Photographs by Alain Schroeder
Story by Kyle Almond, CNN
They might live in the trees, swinging from branch to branch, but orangutans are still some of the most human-like creatures you can find in the wild.
We share over 96% of the same DNA.
“When you look at them in the eyes, it's like your brother,” said photographer Alain Schroeder, who recently spent six months documenting the animals in Indonesia.
The name orangutan, translated in Malay, means “person of the forest.”
Unfortunately, that forest has been shrinking rapidly, putting the great ape critically close to extinction.
Orangutans only live in Southeast Asia, in the rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo.
But their habitat is getting smaller and smaller, Schroeder said, because of human development. Rubber and palm oil plantations keep sprouting up. More roads are being built.
The orangutan population was thought to be over 300,000 a century ago. Now there are less than 70,000.
One of the three orangutan species, the Sumatran orangutan, is down to about 14,000.
“They go in the field, they rescue the animals, they do the medical check. And eventually they train the animals for a few years to put them back in the wild,” Schroeder said.
The animals have had legal protections in Indonesia since 1931, but many are still captured and kept as status symbols, according to the World Wildlife Fund. In some areas they are even hunted for food.
The Sumatran orangutan used to live across the whole island of Sumatra. Now it is just in the island’s north, with most of them in the provinces of North Sumatra and Aceh.
Schroeder hopes his photos will raise awareness about their plight.
He remembers coming across Hope, a Sumatran orangutan who had been shot with 74 pellets. She was blinded, and she had a baby who was a few months old at most.
The rescue team drove 12 hours to go back to the hospital for medical care. On the way, the baby died.
Hope survived after having surgery for a broken clavicle. But the baby’s death hit everyone hard.
“That was very emotional,” Schroeder said. “You could see all the members of the team, they were totally devastated. Everyone was close to crying.”
It’s not unusual, he said, for the caretakers to form an emotional connection with the apes.
“I wasn’t allowed to touch (the orangutans), but all the caretakers, they take them in their arms like babies,” he said.
Orangutans are very smart. They are known to make simple tools in the wild, whether it’s to help open fruit, forage for insects or even scratch themselves. They can be taught human communication skills, such as sign language, and they’ve been observed teaching skills to one another.
“It was my first experience with the orangutan,” Schroeder said. “I have never seen chimpanzees or gorillas. But looking at them, it's like: ‘OK, this guy must be my ancestor. I am sure.’ ”