Tuesday, February 22, 2011

On Separation and Reunion

This Orangutan Dad misses his daughter Princess. The last time I saw her was in August 2008 when I accompanied an Indonesian film crew to tape OUREI's 3rd Documentary. Our reunion was brief, as it always is nowadays. One or two days at most.

When I do visit her in and around Camp Leakey in Tanjung Puting National Park, I call out her name to let her know that I am back. Inevitably (and it took a couple days to find her last time), she will come to the ground with a dependent infant with her (last time it was with her daughter Putri). There is no hugging or hooting as one would see with chimpanzees reuniting with lost relatives or friends. Orangutans are more subdued in their emotions. We will simply sit together, and I will go over some of the signs she learned years ago: leaf, hat, grass, and maybe a few food signs.

I am convinced Princess remembers me - her Orangutan Dad. I am convinced by her behavior. She sits dutifully as she did as a juvenile while I mold her hands and makes valiant efforts to recreate the signs she perfected during her daily lessons 32 years ago. At some point she will take me by the hand and lead me around Camp Leakey to a locked door behind which bananas are stored. She will tap the door knob (a poor sign for "open") as a request for me to open the door. On earlier visit, Princess pointed to the cuts or scars on her skin, perhaps showing me a type of "written" account of traumatic encounters in her life in my absence -now indelible on her skin. I put some ointment on her skin like I did decades ago and sign "hurt".

A wild orangutan lives a life of solitude in many ways- no community group to come home to - instead they spend their days alone (or with dependent offspring if a mother) in search of food, navigating the canopy, and making arboreal nests for resting. On occasion their lives are punctuated by interactions with other orangutans, particularly when feeding in trees with ripe fruit. Encounters with a specific individual are generally unemotional affairs. Even an independent female's reunion with her mother after many months (who typically ranges in the adjacent forest) would not stand out to the human observer as eliciting the same the type of excitement seen in social animals (dogs, chimps, and people come to mind). But they are very aware of the relationship. They will glance at each other while they feed, acknowledging each other's presence. Then they will part company and continue their journey perhaps with an understanding they will encounter each other again sometime in the near future.

The last time I left Princess was almost 3 years ago, departing like a sneaky burglar in the night, hoping not to be noticed. No goodbyes, no farewells. There are no tears when an independent orangutan takes leave of a family member. That is not the case for a dependent orangutan or a human -a topic for another blog. For now, this Orangutan Dad wonders about his daughter's forest exploits, her well being, and looks forward to seeing her again.


The Orangutan Dad is also President & Co-Founder of the Orang Utan Republik Foundation. The mission of OURF is to save orangutans through education and other innovative collaborative projects. For more information visit www.orangutanrepublik.org.


  1. Princess is lucky to have such a caring dad. Do you have any way to keep tabs on her children (your grandkids)?


  2. Really interesting, thank you. I did not, until reading this, appreciate the difference in this particular behaviour between the dependent and independent orang utan.

  3. I didn't recognised you.. You're really famous apart from being an orang-utan dad. I would imagine you having an end note saying that saving orang-utans would be difficult. It becomes a mission! You're a great inspiration..

  4. Great article. I had the honour of meeting Princess (and two of your grand-children) last April, when she raided our boat for lunch. Princess is a really special orangutan and you're one lucky dad ;)

  5. Gary, I implore you to continue sharing your experiences with the world-- these personal accounts are what will inspire the next wave of concern among teenagers and twenty-somethings. Thank you!

  6. as I previously stated, these are the sorts of first-hand accounts which will reach the masses & create a more thorough, undeniable appreciation for these wonderful apes. I hope you continue to share your stories with us.

    ps the first thing I ever google'd after meeting Towan, the dom. male orang at the zoo in Seattle, was "orangutan language"... not enough legitimate sites came up. Such a shame, especially when there are those (like you) who have experiences which can explain their behavior.