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Virginia Filmmakers Highlight Culture of Endangered Orangutans

New research reveals the orangutan population dropped by 100,000 in a recent 15 year period. The critically endangered species lives on the Southeast Asian Islands of Borneo and Sumatra. As orangutans face ongoing threats, Virginia filmmakers co-created a documentary that highlights new aspects of their culture. In this Science Matters edition of Virginia Currents, WCVE intern Lauren Francis has more.

Learn More: Find details about the film Person of the Forest, including the March 23 screening at Henrico Theater. Read the recent study examining loss of orangutans due to natural resource extraction and Dr. Cheryl Knott’s Gunung Palung Orangutan Program.


What is orangutan culture? Photographer Trevor Frost says it’s the same as human culture.

Trevor Frost: So in Japan they bow and here we shake hands when we greet each other. So same in orangutans, orangutans in different places greet each other in different ways and they do things different ways so that’s how you describe an orangutan culture.

Frost along with Utah-based photographer Robert Rodriguez Suro traveled to Borneo to study and capture orangutan culture. Their work is part of the film Person of the Forest.

Robert Rodriguez Suro: This is pristine rainforest. It's the last remaining really pristine rainforest in most of Borneo

The film’s name comes from the local translation of orangutan.

Suro: “Orang” means person and then “(h)utan” means “of the forest,” so if you put them together, Orangutan that means person of the forest.

(Cheryl Knott, in film): One of the things that makes it hard is actually finding them. They’re primarily solitary so it takes a long time to find them...

The two filmmakers worked with longtime Borneo researchers Cheryl Knott and Tim Laman, and Richmond resident Melissa Lesh who co-directed the film. She says they wanted to make a new kind of film, one documenting social patterns and behavior.

Melissa Lesh: The trick for me was how do you pull a narrative out of that, that’s not just heavy on the science but also pulls your heart into it.

(Suro, in film) So my goal was to stay with these orangutans for five days, sometimes up to 10 days in a row for the course of an entire year. By staying with them for these long periods, I was able to document really unique behaviors that haven’t been captured before.

In the pristine rainforest of Gunung Palung park, the film shows the animals using branches as umbrellas in the rain. Each night around 6:00 PM, they build a bed.

Suro: They go climb up into a particular tree that they choose, and they make a platform out of branches, they bend into like a platform, and that's where they spend their night, and they make a new one every night. They rarely very rarely reuse older ones.

The filmmakers say these behaviors show sophistication and intelligence. But, they add, the general public isn’t well-informed about our relationship to orangutans.

Lesh: You know a lot of people say, “Oh, that monkey film. You're working on that monkey film,” and well, they're not monkeys, they're apes, they're one of our closest cousins. And we think of chimpanzees, maybe guerrillas, but people don't always -- "Orangutans? How do you say that?” It’s not one of our closest cousins that we think of all that often.

Frost: Orangutans, crocodiles, even especially whales, they're not just smart, they're not just cute and cuddly. They're smarter than we've kind of thought, they're way smarter than we thought, there's things going on that we can't begin to understand.

Orangutans are critically endangered. Their home in the lowland forests is vanishing due to logging and deforestation for paper pulp and palm oil plantations. Palm oil is common in everyday products, from lotion and lip balm to bread and peanut butter.

Frost: Scientists believe that they will no longer exist on Earth within the next 20-30 years max. So palm oil is, you could argue is the main driver of orangutan habitat destruction without a doubt.

Lesh: If you buy highly processed products with many many different ingredients that could be coming from all over the world from conditions that you don't really know and that can affect our planet in many many ways so that's kind of, that's a that's a daily kind of awareness step.

Suro adds, the reason for preserving orangutan habitats is not purely scientific.

Suro: As we fragment their habitat, as we change the way they distribute themselves in space by destroying their habitat, we are essentially stopping all this culture and transmission from occurring and that's something that we also need to take into account when we talk about saving these species.

Person of the Forest premiered in Richmond at the RVA Environmental Film Festival earlier this year. In March it will be screened at Henrico Theater. For Virginia Currents, I’m Lauren Francis, WCVE News.