People of The Forest

By sharing 97% of the genes with humans, orangutans are the only great apes found in Asia that is so close to us. This means they behave similarly like humans. Orangutan translates to “people of the forest”, orang meaning person and hutan meaning forest. Legends tell that orangutans can also speak but they differ from doing so, as when humans come to learn about this they will make them work. Fair enough? Well, that's one thing humans have an amazing talent for.

Orangutans are found in Indonesia and Malaysia at the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. They were once found almost all over South- East Asia till the southern point of China. But now they are restricted due to many anthropogenic reasons. Will discuss this later on. Orangutans are large apes with reddish-orange fur and having arms much longer than their legs. There are three types of orangutans found, namely the Sumatran, the Bornean and Tapanoli (these are found only in Sumatra). The Bornean orangutans are a little smaller compared to the Sumatran and have a fur colour which is a little darker than the Sumatran orangutans.

Orangutans are solitary animals and like to stay most of their time all by themselves. They are arboreal and spend maximum time on top of trees. They rarely come down on the ground except to mate. Walking on the ground isn't a piece of cake for them. The males stay most of their life solitarily. However, he stays with the female for a few days to ensure that the mating was successful. Males have a large pouch in their neck region which they use to create a sound which resonates in the forest to indicate and let the female know where he is for mating. Mature males have large cheek pads which apparently the female finds attractive. They also say that this cheek pad helps in making the mating calls resonate more. Female Orangutans are also solitary but stay with their female offspring after their birth. The mother teaches the daughter how to nurse a baby orangutan so that the daughter can do a better job when she becomes a mother. Makes sense? The mothers also teach their offspring how to devour their favourite fruits as they're often covered with spines, husks and shells. The son, however, leaves the mother and goes to find a new territory and females to mate with when he reaches puberty. Males have been observed to get into territorial fights. The males charge each other with branches to chase their opponent off but if that doesn't work they get into fights and start biting each other until one leaves.

They are highly intelligent animals and resemble behaviours which are close to human beings. A baby orangutan cries when hungry, whines when they are hurt and smiles at their mother. They built tools in a very adept manner. Each orangutan makes one nest per night before sleeping using leaves and branches. They also make a pillow because comfort matters. They also construct umbrellas when it starts to rain. Sometimes nests with a roof during the rainy season. Orangutans are the only apes which make nests. They also make use of branches to measure the depth of a river before crossing it. They make lumps of leaves by chewing it and attach it to a twig which is then inserted in the crevices of trees to absorb the water. This water is then consumed by the orangutans. This behaviour is seen only during the drier seasons.

Wondering if “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” will come true soon? Not really. The Orangutan population is declining at an unprecedented rate. Sumatran orangutans have decreased from 12000 wild individuals to 6500 in a span of 15 years. This is mainly due to the palm oil plantations, illegal encroachment, poaching and wildfires. The increasing demand for palm oil for its use in the cosmetic and food industry has played a toll on the forests of Sumatra and Borneo. The forests are cleared out for palm tree plantation. This causes the orangutans to come down to the ground where it is highly vulnerable to being hunted by predators and humans. The orangutans are poached for their meat and the baby orangutans are used for the illegal pet trade. Controlled forest fires often become uncontrollable and cause immense loss to vegetation. The smoke which is created confuses the orangutans and strips them of their food as much of the fruits are lost in this manner. Death of one immature orangutan is also great damage to the population as only one offspring is produced by a female every 6-7 years.

So what's being done about this appalling state? Orangutan Project (OP) and Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme( SOCP) are working tirelessly to conserve, rehabilitate and reintroduce these orangutans. Orangutans which are seized from being kept as illegal pets are kept in special quarantine and training facilities where they are taught how to survive in the wild and are then reintroduced into the forests. They are also educating the public to take actions and teach them about the importance of these apes. An orangutan is a bioindicator. It helps in regenerating a forest by dispersing seeds. We can donate and adopt an orangutan to help in its conservation. But at the lowest level what we can do is to be aware of the products we use and if it contains palm oil, we ensure that it is obtained from a sustainable palm tree plantation.


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