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Sumatran Orangutans

These highly intelligent great apes—critically-endangered and closely related to humans—have beautiful orange fur, making them exceptionally photogenic.

Where: Orangutan is a Malay word that means “forest person.” There are actually two species of orangutan: the Bornean orangutan, found only on the island of Borneo, and the Sumatran orangutan, found only on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. The best place to photograph Sumatran orangutans is in the rain forest of Gunung Leuser National Park just outside the town of Bukit Lawang. The nearest international airport is in the city of Medan, which is about a three-hour drive from Bukit Lawang.

When: You can view orangutans anytime of year. The driest months are February, March, June, and July, and these times are more likely to be popular with tourists (especially June and July), so if you want to avoid the crowds, consider a different time of year. It can be rainy anytime of year, even during the dry season. Often, you go orangutan trekking for several hours in the morning, with rain clouds building in the afternoon. Once the rain starts, it tends to pour for several hours, so chances are your guide will take you back to town if it looks like rain is on its way. Bring rain protection for you and your camera bag!

Photography: You'll need to hire a guide to trek in Gunung Leuser National Park (or take an organized tour). You can organize a guide or tour through your lodging. Treks can range in difficulty from moderate to very difficult, depending on how deep into the rain forest you want to go (most organized tours stay relatively close to town, but you'll still have to climb some moderately steep hills to get into the park). The orangutans you'll spot are often quite comfortable around people, so close encounters are possible. You'll find that you can use a range of lenses from long telephoto to wide-angle. Fast lenses (such as f/2.8 or f/4) are preferable, as it can be dark in the forest; high ISOs will be often be necessary to compensate for the lack of light.

Male orangutans are always a thrilling encounter, but keep in mind that Sumatran males are somewhat less dramatic than their Bornean cousins, which are known for their prominent cheek jowls (Sumatran males have less pronounced jowls). Males can weigh over 200 pounds and stand about 5 feet tall, with an arm span of 7 feet. Keep an eye out also for the smaller females, whether with young or on their own. Orangutans spend most of their time in the trees, so that's where you can expect to make most of your sightings.

Learn more: For a good overview about visiting Bukit Lawang and arranging a visit to see orangutans, check out this site: Sumatran orangutans are critically-endangered, you can learn more about them and support conservation efforts from the Sumatran Orangutan Society.

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