Orangutan from Borneo photographed using a spear tool to fish

Tool use among orangutans was first documented by Carel van Schaik. In 1994, Carel observed orangutans developing tools to help themselves eat, while conducting field work in Gunung Leuser National Park, in the northwest Sumatra.

Specifically the orangutans were using sticks to pry open pulpy fruits that have “Plexiglas needles” capable of delivering a painful jab covering them. Using the tools, the orangutans were getting past handling the prickly husk and into the nutritious fruit. From an anthropological viewpoint, tool use represents an aspect of culture, since the entire group participates in a behavior that has developed over time. One unique thing to clarify is that only Sumatran orangutans have been observed to use tools, not orangutans from Borneo.

Recently, Gerd Schuster co-author of Thinkers of the Jungle: The Orangutan Report, took this photograph of,

“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…

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.”

Pretty awesome image, no? If you wanna read more about orangutan tool use, here are three papers on the topic:

    Schaik, C.P., Fox, E.A., Sitompul, A.F. (1996). Manufacture and use of tools in wild Sumatran orangutans. Naturwissenschaften, 83(4), 186-188. DOI: 10.1007/BF01143062
    Call, J., Tomasello, M. (1994). The social learning of tool use by orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus). Human Evolution, 9(4), 297-313. DOI: 10.1007/BF02435516
    van Schaik, C.P. (2003). Orangutan Cultures and the Evolution of Material Culture. Science, 299(5603), 102-105. DOI: 10.1126/science.1078004

69 thoughts on “Orangutan from Borneo photographed using a spear tool to fish

  1. The orangutan pictured is just one of hundreds living at the Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, which is operated by the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation in Borneo (Indonesia).

    Kaja is a small island in the middle of the Rongan River where several dozen orangutans are living until they can be released back into a safe section of the rainforest. The problem is that due to the unchecked spreading of palm oil plantations, the forest is being cut down and orangutans are being slaughtered. This orangutan, like the 650 others at Nyaru Menteng, is an orphan. He watched as his mother was murdered and his forest home was destroyed.

    You can see him and the others on the series “Orangutan Island’ on Animal Planet.

    Because of deforestation by the palm oil industry, orangutans are predicted to be extinct in the wild in less than 10 years. To learn more about orangutans and how to help them, please visit the Orangutan Outreach website at redapes.org.

    Thanks, Rich

    Richard Zimmerman
    Director, Orangutan Outreach
    Reach out and save the orangutans!

    1. That quote “orangutans are predicted to be extinct in the wild in less than 10 years” is all over the Internet, but I’m unable to find a source. Do you have one ?

      1. Hi Mike, I think the original prediction was 2020, based on the rapid rate of destruction of rainforest, and the extremely small number of wild orangutans left on the island of Sumatra. As the years went by, and 2020 became closer, the predicted date became shortened to “ten years.” As is the case with much information on the web, statistics get repeated without adjustment. What was 10 years in 2010 may now be only eight. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly as there are occasional glimpses of hope as government officials visit various orangutan orphan centres and/or agree to work together for more sustainable practices. And yet, sadly, the world demand for palm oil continues to grow. So we can’t blame the Indonesian worker who sees an opportunity to make a living in the palm oil industry and feed his family, make life better for his children, etc.

    2. This is neat but inaccurate. Tool use it not exclusive to Sumatran orangutans, and Carel van Schaik was not the first to document it. It was first documented in 1982 by Dr. Biruté Galdikas, among wild Bornean orangutans in Tanjung Puting National Park. Beat van Schaik by 12 years. Published in Primatology and Current Anthropology.

  2. Thank you very much Richard for giving us more information behind the Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Rehabilitation Center and the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation. I’ve tried to express how palm oil industry has devastated orangutan populations before. I’ve also covered news on other aspects of orangutan conservation, like studies on their genetic diversity. I appreciate that you’ve taken the time to explain some of the efforts that are being done to conserve these great apes.

    I’ve also seen Orangutan Island on Animal Planet, I think it is a great show.


  3. The use of tools by orangutans and their inclination to copy human behaviors is one more reminder of the possibility that the orangutan, and not the chimpanzee, is our closest living primate relative. There are about 30 unique biological features shared between humans and orangutans compared with almost nothing for humans and chimpanzees. In behavior, orangutans are uniquely more similar to humans in their mechanical abilities, and some studies suggest that orangutans may, overall, even be more intelligent that chimpanzees.

    One of the most fascinating questions as yet unresolved is the detailed nature of the ‘leaf dolls’ that have been reported, but not described, in the literature. A recent National Geographic article even referred to an orangutan rocking the leaf doll. What other primate does that remind you of? What is the construction of the leaf doll? Does it involve some form of weaving? It is quite astonishing that so little is documented about such intriguing behaviors given their evolutionary implications.

    John Grehan

    1. John, the exceptional tool use and intelligence of orangutans indicates convergent evolution from a common ancestor more than it does the potential of them being our closest relative.

      Genetic analysis places orangutans as the most distant of our great ape relatives, with gibbons being the most distant on the ape family tree.

  4. It is KALIMANTAN moron.

    Borneo does not exist- it is colonial terminolgy now obsolete as former territory of Borneo no longer exists either.

    Do you call Thailand “Siam”?

    Read your map stupid- the world is no longer tinted red and Queen Victoria is dead.

    Furthermore- the Chinese ethnic minority monopolised the palm-oil industry of Indonesia many years ago.
    First palm oil for cooking, then cosmetics now a boom for bio-fuel.

    If you wish to address this problem- you must support all Indonesian Government efforts to eradicate this Chinese scourge of illegal logging as well as the Chinese love of tiger parts and rhino.

    Only Chinese use tiger or rhino for “medicine”
    civilized Asians like Indonesians, Thais, Malays, Philippines, Khmer Myanmarese, etc only use herbs.

    We see the tiger or “macan” as reincarnation of our heroic warriors in our culture.
    Chinese see a tiger and think yummy or a nice new rug.

    1. Purba, it’s only Kalimantan to Indonesians. The name Borneo comes from Brunei as that was the center of power on the island for a long while.

      In the past Borneo was called, “Nusa Kencana” and “Sabrang” in Javanese texts. I don’t know if anyone even knows what the native people of Borneo called the island as there has been so much migration in and out of the place for so many centuries.

      Each language has different names for countries and locations; China is not called China by the Chinese, it’s Zhongguo. The United States is called Meiguo by the Chinese, India is called Baharat by many Indians, Germany vs Deutschland, and the list goes on and on.

      Some countries are called different names by people to indicate political ideologies, many folks insist on calling Myanmar by the old name of Burma in protest of the Myanmar government.

      Names are problematic and something to be careful with. Calling someone names for something you haven’t done your research on is one of the things to be careful about.

    2. No, it is BORNEO in English. Kalimantan is Indonesian, and since the article is obviously not in Indonesian the correct term is BORNEO. You can be all high and mighty about what its called by those who live there but that name is different in different languages. Its “Norway” in English and “Norge” in Norwegian.

      Don’t be a dick

  5. Call Borneo whatever you want in your language. It’s Borneo to English speakers. It doesn’t make it any less or more to you what someone else calls it.

  6. To Indonesian nationalist,

    Obviously you are one of those internet warriors…stop hating and you’ll feel better, trust me! Anyway do you know who do sell those animal parts to the Chinese? Indonesian, Thais, Khmers…hunters! Poachers are mostly locals because you have to know very well the woods and the behavior of the animals you hunt and your typical fat Chinese merchant doesn’t have that kind of knowledge and he’s not physically fit enough to roam the woods! It’s local poachers who are selling their own country piece by piece to foreigners…don’t forget this little truth my good man!

  7. After seeing the old man of the forest outside of Kuching in Borneo I was touched deeply. Looking into the eyes of several apes I felt empathy, alike to the bond shared with a stranger. A mute meeting, although I did leave with a message.
    The rain forest are the lungs of the planet & every restriction should be made to save them.

    Humans draw lines in the sand, but we give names to areas so others understand the reference of the location. Tragic that the rain forest is being destroyed & the indigenous people are moving their long houses to the roads from the rivers. But growing up 3 decades ago, the richest man in the World came resided on the island known as Borneo. Oil was the source of the Sultan of Brunia’s wealth… now fuel can be derived from palm trees, a quick fix to mans oil needs.
    Where the profit goes I don’t know?
    But the deforestation should be stopped & I think through the promotion of tourism & the environmental issues there is a hope.

    Kiora to our ginger cousins :o)

  8. I live on Borneo Island. My wife is a native. It is the correct name for the island which is shared by 3 countries. Sumatra is a completely different island. We have no idea what fruit has “plexiglass needles”. Maybe you mean durian, which is very tough with sharp, tough thorns, but not “needles”. We know the fruits around here quite well.

    1. The fruit in question is in the genus Neesia – locally at Suaq Balimbing on Sumatra (where the tool use was reported, and where I studied them in 1999) the fruit is known as chemangang. The orangutans were eating the rich seeds once they pried them out.

      I’m not sure where the description “plexiglass needles” came from. My experience with it was like “fiberglass slivers” (that protect the seeds) inside a very tough, woody outer shell.

  9. Demand dictates supply, not vice versa.

    Tiger parts, rhino parts, exotic pets for fat Americans, palm oil- it’s all demand that forces the supply.

    Furthermore- any English map clearly labels Kalimantan island as Kalimantan- unless you’re still using those McCarthy era maps issued by your democratically elected buffoons in the White House.

    Labeling Kalimantan Borneo, is like labeling South Africa Rhodesia, or Myanmar – Burma- all subtle psy-ops to remind whitey of his halcyon white Imperialist days and put “sullen newcaught natives- half devil and half child (White Man’s Burden: Kipling) back into his ‘place’.

    That Zimmerman is a Jew with a genetic hatred of Muslims obviously clouds his professionalism.

    1. but the part of the island that is Malaysia is not called Kalimantan. I think we all agree that colonialism did harm to many people, we’re glad to see countries be independent… it is sad to see people all over the world interested in orangutans but then starting to argue. We’re all the good people here. Only we can make a difference in the world.

  10. Purba, your biases and bigotry are showing.

    Check the Wikipedia article for “Kalimantan” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalimantan) which says that the name is for the Indonesian portions of the island of Borneo, and is only commonly used for the whole island by Indonesians.


    1. The picture is real i have seen orangutans many times using objects they find for tools to forage for food. Watch orangutan island on animal planet. its on @6am eastern standard time….

  11. I just want to let everyone know that Purba Negoro’s comments are out of line. I respect his opinion, but I do not respect his or her tone and aggressiveness. I’m running this blog to discuss primatology, and while there are some tangents to politics, my interests here are not in nationalism.

    Because of his or her behavior and off-topic tangent, he or she is banned from further commenting on this site. I am letting you know I’m doing so in public to set an example that such language, like “fucking moron,” and behavior is not welcomed here and I will not hesitate to ban further offenders without notice.


  12. This photo looks too doctored to be real. I would like to believe orangutans can use such tools, but this shot begs to be refuted. Whoever posted it should submit a full resolution copy for closer examination.

  13. Just an FYI, to all those wondering if the photo is doctored, you can see the scene from which this picture was taken on the first season of “Orangutan Island”. I was amazed watching this unfold, but the photo is genuine. I don’t remember which episode it was from though, sorry.

  14. A primatological remark that I would like to make in this context is that it’s clear from the additional information that this orangutan is a former captive individual, an orphan who was raised in part by humans and has had close contact with our species for most of it’s life.
    In this context, tool use is not extrordinary. It is well documented that captive and ex-captive apes can be tought to use a wide variety of tools and voluntarily copy humans using tools. Examples are chimps “reading” books, gorilla’s painting and orangutans opening locks with keys (which they are extremely clever at). However, this is not “natural behavior” i.e. behavior that the animal has developed on its own to complete a challenge it faces in it’s natural habitat. So far, the reports by Carel van Schaik are the only ones documenting tool use by wild orangutans.

    Commenting on the question of which fruit Carel reffered to, this is indeed durian, but the wild variety called “durian hutan” locally. This fruit has more, finer and longer thorns than the commercial variety, and is much more difficult to handle as a result.

  15. Is it possible to come visit , and be a volunteer for a little while, short term?
    Roberta Becker

    1. Roberta, You might try applying directly with different NGO wildlife sanctuary/ care center/ conservationist groups. It is life changing.

  16. To answer the question of Roberta: Nyaru Menteng is not open for visitors, although they have a small visitor centre, but this is not worth making the long trip to Central-Kalimantan.
    Visitors are welcome at the other project of the BOS Foundation: Samboja Lestari near Balikpapan in East-Kalimantan. Here they are creating new rainforest since 2001, inside the project is the orangutan rescue centre Wanariset and they take care of 52 sunbears. You can stay at the ecolodge. Look at
    http://www.sambojalodge.com for more information.
    Jean Kern
    PrimatesHelpingPrimates – Holland

  17. To the Indonesian Nationalist: South Africa was never called Rhodesia, Zimbabwe was. Also, Borneo was called Borneo because the non-indonesian speaking inhabitants used the word before the Europeans even got there. We didn’t just make the word up. Also, it only became part of ‘Indonesia’ after ‘Indonesia’ became a country – AFTER the colonials left. (Not only that, if you want to be pedantic, just remember that the name ‘Indonesia’ WAS in fact coined by the Europeans, as being an extension of the INDIAN subcontinent, much like ‘Indo-China’ was (now variously broken up into Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, VietNam, etc.)). If you want to rant, check your facts, first.

    To the writer of this post: Where did the Orangutan get the pole from? It’s obvious he didn’t make it himself. Also, tool use has been seen in Chimpanzees, Bonobos, and even non-primate species, too. Tool manufacture has been seen in various primate species, as chimpanzees and bonobos have been observed to use stones to shape other stones for specific tasks, as well as stripping twigs of leaves to make it easier to use in ‘fishing’ for termites and ants in a nest.

    Still, it doesn’t make that picture any less impressive. Well done~!

  18. To all who have been reading and posting comments on this article: the goal of this blog is to exchange primatological information, not to engage in political or historical discussions. The amount of posturing, mud slinging and retorics makes the posts very unpleasant to read, not to mention horribly off-topic. To whom this may concern I would like to extend the polite request to find another forum to continue your discussion. Otherwise I will see myself forced to start editing your comments, which I really would rather not do.

  19. I had no idea Indonesians from Kalimantan refer Borneo as ‘Kalimantan’… or that may just be Purba Negoro. No offense but that’s a bit arrogant, no? I’m a born and bred Bruneian and over here the island is still called Borneo. Do not forget that at one time, all of Borneo was Brunei (16th Century)! Get off your high horse… language is only just language brother. The bigotry was completely uncalled for.

  20. I initially stumbled upon this site while searching for that much-talked-about picture of an orangutan spearing a fish – a great photo, indeed.

    However, I was appalled by what Purba Negoro commented.

    “Borneo” an obsolete term? No wonder he is “Purba Negoro” – Ancient/Pre-historic Country (man).

    He seems to be particularly irked also by what he calls the “whiteys”, in addition to other nationals other than his own.

    So why share your prejudice in English? Why not use your native language as your repertoire of communication?

    Then we all won’t have to understand you (gladly).. and trust me, we won’t miss you here.

  21. This photo is perfect, but I suppose that is to be expected if it was taken with some kind if video recorder. David Cooper’s question about whether orangutans eat fish or not has not been adressed here yet, as far as I could see. Folks were too interested in what the proper name for islands in Indonesia should be. I thought orangutans only ate fruit and veggies, but I’m not an expert on orangs. If they don’t eat meat, this is not an adaptation for survival (unless this individual is turning into an omnivore), just mimicking (should I say “aping”?) human behavior.

  22. I’m more amazed that the Loch Ness Monster appears to be in the water behind the head of the orangutan.

  23. Is a female orangutan and she is trying to recover a fruit ,as simple as that. There is nothing exceptional in this photo.Orangutan do much more than this during their wandering in the jungle, And, mind you,big experts, they loathe fish and water that’s why this one is using a stick. The pic is outstanding,but this is another matter.

  24. Orangutans do not eat fish. The one in the picture is mimicking human behavior.

      1. Oh well, I guess it doesn’t hurt for people to clarify that orangutans aren’t meat eaters. So very many people still confuse chimpanzee behavior (attacking other primates in gangs and eating the primates) with orangutans (mostly quiet and solitary lives).

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