Tuesday, 20 May 2008

The difference between an ape with a stick and a fishing monkey

In late April a picture and news release was sent around the world of an orangutan overhanging a river and poking the water with a stick. One of the headlines run “Orangutan attempts to hunt fish with spear”. The story line was that this is the first time an orangutan has been seen using a tool to hunt. I quote: “A male orangutan, clinging precariously to overhanging branches, flails the water with a pole, trying desperately to spear a passing fish. The extraordinary image, a world exclusive, was taken in Borneo on the island of Kaja, where apes are rehabilitated into the wild after being rescued from zoos, private homes or even butchers' shops.” And more (from the Daily Mail): “’Orang hutan’ means ‘forest man’ in one of Indonesia's many languages and our long-armed cousins do indeed show a remarkable ability to mimic our behaviour. This individual had seen locals fishing with spears on the Gohong River. Although the method required too much skill for him to master, he was later able to improvise by using the pole to catch fish already trapped in the locals' fishing lines.” To say the least, I am a little skeptical. For a start, it’s been a long time since I last saw anyone in Borneo fish with a spear. This is the kind of thing you see on “Survivor”, but not in the Bornean jungle. People are sophisticated here and use nets, hook, line and sinker, a little poison or electric shocks. Way upriver, where the waters are clear and shallow, people may use goggles and a short spear, but I doubt that’s where the orangutan picked up the alleged skill. Surely, the orangutan on the photo is doing something with a stick. Maybe it is trying to collect a floating fruit or dead fish, and yes, this could be referred to as tool use. But then again, these are semi-rehabilitated orangutans that have lived much of their lives with people and are now confined to a temporary holding facility in the middle of river before they can finally be released into the wild. They even star in very popular tv shows like Orangutan Diary and Orangutan Island. So, a little copying of human behaviour is not that surprising, they are our close relatives after all. My point is that I don’t mind some media attention for orangutans. But can we just stick to the facts for a change? Do, we really think that anthropomorphosizing orangutans will change the attitude of Indonesian policy makers and politicians, and improve the survival chances of the species? “Lookie here!, the orangutan can even do tricks….” Anyway... Now, if you do want to see fishing monkeys, why don’t you come and visit Lesan in East Kalimantan, one of the very few places on earth where primates actually do fish (see this link). And no speculation here; we have seen them do it. They catch live fish and eat them. And they don’t use a tool. No, they are much smarter, they use their hands. And they are very quick about it. What does it mean? Probably nothing more than a hungry monkey who is smart enough to extract nutrients from its environment. Well done monkey.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Im concerned this opinion on fishing orangutans could have a negative impact on very hairy men who also fish using sticks. Does this mean that any hairy men who fish using sticks are now not actually fishing and worse they are usurped by a smaller faster species of monkey or even worse a hairy midget? This is outrageous.