Published: November 2008


Portrait of male orangutan in Borneo

Orangutans in the Wild

(Originally published in the August 1998 issue of National Geographic)

Backbreaking fieldwork and meticulous attention to scientific detail bring a deeper understanding of the elusive red apes of the Borneo rain forest.

By Cheryl Knott
Photograph by Tim Laman

In darkness, submerged in water up to my neck, I was plunging through a flooded creek, a creek that I had easily jumped over that morning. My husband, Tim, was wading along just a few feet ahead of me, while balancing a backpack full of camera gear on his head. He turned and said, "Are we in Borneo, or what?"

We were slogging our way back from a full day of following a wild orangutan as she searched for food on the rain-drenched mountain slopes of Indonesia's Gunung Palung National Park, near the west coast of Borneo. We had made a research site there our home. Tim was continuing his studies on the animal and plant life high in the rain forest canopy, and I had begun my investigation of wild orangutans. For several months we had been following an adult female we had named Beth, and she was now well past the stage of vocalizing and dropping branches on us, behavior typical of orangutans when they first encounter people. These large red apes can be surprisingly difficult to find and follow. Like fat-bellied acrobats, they seem to traverse the canopy effortlessly, leaving researchers such as me to crash through the undergrowth trying to keep a constant eye on them.

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