The name orangutan cames from the Malay “orang” meaning person and “hutan” meaning forest, so the orangutan is literally a “person of the forest.” The Dayak tribes of Borneo traditionally regarded the orangutan as a type of human, one that pretended to be mute so as to avoid being put to work. Indeed, the orangutan shares 97% of its DNA with humans, making it one of our closest relatives, and along with humans, chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas, are one of the Great Apes. Other than humans, they are the only Great Ape living in Asia, and today are confined to the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. An orangutan infant typically spends from 7-9 years with its mother learning what it needs to learn about survival in the forest entirely from her. It is said that orangutans enjoy the strongest and longest mother-infant bond in the animal kingdom, with the exception of humans. This long learning period makes the orangutans one of the most intelligent animal species on the planet (Scientists continue to debate whether this accolade belongs to the chimpanzee or the orangutan.)
In the wild, the orangutan lives a semi-solitary existence. Infants and youngsters travel with their mothers, and adult males, who have nothing to do with the raising of offspring, tend to travel long distances on their own. This solitary existence is determined by the distribution of their food sources. In Sumatra, where fruit is in more abundance, orangutans enjoy a slightly more social existence, congregating on more occasions when there are mast fruitings. And in Sumatra, scientists have documented numerous examples of culture amongst orangutans, the spread of which is perhaps made possible by this more social lifestyle. The largest arboreal mammal on the planet, the orangutan makes nests high in the forest canopy, sometimes incorporating leafy roofs to keep out the rain in rainy season. (They also use enormous leaves as umbrellas! ) The forest canopy is their home; there, they find all their food, avoid predators, travel along aerial highways and even give birth. And as much as the orangutan needs forest, the forest needs the orangutan. The orangutan serves as a major seed distributor. Using their strong jaws, they can open fruits that other animals cannot, and many seeds pass through their gut undigested. Some of these seeds can only germinate when deposited in the dung of the orangutan. In their role as gardeners of the rainforest, they also are responsible for essential pruning. As they travel through the upper canopy, they break off branches, allowing the sunlight to reach the forest floor to permit new shoots to grow.
The single greatest threat to the survival of the orangutan is the conversion of their forest to agriculture and other degradation of their habitat. Therefore, the solution to ensure their survival is to minimize this impact on their habitat. In Indonesia, close to 80% of orangutans exist OUTSIDE of protected areas. And in both Malaysia and Indonesia, particularly in Sabah and Sarawak, Kalimantan and Sumatra, relatively new frontiers are being targeted for oil palm development, logging and mining. It just so happens that these are precisely the areas where the last wild orangutans on earth reside. In order to save these species, as well as the rest of the immeasurable biodiversity that shares their habitat, development must only proceed in the most sustainable way possible.