Dean M. Chriss
Clinging to Mom, Baby Orangutan, Borneo, Malaysia

Clinging to Mom, Baby Orangutan, Borneo, Malaysia

(Click image to enlarge)

Orangutan infants cling to their mothers for the first two to five years of life. They travel as one through the trees and sleep in the same nests. Adult orangutans can travel quickly through the treetops but the babies cannot. They must cling to their mother's fur and skin with an immensely powerful grip to avoid falling. This photograph shows the upper middle area of a mother's back and her baby's hand gripping her tightly as they move through the forest. Four long fingers and a thumb buried into this mother's back keep her heavy youngster attached, and she does not seem to mind.

Orangutans have the lowest reproduction rate of any mammal on earth. Their gestation period is about nine months long. Mothers nurse their infants for four to five years and stay in their mother's nest for seven to eight years, so females give birth every seven to nine years. Twin births are very rare, and infants are so difficult to care for that both seldom survive. A female can have at most five offspring during her lifetime, and many have fewer.

Sights like the one in this photograph are rare and will soon vanish from the earth. Half of all wild orangutans were killed in just the last 16 years. More than 5000 per year are killed by palm oil plantations alone. Forests where orangutans live and find all their food are cut down to plant this cash crop. Palm oil is widely used in food products so consumers should avoid those that contain palm oil. Other threats to orangutans include logging, farming, mining, and poaching for the exotic pet trade. When poached, mothers are always killed. If the baby survives the mother's fall from a tree, the baby is taken by the poachers. Orangutans currently exist in the few remote and isolated patches of native jungle that remain on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, in the countries of Malaysia and Indonesia.

I wrestled with whether this photograph should be processed in black and white or color. The black and white version better distilled the universal connection between mother and baby while leaving the subject's specie more ambiguous. That may have wider appeal, but orangutans are nearly gone. That made positively identifying these subjects as orangutans, and making the photograph unambiguously a symbol of their particular cycle of life, most important.