April marks the start of the dry season in the world’s tropical regions, but in Indonesia they call this time of year another name: the fire season. Last year, fires burnt out of control for many months across vast areas of Sumatra and Borneo, the archipelago’s two largest islands, destroying millions of hectares of tropical rainforest and peat lands.
During 2015, thousands of separate fires blazed unchecked across so many regions that the impact to the environment and public health was nothing short of catastrophic. Scientists estimated that in just five months the fires released approximately 1.7 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere.
The scale of the fires made international headlines because the smoke spread far and wide across major cities in Southeast Asia, resulting in half a million people being hospitalised with respiratory problems. Toxic haze filled the atmosphere for hundreds of kilometres, creating a cloud of smoke that could be seen from space.
Counting the cost
Fortunately, the arrival of the wet season in mid-November eventually put the fires out and cleared the air. But the impact on the country’s economy and the health of its citizens and wildlife was devastating, with the economic damage estimated at more than £15 billion.
There were human and animal fatalities too, including that most colourful of the great apes, the orang-utan. Regarded as separate species, Sumatran and Bornean orang-utans are Asia’s only great apes, attracting photographers and tourists to Sumatra and the Indonesian provinces of Sabah and Sarawak in Borneo.
Prior to the fires, there were an estimated 60,000 wild orang-utans in Borneo and less than 7,000 in Sumatra. Understandably, any fatalities caused by the fires to the small populations of Sumatran orang-utans is of major concern – they are classified by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as ‘critically endangered’, the last category before extinction in the wild.
The future survival of orang-utans is made more perilous by the fact that they are slow and infrequent breeders: according to the Sumatran Orang-utan Conservation Programme, females have only one infant every eight years and only four or five in their lifetime. This slow reproductive rate and the need for babies to spend around six years with their mothers learning the necessary behaviour and skills to survive independently, means that even a small loss of breeding females can send the population of a large colony crashing.
Habits and humidity
Orang-utans are largely docile and have every reason to be wary of humans, so a basic understanding of their daily habits and life patterns will help improve your chances of photographing them successfully in the wild. For instance, they are the most arboreal of the great apes, spending nearly all their time in the trees, and they rarely venture to the ground.
Therefore, be prepared to spend much of your time hand-holding the camera and gazing into the upper reaches of the forest. Most of their day is spent feeding, resting and travelling: each day begins with feeding for up to three hours in the morning, resting during the middle of the day, then travelling in the late afternoon.
It is also important to be aware of the often difficult conditions of their jungle habitat. The high humidity and heat and frequent bursts of rain mean moisture is a constant presence in the atmosphere – a weather-sealed camera will be able to cope with these conditions for longer.
The sun rises quickly in the equatorial regions and much of it is blocked from reaching the forest floor by the rainforest canopy. These high contrast conditions of deep shadows and masses of dark green foliage make it difficult to get an accurate meter reading. Typically, the exposure level will be low, so attaining a fast enough shutter speed requires significantly higher ISO settings, as well as the use of maximum lens apertures.
Sadly, virgin rainforest habitat is disappearing at an alarming rate, making it harder to photograph orang-utans in the wild. As more land is cleared for palm oil plantations, these gentle apes are pushed closer to villages and, inevitably, human conflict. All too often adult orang-utans that venture into nearby villages, seeking out trees in which to live, are killed and any orphaned babies sold on to the illegal pet trade. Others are rescued after being stranded close to palm oil concessions, clinging to the trees as the forest is destroyed by fire.
With all these threats it is not surprising that the orang-utan sanctuaries and rehabilitation centres across Sumatra and Borneo struggle to cope with the number of injured and rescued orphans. Last year’s fires created another array of challenges as many orang-utan babies were treated for upper respiratory tract infections, burns, dehydration and malnourishment.
Orang-utan sanctuaries may not provide photographers with a truly authentic ‘wild’ experience, but they certainly represent the best chance for accessible photography in the animals’ native habitat. Many are open to the public and are situated in the heart of the rainforest. Here, orphaned or rescued orang-utans are cared for and rehabilitated before eventual release back into the wild.
One of the most famous is the Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre in Sabah, the northernmost province of Malaysian Borneo. When established in 1964, it was the world’s first centre dedicated to the rehabilitation of orang-utans. Every day at 10am and 3pm, staff deposit buckets of bananas and sugar cane onto an elevated feeding platform beneath a clump of trees and wait for the apes to emerge from the surrounding forest for a free meal.
I visited Sepilok in early October. It was still the dry season but the humidity was almost 100 per cent and temperatures in the mid-30s. With its wooden decking, ropes, buckets and bunches of bananas, the feeding platform hardly resembles a ‘wild’ backdrop for photography. However, with a long focal length lens it is possible to zoom in close enough to make portrait studies of the orang-utans and crop out the man-made elements.
Feeding and funding
Although this set-up may seem like feeding time at the zoo, it’s important to realise that the primary work of Sepilok and other orang-utan sanctuaries is to rehabilitate orphans separated from their mothers. Sepilok helps these vulnerable victims develop the skills they need to live in the wild, skills they would have learned from their mothers. This rehabilitation can take six years or more, after which the apes are released into the 43sq km of surrounding reserve to live wild and free. The money tourists pay to photograph the orang-utans’ feed each day helps fund the rehabilitation work.
Although plenty of bananas are laid on for the orang-utans, there is no guarantee the apes will swing in to take advantage of the free food. Indeed, fewer orang-utans turning up means a greater number are successfully returning to life in the wild and finding plenty of natural forage to satisfy their hunger, without resorting to daily feedings from the sanctuary.
That said, those that do crash through the trees to the feeding station might represent your best opportunity and should be photographed before they reach the platform. You may only have a few seconds to capture them this way, but the results will be more satisfying as the long russet-coloured limbs of the apes stand out nicely against an emerald background of verdant jungle – their natural habitat and a genuine wild setting.
The fire season has started again this year and a state of emergency already declared in one Indonesian province on the island of Sumatra. Although the government has pledged to bring these fires under control and prosecute companies responsible, the outlook for orang-utans looks bleak. The Sumatran orang-utan population has shrunk by 80 per cent in 75 years, while Bornean numbers have declined by 50 per cent in the past 60 years.
Fires are not the only threat to their future, but Indonesia’s rainforests and the wildlife that depends on this habitat for survival, will have a better chance to replenish and recover if the environmental catastrophe of last year proves to be an aberration of the past.
In the meantime, the sanctuaries and rehabilitation centres will continue to be the most accessible and reliable locations for photographing these gentle tree-dwelling apes in the last wild remnants of their rainforest realms.
Place extra packets of silica gel in your camera bags to soak up the moisture in the atmosphere.
Zoom in on the faces of orang-utans to make frame-filling portraits. The animals have many human-like expressions and features, so close focusing will capture the detail and character of their faces.
Use a monopod instead of a tripod. Not only will it give added stability with ease, but it can also double up as a handy walking pole to aid trekking in the uneven jungle terrain.
Constantly change lenses. By keeping lens changes to a minimum you reduce the risk of jungle moisture getting onto the camera mirror, image sensor, or the rear lens element. Use zoom lenses instead.
Take more gear than you need to. Equatorial jungles are very hot and humid, so travel light, move slowly, carry plenty of water and wear good quality walking boots.
Rely on your camera’s automatic metering for an accurate exposure reading. Make a spot meter reading from the orang-utan’s face, while focusing on the eyes and use a stop exposure to record more details hidden in the shadows.
Orang-utan Rescue by Sean Whyte and Alan Knight; G2 Entertainment; £20 (hardback)
The Intimate Ape: Orang-utans and the Secret Life of a Vanishing Species by Shawn Thompson; Citadel Press; £10.99 (softback)
Orang-utans by Robert Shumaker; Colin Baxter Photography; £9.99 (softback)
Accessory option: Monopod
Instead of hitting the trail with a walking pole, photographers often choose a monopod. The prime purpose is to provide stability for the camera, but it also doubles up as a support for your own weary limbs. Manfrotto makes a wide selection with padded foam grips and hand straps. A good value model is the 294A4 aluminium 4-section (£40), which weighs just 540g, yet has a load capacity of 5kg. Maximum height extension is 151cm and closed length just 49cm.
Lens option: Telephoto zoom
Affordable telephoto lenses have become a reality recently with the launch of 150-600mm zooms. Sigma has two versions of its 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM. The larger, ‘Sport’ model (£850) is weather-sealed, while the smaller and lighter ‘Contemporary’ version (£740) leaves out the seals, but costs around £110 less. Both lenses feature built-in optical stabilisation (OS).
Camera option: Weather-sealed DSLR
The high humidity of tropical rainforests means a weather-sealed DSLR will keep moisture at bay. The Nikon D750 (£1,150 body only) is one such example and also an excellent choice for the low light levels deep within the jungle, thanks to its impressive ISO range of 100-12,800 (extendable to 50-51,200). It is also the first pro model Nikon to include a tilting monitor and has a lightweight carbon fibre and aluminium body frame.
This was published in the May 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.