One day 23 years ago, scientists were exploring a lost world called Batang Toru when they glimpsed something moving in the forest canopy. What they saw was a great ape that had lived in splendid isolation for 700,000 years. With its kindly black face, orange fur and vast proto-artisanal beard, it looked like the familiar Sumatran or Borneo orangutans, but was neither. In 2017, the Tapanuli orangutan was recognised as a new species. It is smaller, and has paler, thicker fur than its lowland cousins and lives in reproductive isolation on that remote plateau in the north Sumatran jungle 1,000m above sea level.
The news about this addition to world species lists prompted producer Nikki Waldron to scramble to the Sumatran jungle, to film the Tapanuli orangutan. After a few weeks, she and her crew found a mother and daughter in their natural habitat. “When we first arrived, the cameraman sighed. The light levels were really low because of the density of the leaves, and the orangutans live 40m up in the trees.”
The male golden-headed lion tamarins of Brazil work as taxis for their children
“We’ve made series about sharks, which are difficult to film, and big cats which are more difficult, and now primates that are arguably the most difficult of all,” says Mike Gunton, executive producer of the new three-part BBC One nature documentary Primates. “They move quickly. It’s hard for camera crews to keep up with them. What’s more, they tend to live in very inaccessible areas like steamy jungles at the top of tall trees.” Yet Waldron and her camera crew captured some poignant shots of a mother teaching her baby daughter how to forage in the trees. The Tapanuli orangutan needs a more varied diet of plants than other orangutans, and baby needs to learn these life lessons fast: after five years, she will leave her mother and forage independently.