Text and photography by Eric Pasquier
In Bangkok, capital of Thailand, the escalation into pure extravaganza has led to orangutan boxing matches. The hairy boxers in the ring – primate equivalents of Mike Tyson or Evander Hollyfield slug it out with long-armed slices and jungle-style uppercuts.
And when one of the furry fighters goes down, he’s spirited away on a stretcher carried by monkeys.
Forget the trainers on the sidelines, the entire show is run by orangutans.
Mr Azman has a unique profession, to say the least: he is an orangutan boxing trainer.
Originally from Malaysia, Azman moved to Bangkok, he began working as a trainer with chimpanzees and orangutans and shortly afterwards took a position at Safari World.
Azman wanted to show the spectators who came to the amusement park the incredible intelligence that he himself had discovered in the animals he was working with.
He wanted to literally make stars of them all.
His very first experiences, however, were not terribly convincing. His monkeys misbehaved atrociously, even making a fool of him on stage.
It was then that he decided to organise a boxing match between his own animals. It required two years of laborious training, but the results speak for themselves.
There are several fights per show, none of which last more than 20 to 25 minutes: beyond this period the audience would start to get bored and, more importantly, the performers over-agitated and confused.
Azman’s animals slug it out in conditions quite similar to the real thing in the ring. The trainer plays the role of the referee; in the ring, he brings the contenders – each wearing its own coloured trunks – paw-to-paw. And then he lets them go for it. The boxers show surprising technique and strategy in the ring; they go for the ‘jarakee fadhang’ (upside-kick), or the ‘fan sok’ (whacking the opponent with the elbow) or the ‘tee khao’ (knee punch). But it’s not an all-out free for all, and the referee does step in and reprimand any below the belt moves.
The rounds are announced by charming female orangutans wearing bikinis. And just like the real thing, when the bell rings between rounds, the boxers stagger back into their respective corners.
The ‘trainers’ (chimpanzees) sponge them down and shoot water between their teeth, slap on the shoulder with an encouraging ‘word’ and send them back out into the ring to face the opponent once more.
Meanwhile, the other contenders stand by ring-side. They often don’t have long at all to wait as, again like the real thing, T.K.O.s are common and the other fighters can make short shrift of their opponents. In the event of injury, there is a female baboon-nurse standing by to tend to the wounded. The injured party is then whisked away on a stretcher carried by – what else – monkeys.
It is an exceptional show indeed: the promoter doesn’t hide his pride and the crowds go wild, loving every minute of it.
Safari World’s vice-president, says of the event: “We hope to familiarise the public with the orangutan and attract an increasingly large audience. Several schools throughout the country have already expressed interest in bringing their young students to come and see the show. We’ve launched a totally new attraction here, and as you can see, the people just love it.”
Azman owns 18 orangutans. There have already been four births in his mini-clan of primates.
For his show, he uses seven of his orangutans and two monkeys, who dutifully play the role of ‘trainer’ in the corner of the ring.
Chimpanzees, unlike orangutans, are not allowed to fight in the show, as they have a far more unpredictable nature despite their superior intelligence.
Orangutans make the ideal players in the boxing ring, even if they are longer and harder to train than chimps: they have, in general, a better rapport with their human trainers.
It is best to wait until an orangutan is about three or four years old before teaching it how to be a prize-fighter (that’s one-fifth the time of their human counterparts). An orangutan can also be trained up until the age of 12 years.
They tend to become far more unpredictable after that age, for the training process anyway. They are still used by their trainers/breeders to reproduce.
For Azman, training an orangutan is not very difficult. Their education is a matter of hand gestures and spoken commands.
The animals don’t like being punished – “It’s sort of like with children,” says Azman. “When they disobey, they must be given a good spanking. And when they are good, they must be given their rewards, their treats.” During the show, the rewards are raisins dosed out of the palm of his hand.
In Malaysian, the word ‘orangutan’ actually means ‘wooden man’. In this part of the world, these animals are considered to be the closest mammalian relative to mankind. They walk erect, after all, and not on all fours like many species of primates. They grow to a height, when erect, of about 1.5m.
A male orangutan can weigh up to 200 kgs, and females up to 150kgs. They have four to five times the physical strength of the average man.
In captivity, they live for up to 40 or 50 years.
In their natural habitat, orangutans are quite solitary animals as a rule, except during the mating season. The males are ferocious ‘machos’ and the females extraordinarily devoted mothers. Baby orangutans spend most of their formative months/years living in the branches of trees, unlike the adults.
There is a certain hierarchy always respected in their primate community: a leader is invariably designated among the most dominant males. Orangutans are relatively docile creatures, and allow themselves to be approached by man with ease.
Thus it’s relatively easy to capture an orangutan from the wild.
Today the orangutans of the world live primarily on the isles of Borneo and Sumatra, in Indonesia; there are a very few now living in Malaysia. A few years ago, a healthy orangutan was worth about $35,000. But now they are one of the world’s most endangered species. The gradual deforestation of Borneo and Sumatra is dangerously reducing their natural habitat. Worse, there is an international demand for orangutans, and the sale of members of this endangered species continues throughout Indonesia despite new legislation protecting the orangutan and its environment.
Azman has promised that he will set up a game show called ‘Las Vegas Monkey Business’, and a casino in which the roulette and blackjack tables would be tended to by monkey and orangutan croupiers. An ambitious project indeed which may of course never get off the ground – place your bets here…