Eyes of the Orangutan

Photographer Aaron Gekoski
Photographer Aaron Gekoski

Acclaimed environmental photojournalist Aaron Gekoski presents ‘Eyes of the Orangutan’, a compelling new TERRA MATER Factual Studios/CHRIS SCARFFE Film and Photography documentary. The film aired on July 7th on Servus TV in Germany.

Following a visit to an amusement park in Vietnam, where he encountered a large male orangutan kept in an enclosure just four by five metres wide (13 feet by 16 feet), acclaimed environmental photojournalist Aaron Gekoski asked himself: ‘‘If we can do this to one of our closest living relatives, what hope is there for any other animal?’’

Gekoski joined forces with director Chris Scarffe, cinematographer Will Foster-Grundy and editor Damian Antochewicz, and embarked on a four-year investigation of the orangutan tourism industry. The result is the compelling TERRA MATER Factual Studios/CHRIS SCARFFE Film and Photography documentary ‘Eyes of the Orangutan.’ In the film, Aaron investigates how and why irresponsible operators exploit orangutans.

Host of Horrors

The crew’s harrowing experiences ranged from staged orangutan boxing matches in Thailand to orangutan themed breakfasts in Indonesia. As horrifying as these experiences were, Aaron soon discovered that the real tragedy is how these sentient, sensitive animals end up serving as little more than photo models for social media addicted tourists. Thankfully, there are groups working tirelessly to help orangutans. Aaron travels to a rescue centre at Nyaru Menteng, Indonesian Borneo, where orangutans have been saved from the illegal wildlife trade. He meets the team from Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOS) who run the centre, and he hears some heart-breaking stories, told by the heroes that were involved in the orangutans’ rescues.

For the ‘Gram’

In Cambodia and Thailand, orangutans are routinely humiliated during twice-daily boxing shows. The apes, star attractions of these large and glitzy tourist operations, are trained using corporal punishment and food deprivation, making them submissive to their handlers. They perform the same routines, day in, day out, as thousands of people clap and laugh at their ‘hilarious’ antics. When the orangutans become too old to perform, they will spend their final days behind bars.

Wildlife tourism has become a lucrative business and is now worth around 250 billion dollars a year. These profits come at a cost – and it is the animals who pay the price. Social media trends have helped to create an industry that puts ‘Instagrammable’ photos before the basic welfare of animals.

At Bali Zoo, visitors eat breakfast in the presence of multiple orangutans. Practices like these can have a range of negative impacts. Orangutans are susceptible to human diseases and these interactions can also affect important natural behaviours. (below left)

Many of the wild animals have become so habituated they now chase humans for food. This guarantees close encounters for the tourists, as can be seen above where tourists are crowding a wild orangutan, but has created a very difficult and dangerous situation in the park. (above right)

Ever-Shrinking Space

Natural orangutan habitats in South-East Asia are rapidly decreasing, due to deforestation, palm oil plantations and mining operations. Orphaned orangutan babies are more readily captured and sold into captivity, where they are raised to become accustomed to humans. (below left)

In Southeast Asia, orangutans used in wildlife attractions are often poached from the wild as babies. Hunters kill the mothers, tear the infants away and sell them into the wildlife tourism industry. It requires a co-ordinated network of customs officers, middle men, petty criminals, government officials, and the police – all given bribes to either facilitate the operation, or turn a blind eye. (above right)

A Lifetime of Misery

At Pata Zoo, Bangkok, orangutans are kept in dark and dirty enclosures and spend most of their time on the floor. Yet in the wild, orangutans seldom spend time on the ground. Caged orangutans often have a sedentary lifestyle due to improper enclosures. A lack of stimulation, combined with overfeeding and depression, means that they can become overweight. They may demonstrate stereotypical behaviours, such as rattling the bars and head bobbing – common signs of stress in captive animals.

With their quirky characters and extreme intelligence, orangutans share 97% of their DNA with humans. These human characteristics make them hugely popular attractions at zoos worldwide. However, with limited space and resources, many zoos are failing to provide them with suitable homes, whilst others exploit their intelligence and train them to perform in grotesque routines. Orangutans are sensitive and intelligent animals. A life behind bars is tantamount to torture. Due to their advanced brains, captive orangutans are susceptible stress and depression. A captive orangutan can live to 50 years old in a zoo – which equates to half a century of misery.

Rescue, Rehabilitate & Release

Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF) in Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo, are one of the leading orangutan non-profits, who work to rescue, rehabilitate and then release orangutans orphaned from the wildlife tourism industry. Here, a carer provides milk to a group of hungry juveniles. (below left)

A keeper transports the baby orangutans in a wheelbarrow at BOSF, on their way to ‘Jungle School’. To make them ready for a life back in the wild, the orangutans must undergo a yearlong rehabilitation process. Keepers have to wear face masks to reduce the risk of transmitting diseases to the animals under their care. (above right)

A Waiting Game

A rescued orangutan at BOSF spends its day staring out from behind bars. BOSF have released over 400 orangutans into the wild, but need more land at their disposal. Unfortunately, until suitable rainforest habitat can be secured for their release, several orangutans remain behind bars.


Find Out More

Aaron Gekoski is an award-winning environmental photojournalist, filmmaker and TV presenter, specialising in human-animal conflict. His work regularly appears in the international press and has won numerous awards including the coveted Wildlife Photographer of the Year. Aaron has spent years documenting animals in captivity and is founder and lead investigator at Raise the Red Flag, a global campaign formed in partnership with Born Free Foundation – aiming to end cruelty in the wildlife tourism industry.

EYES OF THE ORANGUTAN is a TERRA MATER Factual Studios/CHRIS SCARFFE Film and Photography production, presented by Aaron Gekoski. It is supported by Borneo Orangutan Survival Schweiz, Born Free Foundation and Jakarta Animal Aid Network.

Walter Köhler, CEO of TERRA MATER Factual Studios, says: ‘‘Eyes of the Orangutan is a powerful, captivating exploration of one of the most troubling facets of modern wildlife tourism, as well as an uplifting celebration of one of our closest living relatives, the orangutan.’’

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