orangutans, what´s in a name?

What’s in a name? The name orangutan itself is a name given by city people that did not share their environment. Local people have lots of names for these majestic beings but never call them people of the forest. They gave them names like Mawas, Kahiyu and Maia. Even their original Latin name, Simia sativa, has been changed to Pongo pygmaeusbecause some scientist thought that the location of the first “specimen” from Angkola must be in Africa, not the actual location in Sumatra!


But orangutan is the name that everyone now associates with Asia’s arboreal red ape, so be it. And everyone knows their expressive eyes and we see so many documentaries and books and articles in journals and even newspapers that most people immediately recognize their pensive faces. And we all seem to know that oil palms and orangutans are in conflict over the needs for lowland rainforest areas, just like many local tribes. But I wonder, do we really know them…?


So today is orangutan day, another reminder of the status quo. For me not a day to celebrate but to ponder. Probably today somewhere another mother falls to her death at the hands of humans somewhere in Borneo or Sumatra and another baby is ripped from her dying body. And today in many zoos around the world there will be hundreds of thousands of people pressing their faces against the glass and look at the funny red apes with antics that remind them of human behaviour. For me it is not funny. The great escape artists, showing of their intellect by how they use tools or the enrichment materials they are given, they are much more.


I was involved in the rescues of more than a thousand orangutans and still try each day to save more or them. But the fact that that is needed is not something to celebrate. We are doing symptom treatment. Yes, it is beautiful to see the caring, hard-working people, that save these thinkers of the jungle. And there are some that make it back to the jungle and have babies in the wild again like my first two orangutans, Uce and Dodoy, since 1992 in the Sungai Wain forest near Balikpapan. Yes, those stories are inspiring.


For me personally, spending time with my red-haired friends is extremely rewarding. To look in their eyes and souls, to feel their arms around me when after so many years of living free in the trees again and not having met, they choose to come down from the canopy, still recognizing my voice, and hold me for a bit of time before our paths separate again. Perhaps this is what makes them so special, they know which humans can see them for what they are, sensitive caring beings with an understanding of what is right and wrong. They can read us in the way we can read them if we open our hearts to them.


So yes, my message is that we have to keep them in the limelight, on this orangutan day, August 19th, 2018, and that they need more support. We do need to rescue every single one of them because they are special and each of them is an individual with special needs. But my hope is that one day more people can see them for what they are, sentient beings that have a right to their forest home where they have lived for so much longer than humans, where they have that knowhow and culture about that forest that we would connect to human rights if they could speak with more than their eyes. Only then we can truly live in peace with each other.


Willie Smits

August 2018