One life: Orangutans

11 November 2020

One Life
Great apes

Orangutans are great apes, along with chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas. These mighty animals can live up to 60 years. There are three species of orangutans (Sumatran, Bornean, and Tapanuli) and they live on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. The third species of orangutan (Tapanuli) was only classified as a distinct species in 2017.

Giants in the treetops

Orangutans are the largest arboreal animals in the world. They spend over 95% of their time in the trees, eating, travelling and sleeping. Their bodies are especially adapted to life in the trees and although males can reach up to 300lb and 5 feet tall, they can still move gracefully through the branches. 

Orangutan social life

Male orangutans tend to live alone, only socialising to mate with females. Female orangutans are a bit more sociable, and they will spend time with other females. Young females for example, will travel with other females, and young orangutans stay with their mothers for many years. 

Highly intelligent apes

Orangutans are some of the smartest animals in the world, and one of the main ways in which they are remarkable is through their use of tools. Some of these tool-use behaviours also show that orangutans have cultural traditions, as the behaviours are passed down in particular orangutan populations and are not widely performed across the species.

Using leaves

Orangutans have been seen using leaves for a number of purposes. In Borneo for example, they use them to wipe something off their chin. Orangutans want to be comfortable, and their high levels of intelligence means that they can use resources from the world around them to make life easier. For example, Sumatran orangutans have been observed using leaves as makeshift gloves when handling spiny fruits1. They also use leaves as cushions when they are sitting in spiny trees to feed1

Orangutans also use leafy branches as umbrellas and parasols, to shelter from the rain or sun. They will even drape very large leaves over themselves like a poncho. 

Making use of human resources

Like many animals, orangutans live increasingly close to human settlements. Orangutans have adapted in some way to this by utilising the human resources they come across. Rehabilitated orangutans for example, have been seen to use sponges and clothes they have found, to soak up water to drink. These behaviours were not observed from humans, but were examples of innovative behaviour in the orangutans, demonstrating their adaptable and considerable intelligence. 

Orangutans can self-medicate

The natural world is full of amazing resources, some of which can be used to treat ailments. Orangutans have been seen to use herbs to self-medicate themselves. By rubbing the herbs on their fur, the orangutans are using the herbs in the same way that locals do, as natural remedies for muscular pain and swellings.

Branches as tools

Life in the trees means that branches and sticks are in abundance. Orangutans make use of these by using branches as tools for a variety of purposes. For example, they have been seen using them to forage for insects, collect honey, and to swat stinging insects away. They will also use branches to fish out better branches, or fruit that is out of reach in a stream.

Orangutans are incredibly intelligent animals, and they use the world around them in all sorts of clever ways. 

Orangutans are the best mothers

The relationship between a parent and their infant is an extremely important one. In the early postnatal period, the mother composes the primary environmental influence on her young and she can modify their behaviour to their future environment. Therefore, the early experiences of an infant will have an impact on the rest of their lives.

Orangutan mothers are single parents and the bond between an orangutan mother and her young is one of the strongest in nature. The mothers stay with their young for six to eight years, teaching them where to find food, what and how to eat, how to avoid predators, and the technique for building a sleeping nest. 

Female orangutans are also known to “visit” their mothers until they reach the age of 15 or 16. Demonstrating the extraordinary strength of the mother-infant bond. Primatologists believe that orangutans have such long “childhoods” because there is so much that they need to learn before they can live alone successfully 

Orangutans are just like us. They raise their young with the same amount of love and care as we raise our own children, and in doing so they help them to develop into well-adjusted young adults with the skills needed to succeed within their own environment.

Thus, the importance of the mother-infant bond can never be underestimated, and we must do all we can to prevent this bond from being broken for all animals, both wild and captive.

Orangutans really are amazing animals!

Orangutan conservation

All of the orangutan species are critically endangered. There are currently thought to be around 104,700 Bornean orangutans in the wild, 14,600 Sumatran orangutans, and only around 800 Tapanuli orangutans. 

Main threats

The main threat to orangutans is the destruction and degradation of their home; the tropical rainforest. This is the result of intense illegal logging, the conversion of forest to palm oil plantations and timber estates, mining, clearing for human settlements and road construction, as well as large-scale fires caused by the El Nino weather phenomena. 

Orangutan habitat is disappearing fast. More than 50% of orangutans are found outside of protected areas, and so are at considerable risk of losing their homes to logging and palm oil companies. Even when in protected areas, they are still at risk of illegal logging.

Illegal wildlife trade and hunting

Sadly, orangutans are hunted both for food, and for the illegal pet trade. Orangutans make easy targets as they are large and slow targets. As humans are encroaching more upon orangutan habitat, humans and orangutans are becoming increasingly in conflict with one another. When orangutans cannot find the food that they need in the forest, they sometimes move into agricultural areas and destroy crops. This can lead to farmers retaliating by killing orangutans.

Baby orangutans are sadly popular in the illegal pet trade. Females with young are killed so that their babies can be taken. It is thought that for each orangutan reaching Taiwan, as many as 3-5 additional orangutans die in the process. Taiwan is clamping down on this illegal trade, but it is still a significant problem in Indonesia. 

Orangutan welfare

Young orangutans are being taken from their mothers in the wild and are then catapulted into a life of misery through the illegal wildlife trade. Baby orangutans are being used in various forms of entertainment, from wildlife selfies, to circuses.

This is no life for these amazing animals. 

First they are taken from their mother, smuggled to their destination, and then kept in chains and in small barren cages. They are then passed between tourists for hours on end, before being put back into their tiny cages. Those used in circuses and shows are made to perform demeaning tricks and are dressed up as humans, all for tourists who are unknowingly paying into this cruel practice. 

It may look like they are enjoying themselves, but they are most definitely not. To perform these unnatural tricks, the orangutans are often starved and tortured. If you look past the smiling faces of the humans, you will see that these poor animals are terrified.

International Orangutan Awareness Week

8-14th November 2020 is Orangutan Caring Week. There are lots of organisations that are involved and will be raising funds for orangutans, as well as awareness about their plight. Get involved and help to save orangutans!

For more information on how to get involved in International Orangutan Awareness Week: World Orangutan Events

Read more: Michael the orangutan escapes cruel selfie duty