Photograph by Tim Laman
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A young adult female Bornean orangutan
Photograph by Tim Laman

Postcards From Borneo: A Family Adventure Begins Anew

Some National Geographic magazine assignments come out of the blue. A phone call or email from an editor saying, “Can you go to the Amazon for us next month?” They can take shape quickly, and be carried out and completed in months. Then there are the ones that span half a lifetime. This is one of those.

It was in 1986 when I saw the poster in the hall of the biology building at Harvard. It featured a plate from Alfred Russell Wallace’s natural history classic The Malay Archipelago: Land of the Orangutan and the Bird of Paradise, depicting Dayak natives in Borneo battling a giant orangutan. “Wanted: Field Assistants for Rain Forest Research in Borneo. Contact Prof. Mark Leighton,” or something to that effect was typed beneath. I talked to Professor Leighton. I read Wallace. I was off to Borneo for a year.

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Fast forward to 1994. I had already completed my Ph.D. research in Borneo, focusing on life in the rain forest canopy. Now I was back in Borneo with my wife, Cheryl Knott. We had met in grad school, and made an instant connection. She was studying primatology, and I told her about the orangutans of Borneo, at the site called Gunung Palung, where I had done my Ph.D. Once she had a chance to visit there and do a pilot study, she was hooked. As I expanded my scope of interests beyond science to concentrate on photographic storytelling, Borneo became my proving ground, and my first two published stories in National Geographic came out of my own work in the forest canopy, and then documenting Cheryl’s orangutan research.

Since then, Cheryl has continued her long term orangutan project in Gunung Palung and is now a professor at Boston University. My projects have taken me to many other corners of the world as well, but nearly every year we return to Gunung Palung. Soon we started a family, but that didn’t stop us. Our son Russell first traveled to Borneo with us when he was not quite one year old. A brief report we published in National Geographic in 2003 about the threats to orangutans included a shot of Russell and Cheryl in a canoe on the river to Gunung Palung.

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Russell Laman, age one, trails his hand in the water of Borneo’s Gunung Palung.

Now the summer trip to Borneo has become a family tradition. Russell is now thirteen, and his younger sister Jessica is ten. They count on that long flight across the Pacific, those hotel nights in Indonesian towns on the way, and finally that long boat trip upriver to the research camp. By the time they get there to the opposite side of the world and to that enclave in the wilderness, they know they are doing something special. It’s what sets our family apart. They know we are “different”, but in a good way.

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Russell and Jessica Laman with their mother, Cheryl Knott, going on the journey upriver to Gunung Palung National Park. 2009

Now over fifteen years have passed since Cheryl and I published that Wild Orangutans story in National Geographic magazine back in 1998. A lot has changed during that span of time for the orangutans. There are many fewer of them for one thing. Although Gunung Palung National Park is largely intact, and harbors a very healthy orangutan population, orangutans have been losing habitat dramatically across their homelands of Borneo and Sumatra and it is a critical time for them. I felt that the time was right for another feature on orangutans in National Geographic.

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Jessica Laman plays with her mother, orangutan researcher Cheryl Knott’s, GPS unit. 2010

Much has changed in the world of orangutan research during this last twenty years since Cheryl started as well. Cheryl and researchers at other sites across Indonesia and Malaysia started comparing notes more, and genetic studies were done. It became clear that orangutans are not all the same. Sumatran orangutans and Bornean orangutans are now classified as two distinct species, Pongo abelii, and Pongo pygmaeus. Even more interesting than that was the fact that different orangutan populations in different regions have been found to have distinct cultures. That is to say, behaviors that they learn from each other, that mothers pass on to offspring, that are unique to each region.

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A rest stop along the river on the boat trip up to Cabang Panti Research Site, Gunung Palung. Jessica swings on a vine. 2010

Here were my themes for the next National Geographic feature on orangutans: orangutan cultures and documenting orangutan diversity. I pitched the story and it was approved. So now I’m embarked on a quest to visit a wide a selection of orangutan research sites over the coming months, to try to capture images and stories from across the entire range of orangutans.

But summer is here, and it’s time for that family expedition to Gunung Palung in Borneo. So now I have a truly unique opportunity, working with the whole family for several weeks in the rain forests of Borneo: my wife Cheryl the orangutan scientist with her team of students and field assistants, and now my kids, Russell and Jessica, enthusiastic photographers and naturalists in their own right, old enough to help out. We’ll be out there tracking orangutans, trying to document their unique behaviors, and tell their stories with new and interesting images.

Over the coming weeks, Proof will be following the adventures of Tim, Cheryl, Jessica, and Russell in the rainforests of Borneo. Next, the journey begins with a boat trip upriver.