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Chasing Orangutans

Deep in a rainforest, a 12-year-old girl is on the trail of one of Earth’s most fascinating creatures

It’s been another peaceful day for an orangutan named Walimah. The shaggy-haired great ape lives deep within the rainforest in Borneo, a large island in Southeast Asia. Like all wild orangutans, Walimah spends her days high up in the treetops, swinging from branch to branch like a trapeze artist.

All around her, the rainforest buzzes and hisses and shimmers with life. Snakes coil around trees. Lizards dart along the forest floor. Birds flash by like flying jewels.

Studying Orangutans

On the ground below, staring up at Walimah through binoculars, is another kind of creature—a girl named Jessica.

Jessica Laman, now 12, is not a native of this rainforest. Her habitat is 10,000 miles away, in Massachusetts. But she has been coming to this lush wilderness almost every summer since she was 3 years old. By now, this part of Borneo, Gunung Palung, is like a second home. And the wild orangutans that live here are practically family.

Jessica’s mom, Cheryl Knott, is a college professor and scientist. She has been studying orangutans here for more than 25 years. Jessica’s dad, Tim Laman, is a wildlife photographer for National Geographic.

 Some families like to spend family vacations at Disney World or at the beach. For Jessica, her parents, and her 15-year-old brother, Russell, there is no better way to spend a vacation than chasing orangutans in the wild.

 “It’s a family tradition,” Jessica says.

Jessica and her mom observing orangutans in Gunung Palung.

An Amazing Adventure

Jessica’s parents first visited Borneo when they were students at Harvard University. In 1992, Jessica’s mom set up an orangutan research project in Gunung Palung. She has been traveling back and forth between Boston and Borneo ever since. Most summers, the family goes with her.

Just getting to Gunung Palung is an amazing adventure—five different airplane flights plus a long hike or canoe ride into the rainforest. The research camp is a cluster of rustic buildings. About 12 researchers and assistants work there full-time. Jessica and her family stay in a small house on a sandy river beach.

“The house is actually more like a platform with a roof,” Jessica says with a laugh. The family sleeps inside tents to keep mosquitoes and other biting bugs away. One night, while Jessica was working at the computer, a brightgreen snake slithered across the keyboard.

But the rustic conditions and scaly visitors are all part of the magic of the rainforest, Jessica says. She loves the days of hiking through the trees, swinging on vines, and diving into a river with water so clean she can gulp it down as she swims. She falls asleep to the musical chime of insects. She doesn’t mind if she’s woken up by the hooting call of a gibbon, a small primate.

And, of course, there are the orangutans.

“They are such cool animals,” Jessica says. “They behave in ways that are so similar to humans.”

Into the World of Chimpanzees

How Jane Goodall changed science

Not so long ago, scientists studied animals by catching them and bringing them to a lab or a zoo. In 1960, a woman named Jane Goodall changed all that.

Jane wanted to study chimpanzee behavior. So she went by herself to the wilds of Africa. She found a community of chimps and simply started to observe them. She won their trust. Through months of patient observation, she made important discoveries.

For instance, she watched as chimpanzees gathered their favorite snack, termites. They took sticks, stripped off the leaves, and used them to “fish” the termites out of holes in the ground.

The idea that chimps could make and use tools was shocking. Before that, most experts believed that only humans used tools.

Over the decades, Jane has made other discoveries. Her work has inspired many scientists.

Today, thousands of field scientists are at work in the wild, unlocking secrets about the animals who share our world.

Watching and Learning

In fact, orangutans are among our closest relatives. They are quick learners and creative problem solvers. Peering up at them through binoculars, Jessica has watched orangutans craft umbrellas out of leaves. She has seen how they move from tree to tree, like “Olympic gymnasts,” she says. They lean back on a flexible branch and—boing—slingshot themselves through the air.

Jessica’s mother and her team are studying the diet of orangutans and how it affects their behavior and their ability to have babies. The research is painstaking. Workers often rise at 3 a.m. to watch orangutans wake up in their nests. They frequently follow the animals until dark. It can be difficult to find them in the dense forest. “Luckily, they are noisy,” Jessica says.

The researchers have no direct contact with the apes; the idea is to simply watch. This kind of observation in the wild is known as field research. Scientists agree that it is the best way to learn about an animal.

In addition to studying orangutans, Jessica’s mom and her team are working to protect them. These great apes are endangered. Only about 50,000 of them remain in the wild, all in Borneo and the neighboring island of Sumatra.

The biggest danger to their survival is the loss of their rainforest habitat, which is being burned and chopped down to create land for agriculture. Jessica’s mother is working to protect Gunung Palung and the orangutans that live there. Jessica feels lucky to be a part of her mother’s mission and the world of orangutans. “It’s what makes our family different,” she says.

Continue the Learning Journey

Make an orangutan trivia game! Write 10 questions about orangutans that include facts like where they live, what they eat, and how many are left in the wild. Have your family and friends take turns answering these questions and see how many they get right.

Write an acrostic poem about orangutans! In an acrostic poem, the first letters of the lines spell a word. See below for an example. Your poem could be silly like the example, or it could be a serious poem about how humans can help orangutans.



Orangutans are


awesome. They live in


golden light, making

umbrellas, swinging

through the trees

and never eating



Words Into Action

Four things you can do to help orangutans.

Join the fight to save orangutans! Check out the slideshow above to see how you can help. Then choose an idea and take action!

This article was written by Lauren Tarshis for Scholastic Storyworks magazine.

Image Credits: Hugo van Lawick/National Geographic Creative (Jane Goodall); Tim Laman (all other images)