungle imploring them, while Cocks stayed completely still, watching, waiting, Zen-like.

“The secret with orangutans,” he whispered, “is that they’re sentient beings and they make their own decisions. You have to let them come to you.”

Cocks believes orangutans, who share 97 percent of our human DNA, are actually people and he’s testified in court to that in the past.

But it’s one thing to be labelled the orangutan whisperer, and another to show it on camera. For a while, it looked like Cocks’ skills had deserted him. Then suddenly, Suna stopped swinging through the canopy and stared at him. He held up his hand. She disappeared from view, only to reappear a metre from him. She paused and then jumped on to him, hugging him and putting her head on his shoulder like a child.

It was a special moment – a beautiful connection between two “persons” from different species – and I just felt blessed to witness it.

Watch the full 101 East documentary here.

Source: Al Jazeera