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Spearfishing Orangutan: Real or Hoax?

Spearfishing Orangutan: Real or Hoax?

An image allegedly shows an orangutan spearfishing in Borneo, which it learned by watching local fisherman. Today we’ll take a closer look at this image and accompanying story.

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It’s true, although the ape did not develop sufficient skill to catch any fish.

The photo was published in the 2008 book Thinkers of the Jungle: The Orangutan Report by Schuster, Smits, and Ullal. The description of the photograph reads:

…a male orangutan, clinging precariously to overhanging branches, flails the water with a pole, trying desperately to spear a passing fish…The extraordinary image, a world exclusive, was taken in Borneo on the island of Kaja… This individual had seen locals fishing with spears on the Gohong River. Although the method required too much skill for him to master, he was later able to improvise by using the pole to catch fish already trapped in the locals’ fishing lines.

It was also reported that these orangutans were able to swim across a local river to get food. This is notable because it has been traditionally believed that orangutans can wade in water but cannot swim.

You can see orangutans such as this on the Animal Planet series Orangutan Island.

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A 2013 Harvard study found that apes (specifically chimps in their study) lack certain anatomical features which allow them to perform high-speed overhand motions. This is perhaps a contributing factor why the ape never successfully mastered spearfishing.

In February 2015, the photo above received renewed interest after it was posted on Reddit.

Fish is not considered a staple of the typical orangutan diet, which mainly consists of fruit, leaves, flowers, and insects.

Google Trends

As you can see from the Google Trends chart below, interest in this photo peaked in June 2013, immediately after this article was first published. In the years since, there have been a few peaks in interest as the photo is occasionally still shared on social media.

Bottom Line

The photo of a spearfishing orangutan is real, but the ape never actually caught any fish.

Updated May 10, 2016
Originally published May 2013

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  • Just In

    I managed to train my pomeranian to spear fish. Not too good at it either.

  • Drew Tracy

    Lol I hope this is real, probably not though, He should use a canoe I feel like his odds would improve.

  • yourmom

    Of all the responses I have seen to this photo, the one that takes precedence is ‘well where did he get a straight pole?’ Did anyone consider that bamboo grows in areas like that? And I know (because I have some taking over my backyard) that bamboo is extremely long, super straight, and very very sturdy. So it is within the realm of possibilities that not everyone in the world is trying to photoshop pictures so as to fool people.

  • media

    No, it’s not photoshopped. Some orangutans are much more clever than some humans, that’s true. Kaja Island is a pre-release island for rehabilitated orangutans before they are sent back into the wild after years of rehabilitation. I’ve seen an orangutan set up a hammock (after stealing the hammock from an observant), not perfectly but she saw a human did it and she got the idea.
    Also, I work for the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, which manage Kaja Island, among other orangutan rehabilitation programs, so no, no photoshop.

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