Hardy wildlife photographer Craig Jones talks about the challenges of shadowing orangutan rescue teams
Back in March I visited the remote Indonesian island of Sumatra, in order to shadow a rescue team from the Orangutan Information Centre (OIC). I’ve been making self-funded trips to Sumatra since 2012, roughing it with the rescue teams in the jungle, then doing awarenessraising talks and exhibitions back in the UK. OIC has a network of people that help them, and I tag along, winning their trust and getting more and more access.
Each year when I go back to Sumatra, I find more and more devastation. The place is dying as we speak, as the forests are being devastated for palm oil plantations. Caught up in the middle of all the destruction, corruption and conflict are four of the world’s rarest animal species – the Sumatran rhino, tiger, elephant and orangutan.
Bugs as big as golf balls
There are lots of challenges when it comes to photographing in this environment. The temperature is about 36 degrees, but the humidity can be up to 80-90 per cent – it’s bloody awful! Here’s the best way I can describe it: put the shower on at full heat, close all the doors and windows and then go back in the bathroom 20 minutes later. That’s what the humidity is like. What’s more, there are bugs as big as golf balls and insects who’ll eat you alive… you have to check your boots every morning.
The humidity causes fungi to grow on your gear, and often I was shooting in pretty dark conditions, under canopies and in the forest. Noise could be a problem as I was shooting at such high ISOs, and it could be hard to get a fast enough shutter speed too. I had to get the shot, though; there is no second chance with an orangutan rescue. Fortunately my Nikon D810 never let me down.
My go-to lens when photographing orangutans is the 24-70mm f/2.8, which is great for wide-angle work and portraits. I also use a 105mm macro for closer, more intimate portraits of orangutans, and a 70-200mm, 300m and 600mm. Lugging all this gear around in such humidity is hard. Fortunately, I am pretty fit for my age and do a lot of training and mountain biking. I used to be in the armed forces too.
I think my stand-out shot from my last visit to Sumatra (I don’t like to say it’s a favourite) was of a young female we found in the compound of a local warlord. Capturing a critically endangered species gives these guys status and power.
I got a picture of her in a small cage, sitting in her own mess. Her fur was standing on edge and she was covering her mouth and biting the bars – orangutans get nervous and anxious, just like humans. Her stare went straight through me. There was lots of shouting and commotion going on as the team tried to release her, but I just lay on the floor near her for about 10 minutes, trying to get some interaction going. She slowly sat up and relaxed a bit, though her right forearm was still hiding her mouth. Although we couldn’t free her that day, I have heard she’s subsequently been released. It’s one of the most powerful images I have ever taken. The expressive faces make for fantastic portraits The OIC is run by Indonesian people wanting to preserve their wildlife A success story – an orangutan is safe again
01 Covering the mouth like this is a clear sign of stress