Pensive Primates

Acclaimed photographer Mark Edward Harris visited the Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center at the Indianapolis Zoo while on a media tour in 2014. He was taking pictures through a thick glass wall when Azy, the dominant male of the resident orangutans, motioned Harris to turn his camera around. Azy wanted to see himself on the viewing screen. Unlike other animal species, orangutans can identify their own reflections.

The encounter with Azy inspired Harris to embark on a research expedition that took him to zoos and rescue centers in locales as diverse as Singapore and Florida. He learned that orangutans are highly intelligent tree dwellers native only to the remote islands of Borneo and Sumatra in Southeast Asia. All are critically endangered; their forest habitats are being destroyed to build palm oil plantations.

“Their clock is ticking,” says Harris.

The culmination of that journey is Harris’ newest book, “The People of the Forest” (2021, Sashin Press). The book is illustrated with stunning portraits of orangutans Harris has met, Azy among them. Also within the pages is an interview with Rob Shumaker, president and CEO at the Indianapolis Zoo. He’s an evolutionary biologist and primatologist who established the orangutan center for the purposes of education, conservation, and research.

Home to 11 orangutans, the award-winning facility — among the country’s largest captive populations — was created with lifestyle features for privacy, socializing, and swinging. The center is circled by an aerial network of 11 climbing towers soaring up to 95 feet high and connected by a skywalk, where orangutans can be seen surveying the cityscape.

“(Harris) has captured everything we are trying to do when people visit in person,” Shumaker says, “but he allows that to occur anywhere when they look at his spectacular photographs.”

When You Go
Indianapolis Zoo

photo provided by Mark Edward Harris

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