Found only in Sumatra and Borneo, Southeast Asia's endangered orangutans are considered to be among the most intelligent of primates. With human-like antics and incredible intelligence, an orangutan encounter is something that you will never forget!
Unfortunately, the orangutan's extreme adaptability and intelligence aren't enough to keep numbers from dwindling. The population has declined an estimated 80% in the last 75 years.
Enjoy these curious orangutan facts, then read about where you can see these fascinating creatures in Asia.
Some Interesting Orangutan Facts
- The Giggles: Orangutans have been recorded laughing while playing games and being tickled.
- Gift Exchanges: Orangutans are thought to be the only non-human species that understands reciprocity. They regularly exchange gifts and reward generous friends or punish stingy members of the group.
- Using Computers: IBM and UCLA developed a computer game that orangutans enjoy and then even teach other orangutans in the group how to play. Two orangutans regularly play games on a touch screen at Zoo Atlanta.
- Making Tools: Orangutans craft umbrellas from large leaves to keep off the rain as well as devices to amplify sound. They also fashion hand tools for opening fruit, refine them, then share the tools with others in the group.
- Sign Language: Orangutans have been taught to communicate with sign language and some have learned nearly 40 signs.
- Use of Medicine: Orangutans make use of plants as natural medicine: they use flowers from the genus Commelina as a balm for skin problems. Knowledge of how to make the balm is passed down from generation to generation!
- Poisonous Plants: Orangutans can consume a climbing vine known as Strychnos ignati -- which contains enough strychnine to kill humans -- without harmful effects.
- Forest People: The word 'orangutan' comes from Bahasa Malay and means 'forest people'.
How Endangered are Orangutans?
With a population decline of at least 80% in the last 75 years, Bornean orangutans are listed as 'endangered' on the IUCN Red List and Sumatran orangutans are listed as 'critically endangered'.
In 2012, the Orangutan Conservancy estimated that only 40,000 orangutans are left in the world. Original censuses are thought to have been inflated to take the blame away from profitable palm oil exports.
A majority of the population survives in the difficult-to-access Kalimantan interior on the Indonesian side of Borneo.
Why are the Orangutans Disappearing?
The plight of the orangutans is largely and unsurprisingly caused by humans. Indonesia and Malaysia are the world's leading producers of palm oil -- an ingredient that is used in a mind-boggling array of products ranging from processed foods and chewing gum to soap and shampoo.
Vast sections of native habitat once belonging to orangutans have been cleared to make way for sprawling plantations to feed the world's insatiable appetite for palm oil. Expansive fires in Sumatra, set annually to clear undergrowth, burned out of control in 2012 and destroyed even more habitat.
Orangutans are also victims of an underground pet trade as well as illegal hunting. More than 100 orangutans were found in 2004 as illegal pets in Thailand; they were returned to rehabilitation centers.
Where to See Orangutans
Orangutans are found in the wild in only two places: Sumatra, Indonesia, and in Borneo (both on the Malaysian side and in Kalimantan). Both places offer opportunities to see orangutans in the wild or in semi-wild habitats at sanctuary reserves.
Wildlife centers offer one or two daily feeding times when fruit is placed on a platform to lure orangutans out of the rainforest. You're most likely to see orangutans come take the offering when fruit is not available in the trees.
Orangutans in Borneo
Malaysian Borneo is an extremely popular place to see wild orangutans, both because of the accessibility and relative ease of travel as well as the number of surviving orangutans.
The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre outside of Sandakan in Sabah is one of the most popular places to see orangutans -- particularly during their daily feeding time. A nice alternative to the crowds at Sepilok is the Semmengoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre near Kuching in Sarawak. The quiet sanctuary offers a daily feeding time to lure semi-wild orangutans within camera range, or you can arrange a trek with a ranger to spot them in the treetops.
For an even wilder encounter, you can take a river cruise on the Kinabatangan River in East Sabah. With a little luck you'll see wild orangutans, proboscis monkeys, and a host of other endangered wildlife.
- See 5 places to view orangutans in Borneo.
- Read about taking river cruises on the Kinabatangan River.
Orangutans in Sumatra
Visitors to North Sumatra can take a day hike or multi-night trek through the Gunung Leuser National Park just outside of Bukit Lawang. While not fenced in, the semi-wild orangutans in the area are tolerant enough of humans to hold still for photos. You also have a good chance to see completely wild orangutans in the distant jungle canopy, but you'll probably need a telephoto lens for photos.