Facts About Endangered Orangutans and Some Ways to Help Them

Updated on May 12, 2019
AliciaC profile image

Linda Crampton is a writer and teacher with an honors degree in biology. She loves to study nature and write about living things.

A female Sumatran orangutan at the Cincinnati Zoo
A female Sumatran orangutan at the Cincinnati Zoo | Source

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, the two species of orangutans are in big trouble, mainly due to habitat destruction and fragmentation and the conversion of forests to oil palm plantations. Both 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 can all be helpful.

A Bornean orangutan at the Fort Worth Zoo in Texas
A Bornean orangutan at the Fort Worth Zoo in Texas | Source

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.

Red Apes of the Rainforest

The two species of orangutan are the Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) and the Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus). Compared to Bornean orangutans, the Sumatran animals are thinner and have longer faces and longer hair. They live in the trees and rarely come to the ground.

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. When they do come to the ground they walk on all four limbs instead of standing on two legs.

Adult males 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. Male orangutans also have a large throat pouch, which acts as a resonating chamber for their calls.

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 | Source

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 animal 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.

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 all researchers agree that the number of animals is decreasing and that the situation is especially serious in Sumatra.

According to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), in 2017 researchers estimated that 13,848 Sumatran orangutans still existed. 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.

IUCN researchers have also estimated that around 55,000 Bornean orangutans are still alive. Unfortunately, this number is based on a 2004 survey. The IUCN says that the number of animals in existence today isn't precisely known. They classified the animal's population as critically endangered in 2016, however. A new population assessment badly needs to be performed.

Some people might wonder why an estimated population over 50,000 (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 behaviour 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.

Fundraise

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.

For example, 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.

Buy Environmentally Friendly and Sustainable 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 which 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.

References

Orangutan information from the World Wildlife Fund

Facts about orangutans from the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute

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.

Questions & Answers

    © 2012 Linda Crampton

    Comments

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      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

      • bat115 profile image

        Tim 

        4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

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

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        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 profile image

        Crystal Tatum 

        5 years ago from Georgia

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

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

      • DDE profile image

        Devika Primić 

        5 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

        How to Help Endangered Orangutans they are beautiful and most fascinating

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        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 profile image

        Insightful Tiger 

        6 years ago

        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!

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

      • carozy profile image

        carozy 

        6 years ago from San Francisco

        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.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        7 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        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 profile image

        b. Malin 

        7 years ago

        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.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        7 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        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.

      • teaches12345 profile image

        Dianna Mendez 

        7 years ago

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

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        7 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        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 profile image

        drbj and sherry 

        7 years ago from south Florida

        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.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        7 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

      • GoodLady profile image

        Penelope Hart 

        7 years ago from Rome, Italy

        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!

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        7 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        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.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        7 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        7 years ago from Olympia, WA

        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 profile image

        Eiddwen 

        7 years ago from Wales

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

        Eddy.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        7 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

      • PaisleeGal profile image

        Pat Materna 

        7 years ago from Memphis, Tennessee, USA

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

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        7 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        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 profile image

        ivanmarginal 

        7 years ago from Jakarta

        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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