The arboreal life of Orangutans

Courtney Dunn
July 15, 2022

Orangutans are going extinct, learn more about why.

The Orangutan

Quite possibly one of the most on brand names for an animal is that of the orangutan. Their name, translating to person of the forest, refers their relationship to us and their near strictly arboreal way of life. They have adaptations ranging from opposable thumbs to throat sacs for forest communication. Orangutans are well-equipped for whatever the rainforest throws at them — except for us.

Sumatran orangutans live only on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. They live in Indonesia with a recently identified species called the Tapanuli orangutan who lives farther south on the island. The Bornean orangutan, who is much heavier set than their Sumatran relatives, lives on the island of Borneo.

Orangutans prefer the canopies of primary rainforests and swamp and riparian areas — meaning close to water. These forests are often full of mature fruit trees which account for 60% of an orangutan’s diet. Their favourites being figs and durian. When fruit may be scarce, they will turn to leaves and flowers as well as bark and the occasional insect or egg.

Their declining population

Unlike their larger African relatives, orangutans are mostly solitary except for mating pairs or females with offspring. This species not only grows & matures slowly but also reproduces on one of the slowest scales in the mammalian world. Orangutans only become mature when they reach 14–16 years of age. After which, they will find a mate. One orangutan will only bear one young every eight or nine years, meaning she will only raise three to four young within her lifetime. Coupled with their slow reproduction cycle and the rapid decline of their numbers from human encroachment, their population faces many threats.

The vanishing lowland rainforests of Sumatra are one of the last strongholds for this species as logging, forest fires, and agriculture threaten their way of life. The world operates on the law of supply and demand, so we need carefully manage this. We often hear the phrase, but it really is an important part of the answer for helping orangutans. Another way, of course, is supporting accredited zoos that educate others about orangutans and also contribute to their conservation.

The Toronto Zoo houses the only Sumatran orangutans in Canada, including a newly born baby boy. This orangutan baby is an important contribution to a genetically healthy Sumatran orangutan population in human care. Thirteen orangutans have been raised at the Toronto Zoo since 1974.

Want to see a Sumatran orangutan from the comfort of your own home? Visit today to see the orangutans as they go about their lives at the Toronto Zoo.