The word orangutan means "forest people" in Bahasa Malay and the name fits well. With human-like antics and shocking intelligence, orangutans are considered one of the smartest primates in the world. Orangutans have even been known to construct and use tools for opening fruit and eating; umbrellas are fashioned from leaves to keep the rain off and also as sound amplifiers for communication.
Orangutans even have a grasp on the use of natural medicine; flowers from the Commelina genus are used regularly for skin problems. Knowledge of the natural cure has been passed from generation to generation!
Unfortunately extreme intelligence does not mean extreme survivability. Orangutans, the highlight for many visitors to Borneo, are becoming increasingly difficult to find in the wild. Despite the best efforts of environmental groups across the world, loss of native habitat for the endangered orangutans is growing faster than awareness of the problem.
Meet the Orangutan
Some fun facts about Southeast Asia's fascinating orangutans:
- Lifespan: Orangutans live around 35 years in the wild; up to 60 years in captivity.
- Diet: Orangutans prefer fruit, but will consume bark, bird eggs, grubs, and even a deadly, poisonous vine containing strychnine which has no effect on them!
- Reproduction: Orangutan mothers carry a single baby for nine months. Baby orangutans remain with their mothers for up to seven years. The age of maturity is considered to be around 12 years old.
- Communication: Orangutans in captivity have been taught sign language.
- Gifts: Orangutans are the first recorded non-human species to weigh the costs and benefits of giving gifts. Orangutans even remember who is greedy and who is generous for future paybacks!
- Games: A study conducted by UCLA and IBM showed orangutans learning to play a computer game, then teaching others in their group.
- Laughter: Orangutans have been recorded laughing when being tickled or chased during a game.
The Endangered Orangutans
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has placed orangutans on the red list for mammals, meaning that the remaining population is in considerable trouble. Orangutans are found in only two places in the world: Sumatra and Borneo. With rapidly declining numbers, Sumatran Orangutans are considered critically endangered.
Endangered Orangutans in the Wild
Completing an accurate headcount of such an elusive animal is no easy task. The last study, completed by Indonesia in 2007, estimates that there are less than 60,000 orangutans left in the wild; most are found in Borneo. The largest remaining population of endangered orangutans is thought to be in the Sabangau National Park in Indonesian Kalimantan on the island of Borneo. Approximately 6,667 orangutans were counted in Sumatra, Indonesia while around 11,000 were counted in the Malaysian state of Sabah.
As if the loss of habitat wasn't bad enough, orangutans are thought to be threatened by illegal hunting and an underground pet trade. In 2004 over 100 orangutans were found in Thailand as pets and returned to rehabilitation centers.
Deforestation and Logging in Borneo
Orangutan numbers continue to dwindle at an alarming rate, mostly due to loss of habitat by rainforest logging and rampant deforestation throughout Borneo - particularly in the western state of Sarawak. Malaysia - home for many orangutans - has the nefarious reputation as being the most rapidly-deforested tropical country in the world.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization states that the rate of deforestation in Malaysia has climbed 86% since the 1990s. In comparison, neighboring Indonesia's rate of deforestation grew only 18% during the same period. The World Bank estimates that Malaysian forests are being logged at four times faster than the sustainable rate.
Rainforests are not being cleared only for lumber; sprawling palm plantations - unsuitable habitats for orangutans - are now occupying former rainforest areas. Malaysia and neighboring Indonesia provide 85% of the world's palm oil which is used in cooking, cosmetics, and soap.
Viewing Endangered Orangutans
Observing orangutans is a highlight for many visitors to Borneo. Both the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in East Sabah and the less-famous Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre outside of Kuching are excellent places for an encounter. Both centers have guide-led tours that offer a chance wild encounter, however the best time to photograph endangered orangutans is during the daily feeding times.
If orangutans are a top-priority on your trip, check with the centers about the timing of fruit seasons. Orangutans are less likely to brave a barrage of tourists for fruit left on a platform when they can pick their own in the forest!
Another option for spotting orangutans in a more-natural setting is to take a boat cruise on the Kinabatangan River from Sukau in Sabah, Borneo; orangutans and other endangered species are regularly sighted along the banks.