Touched by an orangutan… and not with her teeth

We were wandering around Camp Leakey, looking for animals in trees to film, and just as we’d finished shooting a nice sequence and were going to carry our gear back to the boat we spotted a female with an infant quite far down the boardwalk.  I knelt down and started to photograph her with my long lens and the guys got the 3D camera in position to film her. We were hoping to get a cool ‘two shot’…or ‘three shot’ as it were since there were two orangutans and myself. As I sat there, she got closer and closer, we had a guide with us and he told us it was Akmad. This was so special for me because I remembered reading about Akmad and she’s one of my favorites from Dr. Birute Galdikas’ book Reflections of Eden so I was glad to even be seeing her on my visit. Akmad was the first ex-captive that Dr. Birute had rescued in 1971 and re-released to the wild and she is one of the oldest females there now, likely in her late 40’s or early 50’s. Dr. Birute described Akmad as a young orangutan this way: “Akmad was a lady. She had a gentle way about her. She never ran, she always walked. She never grabbed, she always reached. Even her squeal had a daintiness that the vocalizations of other orangutans lacked. How human she appeared, like an orange gnome, with her intelligent, quietly inquisitive face.”

As I sat on the boardwalk and she approached, she just started to walk right up to me. (Now at this point, I did not know what was happening to Jeremy with Siswi in another part of camp, and I’d only seen very docile orangutans here, but was still wary of getting too close to them).

Mark and Ben assured me they’d seen her earlier and she’d walked right up to them and gently touched their legs, so they told me to stay where I was (the camera had a beautiful view of us).  So I did, and she got so close to me that in any other situation I would have moved away, but there was nowhere for me to go. At the very least I looked away as you do with the gorillas or chimps, so as not to threaten them.  But orangutans are different, they don’t mind eye contact, and if anything they seem to want to look into your eyes so that they can make a decision about who and what kind of person you are. Ben whispered for me to look at her, assuring me that it was okay.   When I did I could see her tiny infant (one of the littlest we’d seen so far) just peeking around her at me. They were both leaning towards me, Akmad looking right at my face as if she was trying to smell my breath. She was so close to me that I could have turned my head and kissed her without moving my body! (Which of course, I DID NOT do). They stayed like that for a moment and then walked past the camera and down the boardwalk. 

What an incredible experience, Akmad had basically just greeted me and moved on. It’s a moment I won’t ever forget… and that you will get to see if you go watch The Last of the Great Apes.

Akmad and her infant approach at Camp Leakey

Akmad and her infant approach at Camp Leakey

Akmad and her infant come closer

Akmad and her infant come closer

and closer still

and closer still

Beautiful old Akmad 

Beautiful old Akmad

holding hands

Holding hands

juvenile plays in the reeds 

Juvenile plays in the reeds