Indigenous peoples of Indonesia and Malaysia named the great Asian ape “orang hutan,” which literally translates to person of the forest. This large, gentle red ape is one of humankind’s closest relatives, sharing nearly 97% of the same DNA.
Orangutans are born with an ability to reason and think.
Orangutans are unique in the ape world that includes gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos. Orangutans are the only apes that come from Asia and the only ones with orange-reddish brown hair. Two separate species of orangutan – the Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) and the Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) – still survive and are only found in the wild on those two islands, Sumatra and Borneo.
These primarily arboreal great apes are the largest tree-living mammal in the world. In times past orangutans were not killed because the indigenous peoples believed that the orangutan was simply a person hiding in the trees, trying to avoid having to work or become a slave.
An orangutan’s lifespan is about 35-40 years in the wild, and sometimes reaches into the 50s in captivity. A full-grown orangutan has the strength and power to physically move eight humans. They have the longest childhood dependence on the mother of any animal in the world, because there is so much for a young orangutan to learn in order to survive. They do not reach puberty until about the age of eight. But a female isn’t ready for her own baby until she is a teenager. The babies nurse until they are about six years old. The young males may stay close by their mothers for a few more years.
Orangutan females only give birth about once every eight years – the longest time between births of any mammal on earth, which results in a very low birthrate – just four or five babies in the lifespan of a female. This is why orangutan populations are very slow to recover from disturbance.
But today their world is being burned down at an astounding rate. Orangutans have lost well over 80% of their habitat in the last 20 years, and an estimated one-third of the wild population died during the fires of 1997-98.
At this rate of loss, many experts believe orangutans could be extinct in the wild in as little as 25 years. The main threats to the survival of these intelligent animals are loss of habitat through deforestation, illegal hunting and the Illegal pet trade, which necessitates killing the mother to get at the baby.
As shocking as the rapid loss of rainforests has been over the past few decades, that’s nothing to the amount of land being lost to bulldozing to create massive palm oil plantations. Each such plantation destroys thousands of acres that takes the lives of countless orangutans. Recent headlines reported that workers at one palm oil firm hunted down orangutans while expanding their cash crop production. Meanwhile, governmental mandates, meant to protect the land and the animals, disappear faster than do the trees.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, there are only about 41,000 orangutans left in the forests of Borneo, and fewer than 7,500 in Sumatra. In short, if we chose not to act and act soon to mitigate the main threats to orangutans – palm oil, deforestation, poaching and hunting – wild orangutans will be gone from this earth. And, they are not the only ones we will lose. Countless species from birds to insects to plants and many other mammals will disappear with them.
Can we really afford such a devastating loss?
To explore the world of incredible orangutans, begin here – Indonesia.