The great red ape

The orangutan shares 97% DNA with humans and is a highly intelligent animal. “Orangutan” originally means "human of the forest", and is a combination of the the two local (Malay) words “orang” (human) and "hutan" (forest). Orangutans and humans are thought to have separated around 14 million years ago, and an old Malay legend tells that orangutans were originally people pretending they couldn’t speak, climbing up into the trees to escape work.

 
 
 

One of four great apes

Orangutans are one of the world's four great apes, which are our closest relatives. Orangutans is the only great ape living outside of Africa, more specifically in South East Asia on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. The orangutan is also a unique species in other areas where it is diverting from other great apes (Chimpanzee, Gorilla and Bonobo), as orangutans e.g. spend most of their lives in trees, where they both eat and sleep. In fact, the orangutan is the largest arboreal animal in the word, and has a physiology well suited for a life in the rainforest.

Critically endangered

The orangutan is losing its home at an alarming rate, and is now considered critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). In total 80 per cent of their natural habitat is thought to have been lost during the last 20 years. It is estimated that 3,000 orangutans continue to die each year due to habitat loss and land conversion, which is a decremental number in a population estimate of around 104.000 individuals, down from 288.000 in 1973. The IUCN consider the Bornean orangutans as critically endangered due to an estimated 86 % population decline between 1973 and 2025, illustrating a very high risk of the orangutan going extinct in the wild.

Sumatran vs. Bornean orangutan

The orangutan is divided into two main species: Sumatran (Pongo abelii) and Bornean (Pongo pygmaeus), which accounts for around 14,000 and 50,000 individuals respectively. The two orangutan species are believed to have split around 1.5 million years ago, and their many years of separate evolution has lead to distinctive differences in appearance. The Sumatran orangutan has e.g. longer and paler red coats, are thinner and have a longer face with a kind of beard. The Borneo orangutan on the other hand has a more coarse hair structure and can be orange, brown or even maroon. The males on Borneo also have larger throat pouches than their Sumatran counterparts. Besides difference of appearance the Sumatran and Bornean orangutan have difference reproductive and social behaviours, probably illustrating a difference in habitat.

A creative imitator

Orangutans are very intelligent and fast learners. In captivity they quickly assimilate human behaviour. On the protected islands of Nyaru Menteng, where the orangutans live before they are released back into the rainforest, employees have seen orangutans copy local fishermen, as they try to catch fish with long sticks. Other reported immitations include the washing of clothes, bathing and the brushing of teeths. In fact, the orangutans have an intelligence corresponding to a three to four-year-old human, and some studies have placed the orangutan as being the most intelligent species of all non-human primates.

Read more about the history of the orangutan here >>