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Orangutan culture in focus in ‘Person of the Forest’: Q&A with researchers Cheryl Knott and Robert Rodriguez Suro

  • A recent documentary, “Person of the Forest,” investigates the cultures of orangutans.
  • Orangutan numbers have dwindled as a result of habitat loss, hunting and the pet trade.
  • Scientists argue that the existence of orangutan culture makes protecting them even more critical.
  • The film is a finalist at the New York WILD Film Festival, which began on Feb. 22.

Rafts of research in the past few decades have convinced scientists that there’s less that separates humans from other animals than we’d originally thought. Take the concept of culture, for example. Once thought to be the province of our species and ours alone, it has turned up on some surprising branches of the tree of life.

In a recent documentary, “Person of the Forest,” researchers set out to record evidence of culture in one of our closest relatives, the orangutan. Different orangutan groups have unique ways of communicating, eating and even protecting themselves from the rain. And the team’s work uncovers clues about how these behaviors develop, evolve and creep into the habits of other orangutans.

A Bornean orangutan, pictured here in Sabah, Malaysia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

At the same time, scientists studying orangutans know they’re in a race against time as habitat loss, hunting and the pet trade drive them toward extinction. The fact that unique cultures exist means that if we lose one group of orangutans to poaching or a new oil palm plantation, all of that knowledge will be lost with it, even if other groups are kept safe.

The film features biological anthropologist Cheryl Knott of Boston University and field biologist Robert Rodriguez Suro, who is based in Puerto Rico. “Person of the Forest” is a finalist at the New York WILD Film Festival, which kicked off at the Explorers Club in Manhattan on Feb. 22.

Mongabay caught up with Knott and Suro to learn more about their research and why protecting these “people of the forest” and their cultures is so critical.

“Person of the Forest”_Official Trailer from Tim Laman on Vimeo.

Mongabay: Most people are probably not aware that orangutans have a “culture.” How did you first become aware of and interested in studying orangutan culture?

Cheryl Knott: The concept that animals may have culture has been around for a long time, so I first learned about this when I studied biological anthropology in college. Then, in 1999, a paper was published on chimpanzee cultures, basically comparing cultural traditions between different sites and realizing that there was cultural variation. Following this, in 2002, orangutan researchers, myself included, had a workshop in San Francisco where [we] all came together, sponsored by the Leakey Foundation, and we figured out that many of the behaviors that we were seeing were actually culturally specific to certain populations. Thus, it is only through long-term research at multiple sites that we’ve come to realize that each population is unique and has cultural traditions not seen elsewhere. We didn’t set out to study culture; it was only through comparing our behavioral observation that we realized that we were seeing cultural variation between sites.

Robert Rodriguez Suro: I first became aware of this at an introductory biological anthropology course at Boston University. We were assigned to read a paper that described the geographical distribution of cultural variants in orangutan behavior. I always thought of culture as something that belonged strictly to [humans], and this was the first time I had ever learned about culture from a scientific perspective even in regard to human culture, let alone a non-human species like orangutans. The idea that orangutans are capable of “inventing” new behaviors and transmitting these behaviors to different individuals was fascinating to me. It actually had a huge impact on me as a learner, as this was one of the first times in college that something I thought I had an understanding of — culture — was totally flipped on its head. Understanding what culture was at its most fundamental level, from a scientific lens, just totally blew my mind. The fact that culture was found in non-human species was even more shocking. It stuck with me through the years, and it was one of the many things that interested me in going to Borneo to learn about orangutans in the wild.

How would you describe orangutan culture to non-scientists? What does it consist of?

Suro: Before delving into orangutan culture, it’s important to first learn how we define culture from a scientific perspective. When most people think about culture, they think of things like art, and music, and how they vary among human “cultures” around the world. In order to truly understand what we mean when we say culture, we have to understand the mechanisms by which these higher order elements of human culture like art came to be. Richard Dawkins actually provides a great overview of this in his book “The Selfish Gene.” He defines the basic element of culture called a “meme.” A meme is any idea, invention, or innovation that can be transmitted or communicated from one individual to another. A meme is to culture what genes are to biological evolution. They’re the building blocks of culture. Memes can be created by an individual, communicated, and copied by other individuals. Memes can vary in their capability to replicate and spread from individual to individual. Successful memes remain and spread through a population, whereas unfit ones do not and disappear over time. In other words, some memes “catch on” and become prevalent among a group of humans. Over time, these memes can really come to define the cultural elements of a particular group of people. Take, for example, the way people greet each other in different countries: Some shake hands; in other places, they bow. This is all because thousands of years ago, one particular human began greeting other humans in a particular way, and this behavior was copied and spread throughout their community, and this behavior eventually became prevalent in a country or a region. That’s a simplistic explanation, but it gives you an idea of how memes work and become cultural elements.

In orangutans, we see the same mechanisms of memes and culture. One good example is orangutan umbrellas. When it rains, some orangutans make umbrellas out of branches and leaves to cover their heads. It’s quite unlikely that this behavior is genetic. Orangutans likely aren’t born with the knowledge and capability to build umbrellas in their DNA. Rather, they learn to make umbrellas from watching their mothers during their childhood or from watching neighboring orangutans. This means that thousands, maybe millions of years ago, there was one particularly smart orangutan (or at least an ape predecessor to orangutans) who “invented” umbrellas. Other individuals began copying this behavior, and soon the use of umbrellas became prevalent throughout the entire species. Today, every population of orangutans make umbrellas. However, because orangutan populations are not all contiguous with each other, there may be subtle differences in umbrella-making from population to population. These regional differences are cultural differences, because the “meme” of umbrella-making may have undergone subtle changes among differing populations.

Knott: Within primatology, culture is defined as a “behavior that is transmitted repeatedly through social or observational learning to become a population-level characteristic.” So cultural behavior includes things like feeding behaviors, tool use, vocalization and other behaviors that are done by many or most members of a community and not by those in another community where the behavior could potentially occur. For example, at my [study] site, the orangutans eat a fruit called Neesia. This is a very large fruit, like a coconut, and they have to force it open and then pick out the high-fat seeds inside. The seeds are protected by fine fiberglass-like hairs that get stuck in your fingers and fur (if you’re an orangutan) and can be quite painful. At another site in Sumatra, they have this same fruit and they use sticks to poke out the seeds so that they don’t get the hairs on them. Thus, this is a cultural behavior. They have this fruit at both sites, but they access the seeds differently. It is also a learned behavior and not under genetic control.

An oil palm plantation in Malaysian Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

How did you connect with the film’s directors, Melissa Lesh and Tim Laman? How did the documentary project get its start?

Knott: Tim Laman is my husband. He first went to Borneo in 1985 and did his Ph.D. there. I started my Ph.D. at the same site in 1992. The site is called Gunung Palung National Park and is located on the west coast of Borneo, in Indonesia. I’ve been studying orangutans there for 25 years. Tim had been documenting my work since the very beginning.

A few years ago, Tim got the idea to propose an article for National Geographic magazine on orangutan cultures and traveled to research sites across Borneo and Sumatra. The documentary arose out of this work. The footage comes from a number of different trips over several years.

Suro: I met Tim Laman during my first year of fieldwork at the Gunung Palung orangutan project in Borneo, which is run by Cheryl Knott. She was my professor at Boston University. I learned about orangutan research from Cheryl, and also about orangutan photography and videography from Tim. I eventually ended up applying for a grant from National Geographic myself, and that’s how I obtained funding for the fieldwork that ended up producing a lot of the footage featured in the film. I actually met [Melissa Lesh] after all of the fieldwork was done. Tim suggested we should put together all of our footage into a film about orangutan cultures. Melissa was a filmmaker we knew, and she took up the challenge to put all of our footage together into the film.

Where are the orangutans you study in the film? How long did shooting take, and was it difficult to capture everything you wanted to capture for the film?

Suro: They are totally wild orangutans from a very remote portion of this national park. The footage in the film was obtained from a span of perhaps 10 years by many different people. None of us went in with the idea of making a film. [But] we had all this amazing footage and wanted to do something greater with it. When it comes to shooting orangutans in the wild though, it is very challenging to carry all this gear into remote areas, and the lighting conditions aren’t always ideal. Orangutans are the most arboreal of the apes and spend a large portion of their time up in the canopy. It’s a very labor- and time-intensive process. Sometimes you can go an entire day without obtaining one clear piece of footage.

A recent study found that Bornean orangutan numbers dropped by nearly 150,000 between 1999 and 2015 due to habitat loss and hunting. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

How did the orangutans react to having all these humans and camera gear around?

Suro: Once orangutans are habituated to humans, they completely ignore you. They don’t really react one way or another. They just keep doing their thing. And that’s ideal because we want to capture natural orangutan behavior. We don’t want to disturb them or affect their behavior in any way. When we do meet an orangutan that’s unfamiliar with humans, it can take a few days until they reach that level of comfort where they ignore you. During this time, they may throw branches at us, vocalize at us, things like that. Most of the orangutans that we followed are habituated orangutans accustomed to researchers.

Knott: That’s why we were able to get the shots we did.

Do you have any good anecdotes or stories from the filming of the documentary that you can share with us? Especially any stories that help illustrate what orangutan culture is all about?

Suro: One particular orangutan I followed and filmed a lot was a male named Codet. Over time, I began to see some quirky behaviors in Codet that I had never seen in any other orangutan. One day, he was eating leaves from a small tree, when suddenly he ripped a small branch off and stuck it on his head. It looked like a hat! He walked around the forest floor for a bit, then he stopped, took the branch off his head, took another bite of leaves off the branch, then stuck it on his head again and kept walking. Codet had figured out a rather ingenious and comical way to take his food to go and keep his hands free! Now, this could be something Codet learned from another orangutan, or it could be an innovation that Codet came up with himself. Either way, it seems this behavior is not common throughout the population of Gunung Palung. It’s a meme that hasn’t spread. It’s a good example of a behavior that has the potential to become a cultural element if it spreads throughout Gunung Palung however. Maybe in a few years, we’ll see more orangutans doing this behavior, or maybe not!

Why is there urgency around studying orangutans and their social structures? How endangered are the orangutans you studied?

Knott: Orangutans are critically endangered and thus increasing the public’s awareness about these magnificent animals is critical to our efforts to protect their habitat so that they will survive.

Suro: Orangutans are in danger of becoming extinct. The [species] I studied, Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus), actually were upgraded from endangered to critically endangered in 2016 by the IUCN. Some estimates say there are about 100,000 Bornean orangutans left in the wild. That may sound like a lot, but a recent research article estimates that we halved the orangutan population from 1999 to 2015. This means 100,000 to 150,000 orangutans died from habitat loss within a span of 16 years. If the rate of devastation continues the way it has, their extinction is inevitable. It’s not too late to save orangutans, but we have to make some changes in land management and prevent their habitat loss, particularly to palm oil plantations and forest fires.

Our knowledge that orangutan populations have unique cultures is a valuable argument for their widespread protection. It’s not enough for the government to say, “Oh, we’ll develop all of this rainforest land for palm oil, but as long as we leave this one region protected, orangutans can survive.” Yes, perhaps you’ll save that particular group of orangutans, but at the same time, you’ll be destroying the unique cultural behaviors that are found elsewhere. Every orangutan population and culture is unique, and we have a moral obligation to protect all of them. We value cultural diversity in humans. It’d be tragic if, in 50 years, every human on earth spoke English and watched nothing but Kardashian reruns. We talk about protecting languages and cultures and preventing globalization from destroying all of it. Orangutans deserve the same consideration.

The rainforest in Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

What do you hope people take away from the film? What do you hope it achieves?

Suro: I hope the films give people a sense of understanding and appreciation of orangutans as more than just apes in the forest. The fact they have culture should really be shocking to people. It’s an amazing fact, and I hope it gets people to see that so many of our “special” qualities are not unique to us. We share so much with other species, and we are just one of the many branches of life that have come to live on this planet. We don’t deserve this planet more than any other species. The more we learn about the fascinating lives of other species, the more we should be humbled. We should pride ourselves in protecting orangutans and other life on the planet.

Knott: I hope that people will come away with a greater appreciation of how much orangutans are like us and how intelligent they are. Also, that every population is unique and should be protected. I also hope to make people aware of the threats facing orangutans and would like to inspire people to help join our efforts to save them. In addition to my research, I run the Gunung Palung Orangutan Conservation Project that works with local communities to help protect orangutans and their habitat.

When and how can the general public see the film? Will it get a wider release after the festival?

Suro: That’s something that’s still in the works. The film is still making rounds around different film festivals in the U.S., but our ultimate goal is to have the film be accessible to everyone. For now, you can catch it at [the New York] WILD Film Festival, the Environmental Film Festival [in Washington, D.C.], the International Wildlife Film Festival, and some others! Likely, it’ll be available for online screening within the next year. Stay tuned!

Banner image of a Bornean orangutan by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and style.

CITATIONS

Van Schaik, C. P., Ancrenaz, M., Borgen, G., Galdikas, B., Knott, C. D., Singleton, I., … & Merrill, M. (2003). Orangutan cultures and the evolution of material culture. Science, 299(5603), 102-105.

Voigt, M., Wich, S. A., Ancrenaz, M., Meijaard, E., Abram, N., Banes, G. L., … & Gaveau, D. (2018). Global demand for natural resources eliminated more than 100,000 Bornean orangutans. Current Biology.

Whiten, A., Goodall, J., McGrew, W. C., Nishida, T., Reynolds, V., Sugiyama, Y., … & Boesch, C. (1999). Cultures in chimpanzees. Nature, 399(6737), 682.