Skip to navigationSkip to content

A peaceful photo of an orangutan has a worrying backstory about global warming

Tim Laman
Going to great lengths for good food.
By Selina Cheng
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The orangutan clings to two entwined tree trunks, spiraling high above a lush rainforest canopy in Indonesia’s Gunung Palung National Park. He looks upward, reaching for the figs that will make for a sweet meal.

The dizzying photo won American field biologist and wildlife photographer Tim Laman the prestigious title of Wildife Photographer of the Year, awarded this week by London’s Natural History Museum. Before taking his winning shot with a GoPro camera, Laman had seen the same orangutan climb up the tree to feast on figs, and correctly predicted that he would return again. After spending three days climbing the tree himself to rig several cameras, Laman triggered the shutter from the forest floor when he saw the orangutan started climbing.

As peaceful as the image is, it’s part of a disturbing larger series called “Entwined Lives,” which tells the heartbreaking story of endangered apes facing drought and forest fires in Borneo in 2015. Forced to flee their natural habitat, many young orangutans are caught by poachers and illegally sold as pets.

Tim Laman
On the riverbank, an orangutan and her youngster seek refuge from the burning forest. Tim photographed them through thick smoke from a boat on the Mangkutup River in Central Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo.

While Borneo’s wildlife relies on the richness and density of the rainforest in order to survive, the region’s monsoon climate was disrupted in 2015 by the rare El Niño Southern Oscillation effect, which caused prolonged drought and forest fires. Last year, wildfires destroyed over 21,000 square kilometers (8,110 square miles) of the orangutan’s natural habitat. Both smoke and dry spots are clearly visible in satellite images.

Man-made fires, used to clear space for palm oil plantations, are also a key factor in the destruction of the orangutans’ natural habitat. And the combination of drought exacerbated by global warming and deforestation due to global palm oil consumption means the threat to endangered Indonesian wildlife is likely to grow.

As a result of forest fires in 2015, rescue centers such as the International Animal Rescue facility in Ketapang, West Kalimantan (pictured below) reported a huge influx of orphan orangutans. Once separated from their mothers, young orangutans face slim chances of ever learning to survive in the wild on their own.

Take a look at the rest of Laman’s series:

Tim Laman
The caretakers here are taking a barrow-full of one- and two-year-old Bornean orangutans to play in the forest, where they will learn some of the basic skills of survival.


Tim Laman
This month-old orphan was being kept as a pet in a village in West Kalimantan. Here it is being confiscated by a vet from International Animal Rescue, to be taken to a rehabilitation centre.
Tim Laman
Young orangutans stay with their mothers for more than ten years. Laman spent three weeks following this Bornean orangutan and her baby in Gunung Palung National Park, West Kalimantan.
Tim Laman
Laman also used a drone to explore the forest destruction in the buffer zone around Gunung Palung National Park, West Kalimantan.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.