Everything you need to know about orangutans

There exist three types of orangutans: the Bornean, the Sumatran, and the newly recognized Tapanuli species since 2017. These large apes inhabit only the islands of Borneo and Sumatra in the wild.

All three species of orangutans face a critical threat of extinction. Pinpointing their exact numbers worldwide is challenging, but estimates indicate there are slightly more than 100,000 Bornean orangutans, fewer than 14,000 Sumatran orangutans, and fewer than 800 Tapanuli orangutans left. Despite their similar appearance with fluffy reddish fur, Bornean orangutans have darker coats and rounder faces compared to their Sumatran counterparts.

Despite their differences, these orangutans share similarities such as adult males having a beard and mustache-like facial hair, while adult female Sumatran orangutans also develop beards.

Orangutans are the largest animals that live primarily in trees

They spend most of their lives swinging through the treetops, needing large expanses of forest to find enough food and mates. Their biggest threats are deforestation and hunting.

Borneo faces a significant loss of forested area, projected to lose 220,000 square kilometers between 2010 and 2030, nearly 30% of its total land area, which is larger than the entire United Kingdom. This loss is mainly due to agriculture, infrastructure like roads, and increasingly frequent forest fires due to climate change.

There is some positive news though. Studies indicate that deforestation rates in Borneo are slowing down. Additionally, Indonesia and Malaysia are implementing stricter rules to protect their forests.

Orangutans are known for their long arms

They have an impressive arm span of about 2.2 meters (over 7 feet) from fingertip to fingertip. This is quite remarkable considering their standing height is around 1.5 meters. Their arms are so long that they are one and a half times longer than their legs and stretch all the way down to their ankles when they stand upright.

Orangutans are quite skilled at using their feet for eating

They are very nimble and adept at using both their hands and feet to gather food and move through the trees.

Similar to humans, orangutans have four fingers and a thumb on each hand, complete with fingernails. Interestingly, their feet closely resemble their hands in appearance, making them well-suited for agile climbing and gripping branches.

Orangutans depend heavily on their mothers for learning

Young orangutans remain with their mother until they are about 7 years old. During this time, they learn essential skills from her, such as what foods are safe to eat.

Infant orangutans are deeply attached to their mothers. They cling to her body and sleep in her nest until they become proficient in survival skills of their own.

Due to this prolonged period of learning and dependency, orangutans have offspring only once every 7 to 9 years. This lengthy birth interval is the longest among all land mammals.

Male orangutans undergo a majestic transformation as they mature

Around the age of 35, some adult males develop prominent flaps of fatty tissue on either side of their face, known as flanges. These flanges are a distinctive feature that sets mature males apart.

Orangutans, like other great apes, have a long lifespan. In the wild, they can live over 30 years, with many individuals reaching up to 50 years old.

Research suggests that female orangutans may consider the presence of flanges when choosing a mate, indicating that these facial features play a role in mate selection among orangutans.

Orangutans have a nightly ritual of building nests to sleep in, prioritizing comfort in their treetop homes

Each night, they construct a new sleeping platform called a nest.

Building a nest takes an orangutan about 10 minutes. They gather large branches and arrange them into a sturdy base, using smaller branches to create a comfortable mattress. The structure is secured by weaving in flexible branches. During rainy weather, orangutans sometimes add a roof to their nests for protection.

The habit of building a fresh nest each night is not just a matter of comfort; it also aids in estimating orangutan populations. Researchers count these nests on the ground and from the air because they are easier to spot than the elusive orangutans themselves. This method provides valuable insights into the distribution and numbers of orangutans in specific areas.

Certain orangutans, particularly Sumatran ones as seen in documentaries like Our Planet, exhibit tool-use behaviors

They demonstrate remarkable ingenuity by using sticks to extract termites, ants, or bees from tree holes.

Moreover, these clever primates have been observed fashioning makeshift tools from leaves. For instance, they create leaf gloves to handle prickly fruits or navigate thorny branches with ease. These behaviors highlight the intelligence and adaptability of orangutans in their natural habitats.

Orangutans have diverse preferences in food

Their diet primarily consists of fruits such as mangoes, lychees, and figs, supplemented by young leaves, flowers, insects, and occasionally small mammals.

Fruits make up about 60% of an orangutan’s food intake. However, during times when fruits are scarce, they resort to consuming unusual items like soil and tree bark.

A particular favorite among orangutans is the durian, a large and spiky fruit notorious for its strong odor. Often described as reminiscent of sewage, rotting flesh, or foul-smelling socks, the durian is cherished by orangutans despite its pungent smell.

Orangutans face severe threats to their survival

Between 1999 and 2015, it’s estimated that over 100,000 Bornean orangutans vanished primarily due to the loss and fragmentation of their forest homes. This destruction is driven by activities like logging for timber, forest fires, and the expansion of oil palm plantations.

Oil palm trees are cultivated for palm oil, a versatile vegetable oil used in numerous products ranging from toothpaste to pizza. Indonesia and Malaysia dominate the global palm oil supply, accounting for over 85% of production. However, clearing pristine rainforests to make way for more palm oil cultivation is highly unsustainable and contributes significantly to carbon emissions.

The good news is that palm oil can be produced sustainably. This involves planting on already degraded lands instead of replacing natural jungles with palm plantations. Additionally, palm oil is highly efficient, yielding more oil per unit of land compared to crops like olive or sunflower oil.

Consumers play a crucial role by choosing to support sustainably produced palm oil. Instead of boycotting palm oil products entirely, advocating for and purchasing certified sustainable palm oil encourages responsible practices that protect species like the orangutan. This collective action is vital in fostering positive change towards conservation and biodiversity preservation.

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