The Story of Modern Orangutans in 6 Arresting Photographs

"Entwined Lives". (Photo: Tim Laman/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)

American photographer Tim Laman has spent 10 years photographing all 38 species of birds of paradise, but in 2015, he cast his lens on another subject — the endangered orangutans of Borneo and Sumatra.

In recognition of this project, Laman was recently awarded the title of 2016 Wildlife Photographer of the Year for the image above, titled "Entwined Lives," which shows an orangutan scaling a towering strangler fig tree in search of food. This prestigious photography competition is developed and produced every year by London's Natural History Museum.

Wondering how he managed to get such an outstanding shot? Armed with prior knowledge that this particular tree was frequented by hungry orangutans, Laman rigged up multiple GoPro cameras around the tree and then waited patiently for his elusive subject to appear. When the ape finally began climbing the tree, Laman remotely triggered the shutter on his cameras, resulting in a career-defining masterpiece.

"Protecting their remaining habitat is critical for orangutans to survive," Laman explains. "If we want to preserve a great ape that retains its vast culturally transmitted knowledge of how to survive in the rainforest and the full richness of wild orangutan behavior, then we need to protect orangutans in the wild, now."

Laman's winning image is part of a larger photo story exploring the lives, culture and threats of these wild primates in Borneo and Sumatra. Continue below to see how Laman used a mere six images to tell a moving story about one of the most remarkable animals on the planet.

"When mother knows best". (Photo: Tim Laman/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)

You might already know that orangutans are endangered due to poaching and deforestation, but in 2015, these creatures came under siege by yet another force — wildfire fueled by the effects of El Nino. It started when their annual dry season transformed into a full-blown drought. Fires that were normally ignited to clear land for oil palm farming spiraled out of control, destroying immense stretches of critical habitat for both Bornean and Sumatran orangutans.

For Laman, who photographed the blaze using an aerial drone (below), one of the most frustrating aspects of the situation is that they could have been prevented.

"Every single one of the thousands of fires that tore through Sumatra and Borneo last year was started by people – mostly deliberately," Laman explains. "Every single one could have been prevented through education, better fire control, better law enforcement and will."

"Road to destruction". (Photo: Tim Laman/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)

"The heat and disruption drove large numbers of orangutans out of the forest, increasing their conflict with humans," Laman explains. "Meanwhile others are gradually starving, trapped in pockets of forest that have been reduced in size through clearance for oil palms and are already too small to support them."

Below, a smoky haze settles over a riverbank as an orangutan and her offspring attempt to flee a burning forest. Laman captured this photo from a boat along the Mangkutup River in Kalimantan, Borneo, during the height of the 2015 fires.

"Pursued by fire". (Photo: Tim Laman/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)

Sadly, even the orangutans that were able to escape the smoldering forests were not unscathed. For many of the youngest survivors, they must go on without their mothers — years before they would have been naturally weaned.

When mother orangutans are killed — whether by poaching or environmental forces — their babies are sometimes illegally gathered up and sold as pets. In the photo below, we see a 1-month-old orangutan orphan clinging to a veterinarian from International Animal Rescue as it is transported to a wildlife rehabilitation center. The baby was confiscated by the rescue group after it was discovered to be living as a pet in a West Kalimantan village.

"Motherless". (Photo: Tim Laman/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)

While it's heartwarming to see rescues like this, the truth is that every baby orangutan you see in the arms of animal rescue workers represents a female orangutan killed at the hands of poachers, wildfires or other environmental hazards.

"The loss of these mature females has a devastating impact on wild populations, and so each youngster also symbolizes loss of future generations," according to Laman's photo essay. "These infants are lucky to be alive."

To make matters more complicated, the road to rehabilitating these beautiful creatures is long — and not at all guaranteed.

Below, we see rescue center staff hauling a handful of young Bornean orangutan orphans in a wheelbarrow to give them time to play in the forest. This gives them the opportunity to be exposed to their natural habitat and learn basic survival skills that would have otherwise been taught by their mothers.

"End of the line?". (Photo: Tim Laman/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)