The discovery of a new great ape is exciting news surely. But not all good news it seems. With less than 800 Tapanuli orangutans remaining in the wild, researchers have discovered a new species that’s already on the very brink of extinction.

Already struggling to survive

The reasons? Loss of habitat due to mining, building, encroachment, and illegal logging all continue to threaten their habitat. These orangutans survive in only around 1,100 sq km in North Sumatra, and with their population already divided over 3 forest blocks separated by roads and agricultural land, urgent conservation efforts are needed to ensure their survival. They are already the most endangered great ape species in the world, and their critical habitat area, with the highest densities of orangutans, is apparently not currently protected in any way and is supposedly scheduled for development by a large new hydro dam.

Orangutans in general

The name orangutan means ‘man of the forest’ in the Malay language. There are, or were, only two species of orangutan: Bornean and Sumatran. Identified mainly by where they live, there are slight social and physical differences, including facial hair and social interaction. Bornean orangutans are semi-solitary, but both have a similar diet of fruit and leaves and the occasional insect or small mammal. Sumatran orangutans are lighter in colour, and have longer body hair and less pendulous throat sacs than Bornean orangutans, but the differences between any of them are in their chromosomes, and visually can only really be told apart by side-by-side images. Tapanuli orangutans have frizzier hair, smaller heads, and flatter and wider faces. Dominant male Tapanuli orangutans have prominent moustaches and large flat cheek pads, known as flanges, covered in downy hair.

Orangutans are among the rarest primates on Earth, faced with deforestation, poaching, the illegal pet trade, and forest fires. Since 1960, their populations have declined by 50%, with scientists projecting this will fall another 22% by 2025.

Orangutans can live up to 50 years but have a relatively low reproductive rate because females only give birth once every 5-10 years, and according to the IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group’s Section on Great Apes if more than 1% of the population is lost annually this will spiral them to extinction.

Credits: envato elements;

We have a common ancestor

Spookily humanlike, they share 96.4% of our genes and are highly intelligent, covered in fur rather than hair, but despite having the capacity to communicate, they have not yet learned to ‘talk’ as we do.

Some Bornean orangutans are known to use leaves as napkins, but not all do it. Sumatran orangutans use leaves as gloves to handle the thorny stuff, and some lay leaves down on spikey tree branches to create comfortable seating. All are known for their distinctive red fur, and spend most of their time in the trees - their long, powerful arms and grasping hands and feet allowing them to move through the branches like flawless acrobats. Orangutans’ aptness for culture is encouraged by their uncanny abilities to mimic, and learning a new behaviour is as simple as playing a ‘monkey see, monkey do’ game. They are avid tool-users, and behaviours that prove useful, or make a task more efficient, can spread through their population over time without the need for direct communication or instruction.

Life behind bars

Should they be kept in zoos? Arguably, they are kept with a view of ‘reintroduction to the wild’, though it is more likely they are there to increase visitor numbers. In captivity, keeping them mentally occupied is a challenge, and little is known about their activity needs, enclosure use, and how zoo visitors affect them. However, breeding orangutans in captivity with the aim of releasing them is currently not common practice in the area of orangutan conservation, and the IUCN does not include any orangutans in its list of wildlife species for which captive breeding has been recommended as a conservation action. Ensuring local communities are involved in, and supportive of, conservation initiatives is better, and rescuing and reintroducing wild, injured, or orphaned individuals to the wild is encouraged.


Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man. 

Marilyn Sheridan