You may be tempted to look at the image above and call this animal a monkey, but you would be incorrect! The orangutan pictured above is an ape. Unlike monkeys, apes do not have tails. Both apes and monkeys are considered primates.

I first talked about great apes in my blog about the Great Ape Heart Project. As you may remember, there are four great ape species: gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans. I’ve written other posts about the gorilla, and today I’ll highlight another great ape: the orangutan.

The orangutan is the only great ape native to Asia. Gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos are all African species. The orangutan looks very different from the other great apes because of its shaggy reddish-brown hair. It is sexually dimorphic, meaning males and females look different. Adult males are larger than females and have pads of skin on their cheeks. The cheek pads are composed of fatty tissue and continue to grow throughout the orangutan’s life. An average female orangutan weighs 120 pounds and an average male weighs 250 pounds.

Orangutans are omnivores, but they eat mostly fruit. Figs, especially, are their favorite. Other food items include leaves, bark, and occasionally insects, eggs, and small invertebrates. Orangutans forage for food during the day and at night sleep in nests, they build in the trees. Orangutans are the most arboreal of the great apes. They rarely set foot on the ground and spend almost their entire lives in the trees. Males are more likely to be found on the ground when their weight is too much for trees to support.

There are two species of orangutans: the Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) and the Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii). The Sumatran orangutan used to be considered a subspecies of the Bornean orangutan, but today the two are studied as separate species. There are several ways to tell a Sumatran orangutan apart from a Bornean orangutan. The Sumatran orangutan has longer hair, a slimmer body, white hair around its face, and a long beard. Yes, even female orangutans have beards!

Both species of orangutans are in trouble, but the Sumatran orangutan (the species on exhibit at the Fort Worth Zoo) is in the most immediate danger. The Sumatran orangutan lives exclusively in Sumatra, an island in Indonesia. Changing landscapes on the island has caused Sumatran orangutan numbers to decline significantly, and the species is now critically endangered. Recent estimates warn that approximately 6,600 Sumatran orangutans remain in the wild today. The leading threats causing population declines include habitat alteration, collection for the pet trade, poaching, and human vs. orangutan conflict.

The government in Sumatra has provided some help, but it has also created some barriers. For example, in 2012 the governor of Aceh (a region of northern Sumatra) gave permission to a palm oil company to begin building oil palm plantations in an area of the Tripa forest where three other companies were already working. Tripa is home to the largest remaining population of Sumatran orangutans, but as the forest quickly changes, so do orangutan population numbers. An estimated 200 Sumatran orangutans remain in the Tripa forest today, compared to a population of 3,000 that lived there in early 1990. Though the government has put some legislation in place to help protect forests where orangutans live, enforcement of these laws is weak. Illegal logging and clearing of forests continue to affect orangutans and their habitats every day.

Several conservation groups, such as Orangutan Foundation International (OFI), are working around the clock to save both the Sumatran and Bornean orangutans. OFI has several programs in place to help the orangutan and its home, including national park patrols, forest restoration, and research studies. OFI is also one of many organizations working to help rehabilitate orangutans and release them into safer areas within the wild. The Sumatran orangutan is a protected species throughout Indonesia, and since this great ape is listed under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), international trade of the species is illegal.

The Fort Worth Zoo participates in the Orangutan Species Survival Plan (SSP). Formed in 1988, this SSP involves the cooperation of 55 zoos in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) created SSPs as a way to maintain a healthy population of endangered species in AZA zoos. SSP animals also serve as ambassadors for their species and help educate people about threats to animals in the wild. Including the orangutan, the Fort Worth Zoo participates in a total of 98 SSPs. See the complete list of SSP species here.

In May 2012, the Zoo brought together orangutan experts from around the world to discuss orangutan health. As wild orangutan populations face struggles, it becomes all the more important to make sure that there is a healthy population of orangutans living in managed collections around the world. The workshop at the Zoo will help make sure that those orangutans living in managed collections receive the best possible care.

Phew! That’s a lot of information to take in for one blog post. Though this challenging story sounds daunting, remember that YOU can make a difference and help. Here’s how:

  • Choose products that do not use palm oil. The demand for palm oil is a big part of why the orangutan’s habitats are disappearing.
  • Though you may not be able to travel across the globe, you can make a difference for forest-dwelling animals in your own area. You can help keep forest-dwelling animals safe by cleaning up after yourself when you go camping or hiking. Take binoculars with you on these excursions and choose to enjoy unique, local wildlife with your eyes only. No touching!
  • Visit your local zoo. Local zoos are a great way to learn more about orangutans and other SSP animals. Remember to share what you learn with others!

Thanks for making a difference for wildlife – whether that wildlife is in your own backyard, on an island in Southeast Asia, or somewhere else around the globe. I’m proud of you, explorers! Remember to send your conservation stories to Sam’s Inbox ( so I can share what you’re doing to help save wildlife.

Until next time … happy exploring!




Ambassador: (noun) a person or thing sent to relay a message or represent an organization
Arboreal: (adjective) tree-dwelling
Barrier: (noun) something that blocks passage, such as a wall, fence, etc.
Compose: (verb) to be a part of something
Cooperation: (noun) an agreement or act of working together
Critically endangered species: (noun) The highest level of risk awarded to an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Critically endangered species population numbers have decreased or will decrease by 80 percent within three generations.
Daunting: (adjective) overwhelming, intimidating
Discuss: (verb) to talk about with several other people
Enforcement: (noun) the act of compelling people to be obedient to a rule
Exclusively: (adverb) only, selectively
Expert: (noun) someone who is very knowledgeable about a certain topic
Forage: (verb) to search or seek, usually for food
Great ape: (noun) Apes of the family Pongidae, characterized by high intelligence and the absence of a tail. Includes humans, gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, and bonobos.
Habit: (noun) an acquired behavior or practice that is regularly repeated
Habitat alteration: (noun) change that takes place in an animal’s living space caused by natural or human processes
International: (adjective) Involving two or more countries across the world
Invertebrate: (noun) an animal without a backbone
Landscape: (noun) an expanse of scenery that can be seen in a single view
Legislation: (noun) a law or collection of laws
Maintain: (verb) to keep in existence or continuance
Managed collection: (noun) a group of animals kept in a protected area under human care
Native: (adjective) being from the place or environment in which a person was born or a thing came into being
Omnivore: (noun) an animal that eats both animal and plant foods
Pet trade: (noun) the exchange of money or goods for exotic animals taken from the wild to be kept as pets
Poaching: (noun) the illegal practice of entering someone’s property to hunt or take animals without permission or without a license
Primate: (noun) A group of mammals that includes apes, monkeys, and prosimians (such as a lemur or a loris). Primates have hands with five fingers, color vision, and forward-facing eyes.
Rehabilitate: (verb) to restore to good health
Restoration: (noun) the act of renewing or reviving something
Sexually dimorphic: (adjective) having visible differences in appearance between males and females of the same species
Significantly: (adverb) greatly, considerably, very much
Slimmer: (adjective) thinner, skinnier
Species: (noun) a group of individuals having some common characteristics or qualities
Subspecies: (noun) a subdivision of a species

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