The exploitation of orangutans as tourist attractions is particularly disturbing because of how closely related people are to these animals: 'If we are able to do this to one of our closest living relatives, what hope is there for any other species?'
ROBIN HICKS: The work of Aaron Gekoski is unlikely to be found on Netflix anytime soon. An executive for the video streaming service recently told the British wildlife documentary maker and photojournalist that while he is a fan of his work, Netflix were looking for “cute and fluffy” content. Gekoski’s latest project does not meet those criteria. Eyes of the Orangutan is an exploration of Asia’s wildlife tourism industry with a special focus on orangutans, perhaps Southeast Asia’s most potent symbol of wildlife exploitation and habitat loss.
The critically-endangered great apes are being used as tourist attractions in hundreds of venues across the region, and Gekoski’s documentary examines the brutality of the trade and the ruthlessness of the people profiting from a global industry worth more than US$120 billion. Gekoski documents how poachers venture into the rainforests of Malaysia and Indonesia to butcher female orangutans and take their babies, which are imprisoned in tiny enclosures and torture-trained to perform as bikini models or kick-boxers in venues around the region.
These establshments are able to justify themselves by claiming they have social value, says Gekoski. “One of the most commonly-peddled arguments for wildlife tourism is education. This claim is very deceptive.” Gekoski observes that there is usually little more than a plaque informing visitors where orangutans come from and that they’re endangered. “People really go there to stare at an abused orangutan in a glass box,” he says.
Gekoski swapped the glamour of running a model agency in London to become a wildlife photographer more than a decade ago, and is under no illusions of the gloomy nature of the stories he tells. Fascinated with the macabre and the darker side of life, Gekoski believes that the state of the natural world should not be sugarcoated, as it has been in many popular nature documentaries.
“David Attenborough has always been my hero. When I started out as a filmmaker, I wanted to document the beauty of the natural world and share it with as many people as possible. But when I got out there, I realised that things weren’t quite as they seemed in those BBC documentaries. At every corner, wildlife is being hammered,” he says.
The exploitation of orangutans as tourist attractions is particularly disturbing because of how closely related people are to these animals, whose name means people of the forest in Malay. “If we are able to do this to one of our closest living relatives, what hope is there for any other species?” says Gekoski.
Orangutans could be extinct in the wild in a decade, if current rates of deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia continue, so how orangutans are treated in captivity is of existential importance, he says. In this interview, Gekoski talks about the impact he hopes to have through his work, how orangutan tourism can be stopped and the difficulty in getting people to consume hard-hitting content. SOURCE…