Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

Orangutans: Thinkers of the Forest

November 5, 2010

Open Thinkers of the Forest to the oversized color photograph opposite page 60, and a striking sight materializes. In a dense emerald forest with no person in sight, eight orangutans of various shapes and sizes feed in the trees. Studded at various heights in the canopy, limbs splayed at sharp angles, the apes cluster near each other. The caption reads, “Orangutans are wrongly regarded as loners. When there is enough food, they like to meet in large numbers for a convivial feast.”

Thinkers of the Forest, a 2008 volume satisfyingly heavy to carry around and gorgeous in both text and illustration, was created by science writer Gerd Schuster, orangutan expert Willie Smits, and photographer Jay Ullal. It has climbed (brachiated!) to the top of my “best ape books ever” list.

Its focus is the orangutan of Borneo and Sumatra. Not solitary, yet not as highly social as the African apes, capable of smart tool-making and tool-using yet so different in temperament to the excitable and quick-witted chimpanzee, the orangutan is a fascinating close relative of ours.

My primatology career kicked off with orangutans. Some other time I’ll blog about my summers orangutan’ing at the Oklahoma City Zoo and the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park; a special benefit of the NZP experience was meeting “orangutan channeler” and biologist Melanie Bond who has remained a friend over these many years.

Regrettably, I’ve never seen an orangutan in the wild. Now Thinkers of the Forest has transported me to the Asian islands where I’ve never set foot. The photographs bring together red ape and green forest, or offer portraits of intelligent ape faces. The text is informative and playful, as can be seen in these two examples:

On male dominance: “If a grown-up male (usually 15 to 20 years old) manages to leap to the position of boss of the territory, his hormones run wild, and within a few months his insignia of power, thick leathery-black cheek-pads and a throat-pouch, will start growing and change his appearance completely. “ Life is now comparatively harder, both because a larger body is costly to fuel, and because of “the pressure” a male feels, not only regarding territory defense but also regarding “care for his renown, and courtly-love service.”

A “pasha” alpha male is likely to burn out after only a few years. Fascinatingly, when this happens, his cheek-pads recede. So much for fixed biology! Social status makes a difference for primates in all kinds of unexpected ways.

On self-medicating: One time in the forest, Smits watched Tuti, a female who “was quite obviously tortured by a headache. She sat there all slack in her misery and held her head in her hands.” Finally Tuti roused herself and ate blossoms from a particular shrub. Within 30 minutes she had brightened.

Months later, Smits found himself with a severe headache while in the forest. He decided to eat what Tuti had eaten- and soon felt better. Smits believes the orangutans know their habitat so well they have “acquired botanical knowledge for themselves,” and he offers examples to support that claim.

Thinkers of the Forest looks head-on at the orangutans’ current plight in the face of habitat loss, poaching, and the black market. A Taiwanese television soap opera at one point featured an infant pet orangutan, and the popularity of the cute creatures soared among viewers. “The animal mafia did not have to be asked twice, and hundreds of the live fashion-toys were smuggled to Taiwan,” the authors note. Thousands of orangutans died as a direct result of this live-capture process. Even for the orangutans who reached Taiwan alive, travesties ensued: “One could even see them in the ‘Snake Alley’ red-light district. They were given drugs there, and for the amusement of the spectators, they were allowed to decapitate tortoises with an axe.”

Orangutans’ numbers are dwindling. Yet we cannot give up on either hope or action. Palm-oil cultivation is a key reason for orangutan-habitat loss, and we may, for instance, choose a diet low in palm oil. To learn how to help wild orangutans, go here:orangutan

Even as it engages with some grim realities, Thinkers of the Forest is a rare blend of art and science that I highly recommend.


  1. November 5, 2010 9:14 AM EDT
    Thanks so much for this. I will share this with my students as a lovely window on to orangutan world.
    - Sian Evans
  2. November 5, 2010 10:24 PM EDT
    Help rescued orangutans Vote by texting 102943 to 73774, and at and vote for Center for Great Apes
    see for more information
    Thanks for helping BamBam and Louie get new digs!!
    - Melanie Bond

Selected Works

Why are animals so irresistible to us? Why do we live with and care so deeply about them? From the famous "art caves" of ice-age Europe, to the ancient villages where animals were first domesticated, to stories of apes, whales, dogs, and cats doing fascinating things today, King weaves together a scenario about the animal-human bond that encompasses our past, present and future.
Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
How do chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas-- the African apes -- communicate using body postures and gestures? Using her many years of experience studying these apes, Barbara King answers this question in a book that offers a new perspective on the evolution of language.