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Episode 19: The Omniscient Orangutan

Within the tropical rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia is one of humanities closest relatives, and some say wisest, the orangutan.  These arboreal great apes have survived for millennia but are now facing incredible threats to their survival.

Orangutan Overview

There are three recognized species of orangutans.

The Tapanuli orangutan was just recently described in late 2017 as their own separate species. All species of orangutan are critically endangered. However, the Tapanuli orangs have a population of less than 800 animals. This species is isolated to the Batang Toru Ecosystem, at an estimated area of 1,000 square km (386 square miles).


The Bornean Orangutans live on the island of Borneo in modern-day Malaysia. Their habitat is now estimated at approximately 155,000 square km (60,000 square miles).  Their current population estimate is as high as 104,000 individuals to as low as 55,000. Right now estimates are that up to almost 4,000 Bornean Orangutans are killed each year, with the population decreasing by 86% since the year 1973. These trends are alarming to say the least.

Sumatran Orangutans are restricted to the north island of Sumatra in modern-day Indonesia. Their current habitat is much smaller at 17,000 square km (6500 square miles) and these animals are experiencing incredible pressures due to mining, deforestation, agriculture plantations and human settlement. There are only an estimated 13,846 individuals left in the wild. At current rates, this small population will decrease by another >80% in the next 40 years.

Overall, at current rates of habitat loss and illegal killing of all three species of orangutans, these animals are predicted to go extinct in the wild in the next 50 years.

Orangutan Facts

  • The orangutan can live up to 60 years in the wild and in captivity.
  • A group of orangutans are called a ‘Congress’
  • Males can weigh up to 190 lbs (87 kg) and stand 54 in (1.4 m) tall
  • Females are much smaller at 82 lbs (37 kg) and 45 in (1.1 m) tall
  • Males can have a wingspan of up to 7 feet (2 m)
  • Males also will have either moustaches or beards, with large throat sacs which are important for their calls (communication)
  • Mature males, and to an extend dominant males, develop large cheeks called ‘flanges’
  • Omnivore diet, mainly fruit, seeks, nuts, insects and honey; may eat small mammals or other vertebrates (mice, lizards, birds)

 Orangutan Intelligence

The Orangutan is one of the smartest of the great apes. They are known to exhibit incredible behaviors in the wild.

  • Build expansive nests in trees for sleeping, to include ‘bunk beds’
  • Use leaves and small branches for pillows
  • Use tools such as rocks and branches to open fruit
  • Use leaves as gloves to handle prickly fruit
  • Use branches and leaves as seat cushions
  • Largely solitary animals but non-aggressive to others

43274485 – orangutan nest

Conservation Tips

As covered in a previous podcast, palm oil production is a major driver in orangutan habitat loss. Many conservation organizations are working hard to promote and highlight sustainable palm oil plantations. We highly suggest you download the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo app to shop for sustainable palm oil.

Another consideration is to be sure to be using and buying sustainable wood products. Here is an excellent article discussing this and can be found here. The Forest Stewardship Council promotes and identifies sustainable wood products and there website can be found here.

Briefly here are sustainable wood options:

  • Bamboo
  • Oak (from Britain, Europe, USA, Australia)
  • Teak (ensure FSC certified, much is not sustainable)
  • Mahogany (FSC certified, Andiroba and Jatoba)
  • Douglas Fir (FSC certified)

Habitat loss is a major driver for many species decline. If we as consumers vote with our wallets, we can drive change in these industries.

The animals thank you!

 Organizations to Support

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

Orangutan Foundation International

March 20, 2018

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