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Facts About Endangered Orangutans and Ways to Help Them

Linda Crampton is a writer and experienced science teacher with an honors degree in biology. She enjoys writing about science and nature.

A female Sumatran orangutan at the Cincinnati Zoo

A female Sumatran orangutan at the Cincinnati Zoo

Critically Endangered Animals

The orangutan is a forest ape with shaggy, red-orange or red-brown hair. It lives in Sumatra and Borneo and is the largest tree-climbing mammal in the world. Like the other great apes (gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos), orangutans are clever animals and have much in common with humans. In fact, 97% of their DNA is the same as ours. DNA contains the genetic code of an organism.

Unfortunately, orangutans are in big trouble, mainly due to habitat destruction and fragmentation and the conversion of forests to oil palm plantations. The Sumatran species and the Bornean species are critically endangered.

Most of us live far away from Sumatra and Borneo and can't afford to travel there. It may seem that there is little that we can do to help orangutans, but there are actually multiple ways in which we can aid the animals. Fundraising for conservation organizations, buying items from them if we can afford to do this, publicizing the plight of the animals, and refusing to buy products whose production involves the destruction of their habitat could all be helpful.

A Bornean orangutan at the Fort Worth Zoo in Texas

A Bornean orangutan at the Fort Worth Zoo in Texas

Orangutans belong to the order Primates and the family Hominidae, like us. Humans, gorillas, and chimpanzees belong to the subfamily Homininae within the family Hominidae. Orangutans belong to the subfamily Ponginae.

Features of Orangutans

Borneo and Sumatran Species

The two generally recognized species of orangutan are the Sumatran one (Pongo abelii) and the Bornean one (Pongo pygmaeus). As described below, one group of scientists believes that the Sumatran animals should be divided into two species. Compared to Bornean orangutans, the Sumatran animals are thinner and have longer faces and longer hair. In addition, their hair is slightly lighter in color than that of their Bornean relatives. Both species live in the trees and rarely come to the ground in the wild. The Sumatran animals are even less likely to move over land than the Bornean ones.

Sexual Dimorphism

Sexual dimorphism refers to the different physical features in the males and females of a species beyond the differences in their reproductive systems. Adult male orangutans are larger and more muscular than adult females. Mature males have large cheek pads, which may help to amplify their sounds. The cheek pads are covered with fine, short hairs. Bornean males have more concave and dramatic pads and a shorter beard than the Sumatran ones. Male orangutans have a large throat pouch, which acts as a resonating chamber for their calls.

In 2017, one group of researchers claimed that a third species of orangutan exists. They have named it Pongo tapanuliensis, or the Tapanuli orangutan. The animal lives in the province of North Sumatra. The researchers feel that the orangutans in the area are sufficiently different from P. abelii to warrant being placed in a new species. As in the other two species, the population of P. tapanuliensis is in trouble.

The huge cheek pads of a male Bornean orangutan at the Moscow Zoo

The huge cheek pads of a male Bornean orangutan at the Moscow Zoo

Locomotion in the Species

Orangutans have grasping hands and feet, long, strong arms, and relatively short legs, which are bowed. They prefer to travel by slowly swinging from tree to tree instead of by walking over the ground. They can walk on two legs, however, and sometimes do so in the trees.

When orangutans leave the trees, they walk on all four limbs instead of standing on two legs. They have been observed moving by a process called fist walking. In this process, they press into the ground with their fists as they move. The other great apes move quadrupedally by knuckle walking. They press into the ground with their knuckles as they move. Orangutans don't knuckle walk.

A male classified by some scientists as a member of the Pongo tapanuliensis species

A male classified by some scientists as a member of the Pongo tapanuliensis species

The Life of an Orangutan

Orangutans are active during the day and eat mainly fruit. They also eat a smaller quantity of leaves, stems, bark, insects, bird eggs, and honey. They sample food with their mobile lips before eating it. They get their water from fruit juice and from pools that collect in tree holes. During the night, an orangutan sleeps in a tree nest, which it makes from branches and leaves. The ape may also make a nest during the day so that it can rest.

Unlike the other great apes, orangutans are solitary or semi-solitary animals in the wild. The close relationship between a mother and her child may last for as long as eight years after the child's birth, however.

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The apes are curious about the world around them and use sticks to dig, explore areas, collect honey, and scratch themselves. According to the World Wildlife Fund, some animals released from captivity learned independently to untie "complex" knots that were attaching rafts (or boats) to docks. They then pushed the rafts away from the docks, climbed on board, and rode the rafts across rivers. Orangutans have also been observed holding large leaves above their heads to act as umbrellas in the rain.

A female generally has her first baby between the ages of ten and seventeen. She has a new baby every five to ten years. She usually has one child at a time but may occasionally have twins. Orangutans generally live for about forty-five years. They have a low reproductive rate, which makes it hard for them to recover when their population size is reduced.

Why Are Orangutans Critically Endangered?

Palm oil is obtained from the fruit of the oil palm tree. It's used in many different products, including processed foods, cosmetics, soaps, and washing powders. "Vegetable oil" in processed food is often palm oil. There is a huge, worldwide demand for the oil.

Palm oil production is a major industry in Sumatra and Borneo. Rainforest is being logged for its wood and to create space for oil palm plantations, other cultivated plants, mining, and urban expansion. In Sumatra, the orangutan's habitat is disappearing at an alarming rate. The Sumatran animals are more sensitive to habitat disturbance than the Bornean ones, but even in Borneo orangutans are disappearing as their habitat is destroyed.

In some areas, orangutans are hunted for food or are killed because they feed on crops. Females with a baby are shot so that the babies can be captured and sold as pets. Orangutans are also hunted to obtain their skulls, which are sold as souvenirs.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, 200 to 500 young orangutans are captured for the pet trade each year in the Indonesian part of Borneo alone.

Population Estimates

Population estimates for orangutans vary, but researchers seem to agree that the number of animals is decreasing and that the situation is especially serious in Sumatra and in the Tapanuli species.

Sumatran Species

The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) estimates that 13,846 Sumatran orangutans still exist. This number is actually higher than a previous estimate, but the IUCN says that this is due to better survey techniques and not to an actual increase in the population. The organization says that the population is decreasing. As of October 2017, the Sumatran species has been classified as critically endangered.

Tapanuli Species

The IUCN recognizes the existence of Pongo tapanuliensis. It says that fewer than 800 individuals exist. It also says that the population is critically endangered and is decreasing.

Bornean Species

IUCN researchers have estimated that around 55,000 Bornean orangutans are still alive. This estimate was made in 2004 and may be out of date, however. The species is classified as critically endangered.

Some people might wonder why an estimated population of 55,000 (if this is the correct number) puts the Bornean orangutan in the critically endangered category. As the quote below shows, it's not just the number of animals in existence that is of concern to biologists. They are also concerned about the rate of the population decline.

Bornean Orangutans decreased by more than 60% between 1950 and 2010, and a further 22% decline is projected to occur between 2010 and 2025. Combined, this equates to a loss of more than 82% over 75 years, 1950–2025.

— IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature)

Saving the Animals

A leading figure in the effort to save orangutans is the primatologist Birute Galdikas. She traveled to Borneo in 1971 to begin her study of orangutan behavior in their natural habitat. She soon realized that there was an urgent need to protect the animals. She was initially aided by Louis Leakey, the anthropologist who also helped Jane Goodall begin her study of chimpanzees and Dian Fossey start her mountain gorilla research.

Dr. Galdikas is still working to help endangered orangutans today and is an advocate for the apes. Part of her work involves rehabilitating orphan orangutans so that they can be released into the wild to lead a natural life. She's interviewed in the video below. She discusses the problems of habitat loss and degradation and the demand for palm oil.

Practical Steps to Help Orangutans

There are many things that we can do to help endangered orangutans, even if we live far away from them. Not all of these things require money. Fundraising is one way to help the animals. Making purchases that support the animals or donating money to organizations that help them are other ways to help the animals, if we can afford to do these things. Publicizing the problems of the animals in various ways and avoiding the purchase of products whose production often hurts the orangutan population can also be helpful steps to take.

Before giving money to an organization, it's very important to investigate their reputation and explore what they do with the money. It's also important to discover what percentage of the funds raised by selling items and accepting donations is used to help orangutans.


Schools often hold bake sales, car washes, bottle drives, and other events to raise funds for worthy causes. If you're a teacher or a parent who helps with fundraising, think about organizing an event to raise money to help orangutans. Make sure that you advertise your event on school bulletin boards, in the school newspaper, or in a newsletter to parents. Also consider advertising the event in the outside community or in a community newspaper.

Community groups, church groups, and businesses could hold fundraising events to help orangutans and to raise people's awareness of the animals' problems. Funds raised by individuals during events such as garage and craft sales could also be used to help the animals. Some community runs and walks enable participants to raise money for a worthy cause via pledges. A sponsored bike ride could be a good way to raise money, too.

Buy Items to Support the Animals

When you want to buy birthday, Christmas, or other gifts, take a look at online shops run by orangutan protection groups. Consider purchasing the gifts from them (provided some of the purchase price is used to help orangutans) or buying the products for yourself. The websites of some aid organizations enable people to make donations without purchasing products.

At least one organization sells T-shirts, books, DVD movies, post cards, calendars, posters, bumper stickers, bracelets, stuffed animals, and palm oil-free soap. The products look attractive and also show photos of orangutans, helping to bring the animals to people's attention.

Doing an Internet search for appropriate terms should enable you to find potentially useful websites for supporting orangutans. You can then investigate the operation and reputation of the sites and decide whether it's appropriate to use them in your effort to help the animals.

Adopt an Orangutan

An "adoption" program is a fun way for people to give donations to conservation organizations. It's also a good way for organizations to maintain people's interest in their work.

The organizations display photos of orangutans on their website, along with information about each animal. The viewer can sign up to pay a monthly or yearly fee to help support the animal and the organization. In return, the donor usually receives an information package about "their" orangutan as well as regular updates describing how the animal is doing.

Educate and Publicize

Informing others about the problems faced by orangutans can be a good way to help the apes.

  • Publicize the problems that the animals face. Use social media accounts to share orangutan information and ideas for helping the apes. If you have many followers or friends and these people frequently read your posts, you have an excellent chance to spread your message. If some of your followers share your posts, your message will spread even further.
  • Don't overdo your orangutan posts on social media sites. If people see them too often, they may ignore them. The repetition of information may even irritate your followers. In addition, make sure that you change the information in each post to keep your followers interested and to increase the likelihood that they will share the post.
  • Think about sending interesting orangutan information and links in email or regular mail to friends and relatives. Once again, don't overload your friends with orangutan information.
  • If you're an educator and will be teaching a unit about mammals or endangered animals, consider incorporating information about orangutans.

August 19th of each year is International Orangutan Day. The goal of the event is to raise public awareness of the orangutan's problem and to encourage people to help the apes. Any day is a good one to help the animals, though.

Buy Environmentally Friendly Products

Buy FSC Certified Wood and Paper Products

The Forest Stewardship Council is composed of environmental groups, businesses, and social organizations from around the world. Its goal is to ensure "environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial and economically viable forest management." The council has published ten principles describing their vision and has established criteria for judging whether an organization is adhering to each principle. One principle refers to maintaining and restoring the ecosystem and its biodiversity. Another refers to planning and managing plantations in accordance with FSC guidelines. FSC Certification is granted if an organization is adhering to all ten principles.

If you can't find FSC certified products in your local stores, ask the manager to supply them. In my area, even the supermarkets sell packages of toilet paper that bear the FSC logo. These products are quick to recognize because they have labels like "natural" or "green". They may be a little more expensive than non-certified paper products. If the price is beyond your budget, you could use one of the other ways to help the animals instead.

Buy Certified Sustainable Palm Oil Products

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, or RSPO, is an organization whose goal is to ensure that all palm oil is produced in a sustainable manner that doesn't hurt the environment. One of its goals is to ensure that oil palm plantations are developed and managed responsibly. It's a "roundtable" organization because it includes many other organizations as members and listens to their views. Members of RSPO include palm oil producers, processors and traders, food manufacturers, and nature conservation groups. RSPO provides certification and a logo that can be used on product packaging.

If there is a business in your area that makes extensive use of non-certified palm oil, consider asked them to switch to sustainable palm oil or to another oil. While it's true that one request probably won't have much effect, if you can get other people to join your campaign you might get the company's attention.

The palm oil problem is not an easy one to solve. Producing and selling the oil provides a significant amount of money for many people. Investigating the problem and all of the factors involved could be very worthwhile for someone who wants to help orangutans.

The Future for Orangutans

It's sad when any animal becomes extinct due to human activity, but the loss of orangutans would be terrible. They are magnificent and clever animals that have many similarities to humans. Predicting when orangutans will become extinct if present conditions aren't improved—or if they get worse—is difficult, especially since we don't have accurate population counts at the moment. However, most estimates say that Sumatran orangutans may become extinct within fifty years, or within the lifetime of people alive today.

We need organizations or individuals to create action plans that satisfy both the needs of humans and the needs of orangutans. We also need to ensure that these plans are put into operation and that they succeed. I hope orangutans continue to exist for a long time.


  • Orangutan information from the World Wildlife Fund
  • Facts about orangutans from the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute
  • Bornean and Sumatran species facts from the Louisville Zoo
  • A third species of orangutan may exist from CBS news
  • Locomotion in apes from the American Association for Anatomy
  • Pongo abelii entry at the International Union for Conservation of Nature
  • Pongo pygmaeus entry at the International Union for Conservation of Nature

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 Linda Crampton


Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 20, 2015:

Thank you very much, bat115! Orangutans are definitely beautiful. They are very interesting animals.

Tim from Los Angeles, CA on August 20, 2015:

Thanks for sharing this! I now have a good head start on doing my part to save these beautiful creatures.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 19, 2014:

Hi, Crystal. I think that orangutans are fascinating, too. I know what you mean about them being amusing! They can be very endearing.

Crystal Tatum from Georgia on March 19, 2014:

I find orangutans fascinating, and they always make me smile.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 04, 2013:

Hi, DDE. I agree - orangutans are definitely beautiful and fascinating animals! Thanks for the visit.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on December 04, 2013:

How to Help Endangered Orangutans they are beautiful and most fascinating

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 06, 2013:

Thank you very much, Insightful Tiger! I appreciate your comment, the vote and the share very much. Orangutans are wonderful animals. They deserve our help.

Insightful Tiger on May 06, 2013:

Good work and well done! I love that you not only told us about how cool these animals that share the planet with us are, you told us how we can help. I definitely learned some things about what labels to look for when shopping and what kind of information to look for when researching companies. Thank you for helping us on the road to consciousness, sis! Voted up and shared!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 11, 2013:

It must have been wonderful working for Greenpeace, carozy, especially when you were trying to save orangutans! Thank you for the comment.

carozy from San Francisco on January 11, 2013:

I once worked for Greenpeace trying to save orangutans. Thank you for writing this. You've included a lot of great information for helping stop their extinction also which I appreciate.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 27, 2012:

Thank you very much for the visit and the comment, b. Malin. It is sad that there are so many orphaned orangutan babies. The mother is often killed by hunters, and if the baby isn't caught for the pet trade it's left on its own. As you say, though, it is wonderful that the babies are raised and then released into the wild!

b. Malin on October 27, 2012:

What a Treat to read Alicia. Orangutans are so Smart, that it seems Sad, when a Mother abandons her little one. Thanks goodness for all the Wonderful, caring help at the Orphanages. It's so Great to see how they are given back to the Forrest to live whenever possible. Thanks for another Educational, as well as thought provoking Hub.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 25, 2012:

Hi, teaches. Thanks for the visit. Many people may be unaware that orangutans are in trouble. I think that it's important that people know the true status of orangutans. They are lovely animals and I would hate it if they became extinct.

Dianna Mendez on October 25, 2012:

Quite an education, Alicia. I didn't realize the orangutan was an endangered species. I will certainly check the palm oil for "certified" purchase.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 25, 2012:

Thank you very much, drbj. I've heard about the Clint Eastwood movie but I've never seen it. I was very pleased to find all the videos in this hub. Some of them are very touching, I think, and it's wonderful to see the orangutans interacting with their environment.

drbj and sherry from south Florida on October 25, 2012:

I have been enamored of orangutans since I first saw a Clint Eastwood movie many, many moons ago starring Clint and a charismatic orangutan. I think the title was 'Every Which Way But Up.' Now Clint can hold his own in a film but the orang stole the picture. Thanks, Alicia, for this fascinating humanitarian hub about the importance of saving the orang population. Voted way Up.

The videos, BTW, are outstanding.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 25, 2012:

Thank you, GoodLady. I'll be buying Christmas items from one of the orangutan organizations too!

Penelope Hart from Rome, Italy on October 25, 2012:

You have provided us with a list of things that we can do, thank you. Talking and gnashing our teeth is not enough. I'm not sending as many Christmas cards this year but I'll make sure the calendars I send instead are bought directly from the Orangutan Foundation International protection group. Thanks for helping us all out!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 24, 2012:

I share your frustration, Bill. Humans are treating this planet terribly in so many parts of the world. Thank you very much for the comment.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 24, 2012:

Thank you very much, Eddy. I appreciate your visit and your comment!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on October 24, 2012:

I am so tired of man's inhumanity towards all creatures on this planet. We plow down, we level forests, we pave everything over, and we don't seem to care about the consequences. Great job, Alicia! A must read for anyone who cares about Nature!

Eiddwen from Wales on October 24, 2012:

Brilliant I truly enjoyed this one and look forward to so many more to come.


Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 24, 2012:

Thanks for the comment and the vote, PaisleeGal. I agree - it's wonderful to have orangutans in the world!

Pat Materna from Memphis, Tennessee, USA on October 24, 2012:

Good article! All these gentle beast do is silently make the world a better place. Thanks for the Hub. Voted up!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 24, 2012:

Thank you very much for the comment and the share, ivanmarginal. When I previewed the videos in this hub I was very happy to see how concerned some people in Indonesia are about the fate of orangutans. Their effort is the most important of all, since they live next to the orangutans and don't have to help from a long distance away, as most of us do.

ivanmarginal from Jakarta on October 24, 2012:

I'm from Indonesia where Orangutans come from. My country now attempts to save them from extinction. Nice share Alicia! I'm gonna share it with my friends.

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