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ARE ORANGUTANS EMPATHETIC?

It was a usual day at the Nyaru Menteng forest school, where young orangutans were learning from one another while their human surrogate mothers looked on from below. The treetop lessons are only interrupted momentarily for supplementary food breaks, but on this day, one orangutan, Uru, appeared to have a different idea. He refused to come down and instead broke and threw branches at those on the forest floor. One of his branches of protest managed to find its way directly to the head of one of the surrogate mothers, Mama Eva. When it came down on her forehead, it created a cut that immediately began to bleed profusely. Another surrogate mother panicked, called our medical team, and brought Mama Eva to obtain first aid.

Mama Eva continued to work the next day, accompanying students to the forest school. However, the cut on her forehead was causing Mama Eva pain, so she chose to distance herself from the forest school students and watch over them from afar. However, one orangutan noticed Mama Eva, who was in discomfort and crying. The orangutan approached Mama Eva, appearing to hug her, as if he knew Mama Eva was feeling badly at the time. His actions caught the attention of other orangutans, who then proceeded to follow suit and come down to hug Mama Eva. Unable to take the attention of the orangutans away from Mama Eva, the surrogate mothers had no choice but to end the lessons and head back to the main complex. As they started the walk, all of the forest school students chose to stroll together behind Mama Eva.

Orangutans often exhibit social interactions indicating they experience complex emotions such as empathy and grief. Although this topic in particular is incredibly challenging to research, there is a growing body of evidence from behavioural observations that reveals orangutans may be able to demonstrate empathy and understand the emotions of others. One of the leading institutions on primate cognition and emotion is the Yerkes National Primate Research Centre at Emory University. Many studies have supported repeatedly that apes respond to distress exhibited by others, in addition to issues of inequality, altruism, conflict, loss, and countless other emotion-evoking situations that were previously only believed to be perceived by humans.

In another instance, one of our rehabilitation centre’s repatriated orangutans, Du, demonstrated the highest form of altruistic behaviour for an unrelated individual possible. She fully adopted an orphaned, infant orangutan and has raised them as if they were her own child. Although cases such as these provide great insight into orangutans’ potential for empathy, further research is needed to completely grasp the scope of their emotional range in comparison to humans and other primates.

This story serves as a timely memorial to the legacy left behind by primatologist Frans De Waal who brought great ape emotions and intelligence to the attention of the scientific community and into the awareness of the general public. While he passed away last month on March 14, 2024, his legacy will live on. We dedicate this story to you and thank you for all you have done to help us humans better understand and connect with our awe-inspiring ape cousins.

Text by: Communications Team at Nyaru Menteng, Central Kalimantan & Communication Team, BOS Foundation Headquarters, Bogor, West Java

Will you help us rescue, rehabilitate and release orangutans back to freedom? Thank you!

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