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The first experience for many of an orangutan was probably King Louie from The Jungle Book Disney movie. Growing up and watching that, kids generally don’t know much about primates, and really didn’t even know he was supposed to be an orangutan. You do learn that they kind of looked like a hairier version of us, and could definitely get into some mischief.
Watching that movie now, it is funny to look at the “flange-less” King male orangutan. But raises a question: If they knew, in 1967 when the movie was made, that these big orange cousins of ours were on the verge of completely disappearing forever, would they have changed the messaging just a little?
While it is too late to correct the physical appearance and silliness of the movie, it is not too late for us to make a difference for real orangutans in the wild. If changes are not made, orangutans could become extinct in just 10 years. Thankfully there is more research and knowledge now about these large apes, including the food, space, and habitat they need, and ways we can support them right from our homes.
Humans of the Forest
The word orangutan originates from the Malay words “orang hutan“, which roughly translate to “human of the forest“, and that is a pretty accurate description. Orangutans are one of our closest relatives. In fact, we share nearly 97% of the same DNA with them. While it may be hard to see past the thick orange fur and large cheek pads, if you have ever had the opportunity to really observe how they move, eat, and even use tools, you might see a lot more resemblance than you think.
Although they all look pretty similar, there are actually three separate species of orangutan. There is the Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii), the Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus), and the Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis). They are all found in different areas of Northern Sumatra and most of lowland Borneo, frequenting the tropical rainforest, flood-forests and peat-swamp forests.
Orangutans are the only primarily arboreal great ape and are the largest tree living mammal in the world. The other great apes such as gorillas, bonobos, and chimpanzees do climb, travel and build sleeping nests in trees, but they are considered semi-terrestrial because they spend a considerable portion of their lives on the ground. Orangutans however, spend about 80% of their time in the trees, and have some amazing adaptations that help them to do so. They possess extremely flexible hip joints that allow for great mobility, and both their hands and feet have an opposable thumb or toe that help them to swing, or brachiate, from tree to tree.
Orangutans are also diurnal (active during the day) for the most part, and spend a majority of their day foraging and eating. Their diet consists mostly of fruit and leaves, but they also eat nuts, bark, insects and, once in a while, bird eggs, too. Unlike other great apes, orangutans don’t really live in groups or troops. A female will usually have a baby or two with her, but males generally choose to be alone unless looking for a female.
The orangutan has one of the longest childhood dependency on the mother of any animal in the world. This is because there is so much for a young orangutan to learn in order to survive. Infants stay with their mother for six to seven years. The young males may stay close to their mothers for a few more years, but the females may stay until they are into their teens to allow them to observe mothering skills as they watch their younger sibling being raised by the mother. Because of this long relationship between mother and child, female orangutans only give birth about once every eight years. This long time between reproduction is a big reason why it is so hard for their population numbers to grow.
Human Caused ConflictsThe harsh reality is that extinction in the wild is likely in the next 10 years for Sumatran Orangutans and soon after for Bornean Orangutans. The biggest threat and cause is that their habitats are disappearing at alarming rates due to deforestation for pulp paper and palm oil plantations, and the little remaining forest that is left is being degraded by drought and forest fires.
The Problem with Palm Oil
You may have heard or seen us bring awareness to unsustainable palm oil practices that are being used to supply a lot of the food we eat. Palm oil plantations are now the leading suppliers for a global market that demands more of the tree's versatile oil for cooking, cosmetics, and biofuel. However these plantations are often placed in tropical forests, killing endangered species, uprooting local communities, and contributing to the release of climate-warming gases. Orangutans, along with Sumatran elephants, rhinos, and tigers are being displaced, starving to death, are being killed by plantation workers as pests, or die in fires.
Primates Don’t Make Pets
Poaching orangutan infants and hunting for meat also threatens the species. Mothers are often killed so their babies can be sold on the black market for pets. While we will not argue that baby orangutans are cute, they grow up to be between 80 to 200 pounds, are 7 times stronger than humans, need to be around their own kind in order to develop normally, both psychologically and emotionally. As we mentioned earlier, orangutan babies stay with their mothers and nurse for 6 to 7 years, and with females only giving birth to one baby every 8 years. The killing of just one adult female and taking of her baby has large effects on the entire population.
Human SolutionsIt is easy to become extremely sad learning about the threats that species like orangutans are facing, however, while the harsh reality is that many of their problems and threats are caused by humans, that also means that we have the power to make the changes and be part of the solution.
Make sustainable shopping choices
Every consumer choice we make is a decision on how we want the future of our planet to be. Learning about where the products we buy that use timber, paper and palm oil come from, and if they are sourced sustainably, can make a huge difference.
When shopping for wood and paper products, look for the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) label on packaging to support sustainable forest management. FSC promotes environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial, and economically viable management of the world’s forests.
Download Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s Palm Oil app on your smartphone. It comes with a barcode scanner that lets you scan the food items you are looking at before you buy, to ensure they are using sustainable palm oil sources. You can take it a step further and choose to buy from companies that are RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) certified and are committed to minimizing the negative impact of palm oil cultivation on the environment and communities in palm oil-producing regions.
Raise awareness and lead by example
The majority of the population is not aware of the impacts we make just with the things we buy. Many of us don’t choose to make sustainable choices because it can seem like too much hassle and effort, when there are other choices right in front of us. But making purchases that support recycling and a sustainable planet, and having conversations with our neighbors, friends, and family, can have a positive ripple effect, and truly make an impact on the environment.
What amazes us about people, is that when a passionate group sees a problem and wrong doing going on in the world, many will step up together to be a voice for those being hurt, and demand changes are made to make it right. At Wildlife Tree, we are committed to learning more about the wild places and animals that make up our planet, supporting conservation, and spreading the word about how each and every one of us can make a difference in the health and sustainability of this Earth. We love to hear from you, leave us a comment below this post to tell us what you think and how you choose to help, and be sure to join our Wildlife Guardians Facebook page for a community of people committed to learning more and making a difference.