It was a usual day at the Nyaru Menteng Forest School, where young orangutans learn from one another while their human surrogate mothers look 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 forehead of one of the surrogate mothers, Mama Eva. When it came down, 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.

Hug against the pain
Mama Eva continued to work the next day, accompanying students to the Forest School. However, the cut on her forehead was causing her pain, so she chose to distance herself from the students and watch over them from afar. Her discomfort didn’t go unnoticed. While seeing Mama Eva crying, one orangutan approached her and appeared to hug her. 

His actions caught the attention of other orangutans, who then followed suit and came down to hug Mama Eva. Unable to take the orangutans’ attention 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 the forest school students chose to stroll together behind Mama Eva.

The little orangutan student clearly shows empathy to babysitter Eva after her injury.

Challenging research
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 repeatedly supported that apes respond to distress exhibited by others, as well as issues of inequality, altruism, conflict, loss, and countless other emotion-evoking situations that were previously only believed to be perceived by humans.

Orangutan female Du shows the highest form of altruistic behaviour by raising a baby from another female.


Incredibly altruistic
In another instance, one of our rehabilitation centre’s repatriated orangutans, Du, demonstrated the highest form of altruistic behaviour for an unrelated individual. 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 compared 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 scientific community’s attention and the general public’s awareness. While he passed away last month on March 14, 2024, his legacy will live on. We dedicate this story to you, Frans, and thank you for all you have done to help us humans better understand and connect with our awe-inspiring ape cousins.

Please support our lifesaving work by adopting one of our little Forest School students.

How Can You Help

There are lots of ways you can support orangutans and help ensure the survival of this precious ape.

Adopt an Orangutan

Adopt an Orangutan

Orangutans are endangered and at risk of extinction. Habitat destruction results in hundreds of orphaned orangutans, who rely on our care every year. You can help by adopting one. Their dedicated ‘nannies’ teach them everything they need to know for when it’s time to release them back to the wild. You can follow their progress through Forest School.

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Make a Donation

Please help the Orangutans in their struggle for survival. Your donation is important and goes directly to BOS Indonesia. By donating, you are helping bring this noble yet endangered species back from the brink of extinction and on a path to freedom - from rescue to rehabilitation and release.

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The perfect gift for any occasion! Choose from our selection of instant gifts that directly support our orangutans. You can buy a wheelbarrow, provide food for an orangutan for two months or lots more. You will receive a certificate, personalised with the name of your choice - perfect gift for you or a friend.

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