Orangutans, With 96.4% of Human Genes, are “Persons of the Forest”
We must safeguard the web of life and care about the other living species that we share this planet with. Pygmy tarsiers eat and host bugs that we’ve seen at home — insects, spiders, lizards, bedbugs, lice, fleas, roundworms, and tapeworms. The vaquitas are preyed upon by large sharks and killer whales, keeping them away from us. But only 10 vaquitas are left and in their absence, the diet of sharks and whales may change. A tiger in the wild indicates that the forest it inhabits is healthy and diverse. As of now, there are 3,900 tigers in the wild globally, and more than twice as many (8,000) in captivity. By protecting the web of life, we build a kinder world for everyone.
“They say that if you give a chimpanzee a screwdriver, he’ll break it; if you give a gorilla a screwdriver, he’ll toss it over his shoulder; but if you give an orangutan a screwdriver, he’ll open up his cage and walk away.” ~Michelle Desilets, executive director, The Orangutan Land Trust.
Orangutans are beautiful with ginger fur, some human-looking teeth, and expressive eyes. They are also keenly intelligent. They are fussy about their beds, which they build with leaves up to 100 feet high on a tree. They change their beds daily, more often than people change bedsheets. They might even change a second time in a day if they nap. And if they reuse a bed at night, they’ll at least add a few branches.
They are the biggest tree-living mammals in the world. The Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) and Sumatran orangutan (P. abelii) males can weigh from 110 to 198 pounds. A third orangutan species the Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis), was first spotted in 1939, again in 1997, and was rediscovered in 2017. It can grow 54 inches in height, and weighs from 155 to 200 pounds.
The orangutan’s weight adds danger to their navigating through treetops. It puts added pressure on branches. If they fall from 30m high, they may die. So going safely from tree to tree in search of food is more of a challenge for them than it would be for other arboreal creatures.
Orangutans’ favorite food is ripe fruit, such as lychees, figs, and mangosteens. They also suck honey and drink water from holes in logs. They can eat leaves, seeds, bark, and flowers. They also eat insects, eggs, birds, small mammals, and fish in a stream.
Orangutans navigate trees by moving unevenly, meshing several motions from branch to branch. They may walk upright, then switch to brachiating (swinging arm to arm across branches). They’ll clamber using both hands and feet, climb, hang on four limbs, and swing vigorously to maneuver branches when there are large gaps between trees. By swaying back and forth they push the branches close enough to each other, so they can leap from one tree to the next. But sometimes, a male orangutan will simply walk up to two miles a day. Orangutans are the largest arboreal mammals in the world.
The Forest Human
Some 96.4% of an orangutan’s genes are human. They share 28 human physical characteristics, and a number of human behavioral traits as well. For example:
They laugh. One orangutan laughed so hard at a magic trick that he fell on his back. They also cry. Darwin held an apple over an orangutan but refused to give it to him. The orangutan fell on his back and wept. They show tenderness to their young. Other emotions Darwin noted were shame and joy.
Some of their teeth look like human teeth. They also have two holes in their upper palates, just as humans have openings in the upper soft palate of our mouths. They get the same kind of flu as we do, and their normal temperature is the same as it is for us.
They can talk about the past. In the forest, if an orangutan spots a predator, it will make loud noises so that the predator will know that it is seen. Their sound also alerts other orangutans of danger. An orangutan’s sound can be heard 1 km away. After the predator is gone, the orangutans continue to make noise. The communication is intentional, rather than instinctive. They are discussing the predator that had just been frightened away.
They have “whistles”. Wild orangutans (P. pygmaeus wurmbii) sometimes use leaves like a whistle to amplify their natural sound. A male orangutan can perform a long series of various versions of grunts that can be heard a kilometer away in the forest. They do this to fool listeners into believing they’re bigger than they are.
Orangutans use branches to get insects and honey from holes in logs. They also use sticks to remove seeds from fruits with stinging hairs.
Orangutans are semi-loners. They have broadly dispersed communities, with the next neighbor up to 15 miles away, but they all know each community member, and regularly add new friends to their group.
In a rescue center, an orangutan used a saw to cut a plank of wood. They can hammer nails into wood, and wash clothes using detergent.
Rescued orangutans have learned Sign Language, and one rescued orangutan learned over 150 different signs.
Orangutans in rescue centers often imitate what their human carers do.
An orangutan’s hand resembles a human hand with long fingers and opposable thumbs.
Orangutans have a big brain, just as humans do.
Orangutans date back to the Pleistocene era. Then some 16 million years ago, they parted from other ape species, because of their very different lifestyles, being the only arboreal apes in the world. There was a time when orangutans inhabited all of Southeast Asia. Today, they only live in Borneo and Sumatra islands.
An Endangered Species
All three orangutan species, namely the Sumatran, Borneo, and Tapanuli, are categorized on the IUCN red list as Critically Endangered and decreasing.
The biggest threat to their existence is habitat destruction, primarily for palm oil plantations. Since 1903, some 97 percent of lowland forests were destroyed, largely to give way to lucrative palm oil plantations. Palm oil is used in processed foods and frying food. It’s also an ingredient that is used to manufacture makeup, toothpaste, detergents, cleansers, body soap, wax, and ink among others.
Globally, 85% of palm oil comes from Indonesia and Malaysia. This is a high-yield industry, and the cost of production is low — unless you factor in the orangutans.
In 1980 some 4.5 million tons of oil were produced. That had risen by 2014 to 70 million tons. Palm plantations globally as of 2017 occupied 18.7 million hectares of land.
Even 1,000 years old trees are felled for oil. These trees, young and old are the only habitation of orangutans. There is a need to be more mindful in pursuing this industry. There is a need to find alternative possibilities for oil.
Another threat, mining, also requires the destruction of huge forest land to build roads leading to remote lands. It also causes waste and pollution, which harm species within the ecosystem.
The fourth threat is climate change, the cause of repeated fires in subtropical forests. Because orangutans move slowly, they are often cornered in a fire’s midst. Change in weather and air moisture may increase insects, wildfires, invasive plants, and forest diseases. Climate change will cause air quality issues that will further stress trees.
Fifth, orangutans are occasionally eaten by some indigenous people, migrant loggers, and plantation workers who aren’t prohibited from eating primate bushmeat.
Dr Susannah Thorpe, from the University of Birmingham’s School of Biosciences, told Science Daily, “If the destruction of forest land does not slow down, the Sumatran orangutan could be extinct within the next decade. Now that we know more about how they move through the trees and the unique way that they adapt to challenges in their environment we can better understand their needs. This could help with reintroducing rescued animals to the forests and efforts to conserve their environment.”
The most recent estimates of orangutan population sizes and distributions can be found at the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species Website, which indicates that some 7,300 Sumatran orangutans (Pongo abelii) live in the wild. Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus spp.) numbers are 45,000 to 69,000. However, these estimates were made from the years 2000 to 2003. Since then, orangutans experienced much habitat loss on both islands, so current numbers may be much lower than what the IUCN Red List stated.
A Thin Ray of Light
Amid so much harm inflicted on orangutans, there is a thin ray of light. Some zoos keep orangutans so that their numbers may increase, to be kept as replacement populations, or to be released to protected zones in the wild.
The orangutans are growing in number, with the protective care of good zoos. The most recent pregnancy was announced on Oct. 21, 2021, by the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans. Their 12-year-old female Sumatran orangutan, Menari, is pregnant with twins, which is very rare. There is only a 1% chance of orangutan twinning, but Menari and the father, Jambi, will have two infants either by the end of the year, or January 2022.
The Ecological Value of Orangutans
Orangutans function as a protective umbrella species in an ecosystem. Focusing on conserving orangutans could be a strategic move because Orangutans require a large habitat to comfortably roam the forest canopy, where they get 90% of their fruits. Orangutans need a large space because they normally live alone. So each individual needs their share of the earth.
When you set aside a safe, large forest space for orangutans, other species will share this forest and live sustainably. What is good for one is good for all the rest. This is why they’re an umbrella species. They guard the forest and wildlife inhabiting it. What benefits orangutans will benefit all the other animals as well.