February 14th is marked by annual celebrations around the world as people gather their loved ones and exchange gifts to commemorate Valentine’s Day. This year, Abdul Azis (affectionately known as Azis Orangutan by his colleagues), Orangutan Coordinator at BNF, was also feeling the love.
Azis was happy because he had finally been given the go-ahead to resume orangutan behavioural observations, following individuals at the Peat Forest Nature Laboratory (LAHG), a special research zone within the Sebangau National Park. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many research activities were temporarily suspended for the safety of both our field teams and wildlife. Now, after two years of stalled study, Azis has returned to what he loves most: watching orangutans.
To mitigate the lingering effects of the pandemic, strict health protocols have been put in place. Orangutans are Critically Endangered and their close relatedness to humans likely makes them highly susceptible to COVID-19. To minimize the risk of disease transmission in the field, our teams are instructed to always wear a face mask and keep a reasonable distance from any primates they encounter.
We were headed east in the direction of the Ari Canal, an area where orangutans had often been seen roaming in the past. Sure enough, we soon came across a large female: an imposing, shaggy figure who eyed our approach with suspicion from a tree about 20 meters away. Clearly annoyed, she made a kiss squeak sound (orangutan-speak for please go away and leave me in peace) and threw a stick at Azis, who narrowly missed being hit. Sensing possible danger, the team bid a careful retreat.
“Oh, that’s Gracia! Her behaviour was a little wild just then, but you must remember she hasn’t seen people around here in a long time,” Azis said, sneaking pictures of the disgruntled orangutan from behind a bush.
Azis assured us that this behavior is natural and to be expected. After two years of suspended primate follows, these orangutans have become unused to humans and will need re-habituating. Gracia is well known to our researchers and has been observed by Azis for twelve years, so there is a good chance she can quickly readjust.
During our brief encounter with Gracia, Azis noticed that her genitals were enlarged. This condition is known as sexual swelling and typically occurs during menstruation or pregnancy. Orangutans aren’t the only great apes who exhibit sexual swelling; in chimpanzees, swollen buttocks can signal an individual’s readiness to mate.
Suddenly, we heard another kiss squeak and the sound of branches snapping to our right – another orangutan!
Azis quickly identified this second individual as Gara, Gracia’s seven-year-old son. Gara is also well-known to our research team, many of whom observed him as a newborn. On this occasion, Gara was much more relaxed in our presence than Gracia, hanging nonchalantly from a vine, filling up on wild bananas, and even throwing twigs as if to invite a joke about his mother’s earlier confrontation.
From his hidden vantage point behind the bush, Azis turned the camera on Gara. Not wanting to test the young orangutan’s comfort, Azis told us “I’m staying mostly out of sight for now. It’s been so long since I was here with him last, I worry that seeing me clearly would just make him angry and upset.”
Deciding not to overstay our welcome, we returned to camp soon after. Since we were only conducting a count survey, the process hadn’t taken very long at all.
“Today was just a survey, not a follow. We usually start follows at 5am, tracking orangutans from the moment they wake up right until they go to sleep, which can be after 6pm.”
Azis was over the moon to have seen Gracia and Gara safe and sound after two years of separation. On the walk back he told us that, in this month of love, he was so glad to be reunited with his beloved orangutans.
“I hope that from now on our orangutan follows can resume as normal, giving us the chance to reacquaint ourselves with these characterful and Critically Endangered primates,” concluded Azis.
Written & photo by Yohanes Prahara, Content Creator and Media Liaison BNF Indonesia