Fact Check: Endangered Orangutan Did NOT Approach And Offer Help To A Stranger In A Mud Pool

Fact Check

  • by: Sarah Thompson
Fact Check: Endangered Orangutan Did NOT Approach And Offer Help To A Stranger In A Mud Pool Facility Staff

Did a wild and endangered orangutan offer a helping hand to a geologist who had fallen in a mud pool while searching for the animal? No, that's not an accurate description of the scene captured in this photograph. The man in the water, Syahrul, is an employee of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation. The orangutan, a 25-year-old female known as Anih, had been separated from her mother as a youngster and had been in the care of the foundation since the 1990s. She and Syahrul had known each other for decades. He had not fallen into a mud pool, but was working in the moat which surrounds the small island where Anih lives with another orangutan, Romeo, who also cannot be released into the wild. The CEO of the foundation postulated in an interview that the photo could show Anih asking Syahrul for food rather than offering to help him.

The photo was posted by the photographer Anil Prabhakar on Instagram on January 22, 2020, and it received some press coverage soon after. More than a year later the photo resurfaced in a post published by Leslie's Photo Gallery on September 26, 2021. It was captioned:

This week CNN released a photo taken by the photographer Anil Prabhakar in the forest in Indonesia. The image shows an orangutan, currently under threat of extinction, while stretching out his hand to help a geologist who fell into a mud pool during his search. When the photographer uploaded the photo, he wrote this as a caption: "In a time when the concept of humanity dies, animals lead us to the principles of humanity." 9/20/21

This is what the post looked like on Facebook at the time of writing:

Facebook screenshot

(Source: Facebook screenshot taken on Tue Oct 5 18:40:48 2021 UTC)

After it was posted on Instagram, with the caption, "Let me help you? : Once Humanity dying in Mankind, sometime animals are guiding us back to our basics." -- the photo was featured in a February 8, 2020, cnn.com article titled, "This orangutan saw a man wading in snake-infested water and decided to offer a helping hand." The article describes Prabhakar's experience witnessing and photographing the interaction between the man who was working in the water and the orangutan. As Prabhakar understood it, the warden was clearing venomous snakes who pose a threat to the resident orangutans. Prabhakar is both a photographer and a geologist from India who is working in Indonesia, he visited the Samboja, East Kalimantan facility of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation with some friends. The geologist in the story happens to be the photographer, not the man in the water.

Several days after the CNN article was published, on February 11, 2020, thejakartapost.com published an article with some additional context. It was titled, "More than meets the eye in photo of orangutan 'offering help' to man". This article includes the perspective of the CEO of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, Jamartin Sihite. The following is excerpted from the article:

Jamartin said the man in the water, Syahrul, was an employee at BOSF. "Anih and Syahrul have known each other since the 1990s," he said. Anih was brought to the facility by someone in that decade.
"Syahrul was doing the maintenance in the picture," Jamartin explained.

Jamartin said that in the picture it looked like Anih was offering help to Syahrul. "But based on our experience, she could have been asking for food from Syahrul. It shows that that orangutan has become dependent on human beings," Jamartin said.

Anih and Romeo no longer have the skill to survive in the wild because they were separated from their mothers when they were very young and have since been relying on human beings for food.

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  Sarah Thompson

Sarah Thompson lives with her family and pets on a small farm in Indiana. She founded a Facebook page and a blog called “Exploiting the Niche” in 2017 to help others learn about manipulative tactics and avoid scams on social media. Since then she has collaborated with journalists in the USA, Canada and Australia and since December 2019 she works as a Social Media Authenticity Analyst at Lead Stories.


Read more about or contact Sarah Thompson

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