The leaves rustle as they float down towards the swampy undergrowth, ripples forming as they land in heaps. The quick flick of the tail of a clouded leopard on the prowl, or the stare of the eyes of a Sumatran tiger lying in wait for prey is a heard of sight in these parts of Earth. But the shadows cast on the canopies of the fig trees, and the long calls resonating through the mist-filled mornings take us back to millions of years ago; where the trails of humans are thought of to have emerged, the orangutans.

Orangutan: “Person of the Forest”

Spread of the three main species of orangutans found in the wild.
Figure 01: Spread of the three main species of orangutans found in the wild.

Belonging to the Ponginae subfamily of the Hominidae family, these great apes have their name derived from the roots of Malay. Identified to be comprising of three main species, they are the Borneo orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus), Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii), and the Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis). Having migrated to the then spacious and lush Indonesian islands, as of current times they are found (in the wild) limited to a few regions of these islands, and an alarmingly few numbers as well.

Showing sexual dimorphism in striking ways, both physically as well as behaviorally, the orangutans are among the most solitary of apes. Choosing a lifestyle that is arboreal primarily, facilitates the escape of natural predatory danger from the big cats of the rain forests, as well as boosts their immunity with a lesser contact with intestinal worms and parasites via the contact of fecal matter or contaminated soil. This arboreal choice in habitat has led to these not-so-distant relatives to us Homo sapiens having rather elongated arms in order to reach from branch to branch as they swing across the canopies. The name, “Person of the Forest” is thus quite fitting to these giant long-armed apes, with reddish-brown stringy hair and social habits that redefine the ideas of sociology and cultural anthropology.

Nearly Human: A Social Construct

The difference between flanged (right) male and unflanged (left) male orangutans.
Figure 02: The difference between a flanged (right) male and an unflanged (left) male orangutan.

With males being divided into two categories as flanged and unflanged, they often lead a more sedentary and distant life than most primates. With protruding cheek pads and a hanging air sac, the flanged males are often given more prominence in mating. The variety of “long calls” that are produced by flanged males are often to either garner the attention of a female who is ready to mate or to alert one’s presence to the other males. The meeting of two flanged males often leads to violence and agitation, although they tend to rather avoid each other than dive into a confrontation in certain cases.

While it is unclear of the exact reasons for a male orangutan to be “flanged”, the effect of age has a prominence to the hierarchy of society here. But as the species of land mammals with the longest birth interval, and having the longest childhood of any non-human animal, age is a question of nurturing and learning. Upon reaching maturity at around 15 years of age, a female orangutan undergoes pregnancy for around 8 months. Upon birth, she then cares for her child as an equivalent to a single mother, for around 8 to 9 years, or more.

During this time, the many habits of the life of an orangutan are instilled within the infant. From the measured swings between branches to the exact food to eat and where to find them, the infant observes, copies, and then adapts in this learning process. However, scientific observations of the nature in which these life lessons are given have given rise to the groundbreaking idea of cultural patterns existing outside the human species.

A female orangutan and her infant.
Figure 03: A female orangutan and her infant.

The Regional Divide: Emergence of Culture

At one point, it was believed that we humans differed from our great apes in the sense that we use tools and manipulate the resources available to us for our ease. First rebuked by the studies of Jane Goodall on chimpanzees, orangutans to show a great sense of using their natural resources for the betterment. The use of leaves as “gloves” to handle fruits with thorns, and the proficiency in using branches to fish out ants and insects that are deep in tree hollows are very good examples of this.

The next assumption was that humans differed from the great apes due to the marked appearance of cultures in human society. In a loose form of explanation, culture is the same need done in various forms due to geographical differences of a species. The building of a daily nest to sleep in, as well as the complementation of these nests with “rooftops” to shelter from the sun or rain is a feat that is seen to be having differences according to the regions in which the orangutans occupy. Furthermore, habits such as performing different varieties of calls once a next is made and even wiping their mouth with a leaf after eating are factors that are seemingly passed down from generation to generation of orangutans. These factors lead to the basis that these miraculous creatures have a cultural imprint within their circles. 

For the Lack of Humanity

As sophisticated and awe-inspiring as orangutans are, they face a large threat to their population and existence. Being limited to a single region on the planet, the deforestation of an extremely high amount of forests to facilitate the commercial growth of oil palms has threatened the homes of these animals greatly.     

With statistics reading around 104,700 Borneo orangutans, 7,500 Sumatran orangutans, and a mere 800 Tapanuli orangutans left in the wild, the critically endangered status of conservation has been declared for the species. Apart from the loss of habitat, the cruelty of illegal hunting for trade, as well as malicious hunting when happened upon in slowly urbanizing villages too affects these statistics greatly.

As the “dominant” species on this planet, it is our duty to always remember that the actions we take, bear consequences that are often unforeseen to us. The loss of a species that shares 96.4% of our genes and the level of intelligence to show cultural markers is a consequence that is damning to us both scientifically, morally, and ecologically. Great care and immediate action should thus be taken to uphold the safety of the habitat, and the population of these amazing creatures, closest to humans, but endangered due to the farthest lacking humanity…

Written By:

W.M.D.A.L.B. Tilakaratna
3rd Year Undergraduate (Physics Honors),
Department of Physics,
Faculty of Science,
University of Colombo.

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