Photo of an orangutan offering an arm to the man standing inside a river has gone viral on social media platforms. The photo was clicked by photographer Anil Prabhakar, from Indonesia who was on a safari with his friends.
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When Anil Prabhakar stepped into the jungle, he hoped to spot a wild orangutan, but he ended up capturing a surprisingly beautiful act of kindness. Prabhakar, a nature photographer and photojournalist who lives in Indonesia, has always believed in the power of photography to elicit both emotion and social change. “My way of thinking is that every photo can speak for itself,” Prabhakar told The Dodo. “I’m more into trying to portray an emotion I can connect to.”
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After learning of the plight of orangutans due to deforestation, Prabhakar became involved with the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation. In 2019, he visited the foundation, hoping to learn more about their programs, and they offered to give him a tour of their protected land. “This organization rescues orangutans from habitat loss, poachers and those being kept in captivity,” Prabhakar said. “They will rescue them and help them get back to the wild. They treat them if they are injured and help with the trauma they’ve faced. Then they move them to a temporary forest, where they can get used to being wild, and release them to the main forest.”
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While trekking through the jungle, Prabhakar noticed a crew member enter a small river. He asked the guards why the man was approaching the orangutan’s habitat, and they told him that a snake had been spotted over there. “Poisonous snakes are dangerous to orangutans, so they have to take care of those things,” Prabhakar said. “So, this fellow started cleaning these bushes all along the river, and it was as if he was moving in slow motion because his legs were getting stuck inside the mud.”
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Prabhakar noticed that the man was struggling to lift his legs — but he wasn’t the only one concerned. A female orangutan who sat close by was also watching the drama unfold. “Suddenly, this orangutan came closer to the river banks, sat there and watched what this fellow was doing,” Prabhakar said. “When this fellow struggled to pull out his legs, the orangutan put her left hand on the bank of the river and extended her other hand towards him. It was a lovely gesture.”
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For three minutes, the orangutan offered to help pull the man from the mud, but the man ignored the extended hand and moved away. Prabhakar was shocked. “For me, this was completely new,” Prabhakar said. “I never expected to see anything like that. In my mind, this orangutan was trying to help him. It’s human nature — if someone is in trouble, you go there and lend a hand.”
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When the crew member returned to the shore, Prabhakar asked why he hadn’t accepted the orangutan’s gift of help. The man explained that he was there only as a “lifeguard” and must never engage with the wild animals. He added that orangutans have such strong hands and arms that he might’ve gotten hurt, or worse, the orangutan might’ve lost her balance and fallen into the river. Prabhakar held on to the powerful photos he took that day for a year before deciding to share them. The contradiction of the orangutan trying to help a human — even after all humans have done to destroy her natural habitat — touched Prabhakar deeply. Prabhakar believes there’s an important lesson to be learned from such a moment, and was grateful he was there to capture it and share it with the world.