The only places on earth that orangutans are found in the wild are in the rainforests on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra in Asia. These shy great apes are known as the gardeners of the forest, because when they eat forest fruits, they swallow the seeds and the seeds get passed through their digestive system, falling to the forest floor where they sprout up again, producing new trees and starting a fresh cycle of forest life.
Orangutans are very human-like. They share 97 per cent of their DNA with humans, making them one of our closest relatives in the animal kingdom. Their name means “person of the forest” in Malay.
They have long, shaggy, rusty-red hair, black faces, brown eyes and a protruding lower face. They have stocky bodies, curved legs and very long, powerful arms. Males are much heavier than females at up to 87 kg; females weigh one third to one half less. Young males look like females. More mature males develop great puffy cheek pads, called flanges, on either side of their faces, and a throat sack which makes their calls louder.
Orangutans are perfectly adapted to living in trees. Their strong arms and curved hands and feet, along with their flexible hips, allow them to swing easily from branch to branch. They find everything they need in the forest canopy; fruits to eat and water to drink (collected on leaves or in tree hollows). Every evening they make a new nest in the treetops. The base is made from entwined branches, which they cover with a soft, comfortable mattress of leaves and foliage. Sometimes they even build a roof of branches to protect them from the rain.
Their favourite food is fruit, such as figs, mango and durian. They are able to eat over 300 different types. They also eat leaves, shoots, flowers, honey, insects, tree bark and birds eggs.
Orangutans are famed for their intelligence. They have been seen in the wild using tools. For example, they will use sticks to dig holes to get at termites or honey combs, and they use leaves to protect their hands from thorny fruits.
Male orangutans tend to live alone; but females spend many years with their children. The moms will have their first babies when they are about 14 years old. The young develop for 9 months inside their mother. Usually just one baby is born; though sometimes there are twins. The new-borns spend the first four months clinging onto their mother’s tummy. They are fully dependent on their mom and are only weaned from their mother’s milk when they are three to four years old. They begin to learn to climb when they are about two. They will stay with their mother until they are 7 - 11 years old.
Orangutans are critically endangered - their numbers have dropped by half in the last 60 years - because of habitat destruction (especially the clearing of forests for palm oil plantations and illegal logging) as well as poaching and the exotic pet trade.