Orangutans – the geniuses on the trees

They share their favorite fruit with a good friend, are helpful and smart as a whip. The red apes are the largest tree-dwelling animals on earth, strong and gentle at the same time. They have so much in common with us – and yet humans are their greatest threat. Orangutans urgently need our protection!

  • Where do orangutans live?
  • What abilities do they have?
  • Why are they so similar to us?
  • Why are they so threatened?

Undiscovered for millions of years

In prehistoric times, giant orangutans probably lived on earth. Researchers have found fossilized bones and suspect that the great apes must have been a third larger than they are today.
The red giants once inhabited vast rainforest areas throughout Southeast Asia. Far up in the leaf-dense canopies of trees, they lived so undisturbed that Western scientists discovered them only 300 years ago. Today, the Asian apes are only found in Indonesia: on Borneo and Sumatra. Their name orangutan means forest man in the Malay language.
No wonder: The genetic makeup of the great red apes is about 97 percent the same as ours.

2 islands with 3 species

The orangutan family includes three species: the Bornean orangutan, the Sumatran orangutan and the Tapanuli orangutan. But researchers only found out in 2017 that they are three species. Until then, it was believed that there were only two: one on Borneo, one on Sumatra. The Tapanuli orangutans also live on Sumatra, in the dense mountain forests in the north. But they belong to their own species. Read more on an extra page.

You can distinguish the three species quite well: In Sumatra, the animals wear more intense red fur, have yellowish facial hair and are slightly more graceful than their darker and more robust cousins in Borneo. The fur of the Tapanuli species is a bit curlier and longer.

male orangutans: Borneo, Sumatra, Tapanuli

From left: Borneo orangutan, Sumatran orangutan and Tapanuli orangutan. The territorial chiefs are true Paschas, to recognize by the prominent cheek bulges, which differ depending on the species (Image: Eric Kilby/Aiwok/Tim Laman/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Ingenious aerial acrobats

They inhabit the treetops and have everything they need for life at dizzying heights: Brains, courage, strength – and extra-long arms. Because you have to think and calculate exactly how best to swing to the next jungle giant to get to the coveted fruits. Or to the sleeping nest, to drinking water in tree holes. Or to visit a friend.
The question is: Will the branch I want to swing over with carry me and is it long enough? And will the targeted branch hold my weight? Orangutans must plan their climbs to find the shortest and easiest route. Because the food in the jungle is not as abundant as we think. Saving energy is therefore the order of the day.

Borneo orangutan, Tanjung Puting National Park, Borneo

The jump must be well thought out (Image: Thomas Fuhrmann/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Orangutan jumping through the air on Sumatra, Bukit Lawang, North Sumatra

Or just hanging out and enjoying the view (Image: T. Bachner)

We can only dream of their memory.

And saving energy means finding, not searching!
Orangutans know their territory like we know our larder. They know exactly where which fruits grow and when they are ripe.
"If he passes a tree full of half-ripe fruit, he remembers the position and heads for it directly on the day when the fruit is ripe. In an area of 3 square kilometers it knows every tree and knows when it is the best time to harvest there."This is what forest scientist and orangutan expert Willie Smits observed in Borneo. He is co-author of the book The thinkers of the jungle (s. citation below).
Orangutans feed on about 300 different fruits – they prefer to eat figs. Because fruit or nuts are not always available, the apes also eat flowers and leaves, mushrooms and bamboo, termites, ants and honey.
And they have a better memory than average humans, according to Willie Smits. The great apes are also far ahead of us in spatial thinking and can orient themselves much better.

Orangutan with coconut, Sarawak, Borneo, Malaysia

A strong bite cracks every coconut (Image: Eleifert/CC BY-SA 3.0)

A thousand colors of green

Orangutans have to know a lot about green things, because there are a lot of poisonous plants growing in the jungle.
Expert Willie Smits estimates each orangutan around 1.000 jungle plants: edible, inedible, poisonous, medicinal – and feeds on a good 500 different ones.
Speaking of medicinal herbs: Dhe monkeys also know exactly which herb helps against headaches, malaria or diarrhea.
And because the animals can’t smell very well, they recognize the plants by the green of the leaves. Willie Smits believes they can tell apart about a thousand different shades of green!

Whether such a leaf is edible is carefully checked beforehand (Image: Neil/CC-BY 2.0)

Fishing yes – swimming very rarely.

Orangutans may go into the water, but they can’t swim – usually. Photographer Jay Ullal caught a daredevil: the monkey wanted to eat the fruit on the other side of the river. The picture has rarity value.
When fishing, the animals can probably be observed more often. Orangutans are skilled toolmakers: They use twigs and branches to clean out termite nests or honeycombs, or even to scare or spear fish ashore. And drinking straws are best made from rolled-up leaves.

Orangutan swimming through a river, with the shore visible in the background

Extremely rare: An orangutan swims because it is lured by fruit on the far shore (Image: Jay Ullal)

this orangutan drinks from a river and hangs down from a branch by his arm and leg

About water goes rather – is he thirsty or does he want to look at his reflection in the mirror? (Image: Jay Ullal)

Clinging, playing, learning: sheltered childhood

The little orangutan learns everything it needs for life in the jungle from its mother. For one year the baby hangs continuously on her fur, never loses contact with it, even during the boldest swings through the branches. From the second year of life, the offspring dares to go on little excursions, romps around with friends, but always keeps an eye on the mother – and she on him. For five years, the young one drinks its mother’s milk, only at the age of eight the little orangutan becomes independent and goes its own way.
Years of caring for their young is the reason why orangutans have fewer offspring than all other mammals. A female gives birth to only three, at most four young in her lifetime.

For a year, babies never let go of their mothers

Don’t lose contact with the mother. (Image: Jay Ullal)

Orangutan mother with baby in dense forest of leaves

. Especially not when jumping through the forest (Image: IAR)

The baby stays with its mother for 7 years

The little orangutan learns everything he needs to live from his mother (Photo: Jay Ullal)

Orangutan in a nest on fresh twigs and leaves

Also, how to build your own sleeping nest later (Image: Jay Ullal)

Threatened with extinction

The greatest danger to our closest relatives in the animal kingdom is ourselves. Until the middle of the last century, hundreds of thousands of orangutans probably inhabited Asian forests – now there are an estimated 50 left.000 to 60.000 in Borneo and 14.000 in Sumatra. The figures vary greatly, depending on the source. Because orangutans are hard to count in the treetops. From the Tapanuli species there are probably at most 800 animals.

Helplessly, Asia’s only great apes are at the mercy of humans: The loss of their habitat for palm oil plantations, due to poaching and animal trafficking have brought them to the brink of extinction – although they are strictly protected.
Each orangutan needs about three square kilometers of rainforest to get full. Without forests, animals lose their food source, shelter and habitat.

Smog after forest fire for palm oil plantations in Sumatra

His forest was burned down to grow palm oil plantations (Photo: Feri Irawan)

Orangutan sitting in a branch of a lonely tree, blue sky in the background

Helplessly, the orangutan flees to the last tree. He was rescued (Image: IAR)

Source: Information and many photos from the book
The thinkers of the jungle by Gerd Schuster, Willie Smits and Jay Ullal (photos).

Last updated: 21. August 2021

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One time a monkey in the zo kakkt and threw it on the people

I love these animals❤ and that’s why I chose them for my paper.?
They must not become extinct!

I love these animals, they must not become extinct.

This page helps me a lot for my unit


This page was very helpful and good for my paper!

THANKS to the Abenteuer Regenwald Team

In the meantime, both orangutan species are on the IUCN Red List as "threatened with extinction" Listed.
It is up to us to protect these wonderful animals. Do without palm oil, use paper with the Blue Angel and use our resources sparingly. For the orangutans, for the rainforest and for us!

They are all so beautiful and sweet and now I am so sad because they are all so endangered. I feel the need to save the world.

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