Genus Pongo: The Old Men of the Forest | Houston’s Zoo No. 02

Hello all. Today, I’d like to talk to you about orangutans. Earlier this week, that sentence said “Today, I’d like to talk to you about okapis,” but then something happened that made me flip a few pages forward in the ‘O’ section of my animal encyclopedia, and put the forest giraffe off for another week—something very serious that I feel I have to address before I get into the fun facts.

Some of you may have seen the viral video currently making the rounds on social media of an orangutan smoking a cigarette at a zoo in Bandung, Indonesia. First of all, this is deplorable. Here is a powerful, majestic creature that is listed by the IUCN red list as critically endangered, and along comes some uneducated zoo-goer and hands him a lit cancer stick. I’ve seen zoo guests try to get away with some pretty questionable stuff in my day—and stepped in where necessary—but this takes even my breath away. The fact that an unsupervised guest was able to get that close to an orangutan with a cigarette at all is utterly irresponsible on the part of a number of parties, including zoo management.

Second, you have to recognize that this is not representative of zoos in general. As a matter of fact, Bandung Zoo has been under scrutiny for quite some time for similar and even much worse conditions in many of their exhibits, and the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) issued a statement Friday that said:

“WAZA is disturbed by a recent viral video that shows a visitor at a non-member zoo in Indonesia giving a lit cigarette to an orangutan. WAZA calls on the Bandung Zoo to take the necessary steps to ensure that this sort of animal abuse and lack of attention to welfare does not re-occur.”

I urge anyone reading this not to make any snap judgments about zoos in general based on the negligence of a poorly-run, unaccredited institution like the one known by many as Indonesia’s “Death Zoo.” Bandung is stuck in a zoological dark age, while modern zoos across the globe seek to preserve and provide for exotic species while also entertaining and educating the public on the importance and majesty of our natural world.

Okay. I’m off my soapbox now. Speaking of entertaining and educating, I believe I owe y’all an article about orangutans.

If you had asked me six months ago, “How many species of orangutan are there?” I would have quickly replied, “Two. The Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) and the Sumatran orangutan (P. Abelii).” However, in November 2017, a new species of orangutan was officially recognized. The Tapanuli orangutan (P. tapanuliensis) is the most endangered of the three, with no more than 800 individuals in existence.

The other two aren’t much better off, unfortunately. There are an estimated 105,000 Bornean and 14,000 Sumatran orangs currently living. Their rapid decline is largely due to deforestation for logging, palm oil production, and other industries, and to illegal hunting.

Man, I’m a downer this week…

Anyway, the orangutan is one of the largest apes, and easily the largest arboreal (tree-living) mammal in the world. Although they stand less than five feet tall on average, they can weigh up to 220 pounds. And while some of that is—admittedly—fat, the majority is pure muscle. Orangs have ridiculous amounts of upper body strength. They have to. Their arms, which can reach 8 feet in span, are built to hold their entire weight for most of the time.

Their lower body strength is less impressive, but still better than most humans. Living in the trees, moving about almost exclusively by brachiation, you could easily assume they skip leg day fairly regularly, but not so. Smaller orangutans, especially, can spend long periods of time hanging upside down by their feet (which have thumbs, by the way) to collect hard-to-reach fruits.

Male orangs are the largest, often double the size of the females, and very territorial. When a turf war arises, two rival males charge (on the ground), grapple, and bite at each other’s facial flanges. With their heavy build and severe expressions, they have been likened to sumo wrestlers.

But they aren’t all brawn. Orangutans are highly intelligent creatures as well. Wild orangs have been discovered chewing certain leaves to create an anti-inflammatory salve, and communicating planned travel routes to their family groups via vocal calls. In captivity, this innate intelligence makes orangs difficult to keep contained. There are numerous anecdotes about orangutans escaping from their enclosures to go for a walk around their zoos. My personal favorite involves the great ape slipping a key off his keeper’s belt, hiding it under his lip, and waiting for the park to close before using it to unlock his night housing. These days, zoos are better about keeping their animals safe and secure, but these are fun stories to talk about nonetheless.

Once again, before I close, I want to invite you to look into these creatures—and the zoos who care for them—on your own. Find out ways you can help preserve these imperiled Pongos, and maybe see how long you can hang by your feet.

Actually, that last bit might be ill-advised.

That’s all from me. If you have any questions, or would like to request an animal to be featured, comment down below and It’ll be my pleasure to help you out.

See you next weekend, and until then I am…

As I ever am.

Photo Credits: Smithsonian Magazine, Orangutan Foundation International, The Houston Zoo, and yours truly.

Categories: Feature, Opinion

2 replies »

  1. Thanks for reminding us that preservating all of creation is everybodies obligtion -to respect and promote. It’s an us and them world of survival -spread the word! We need a petting zoo/ a touring animal kingdom.


    • Amen, indeed, Tim. I think it’s important, now more than ever, that people acknowledge our role in the global ecosystem. If everyone educates themselves on the plights of animals like the orangutan (and employs the good ol’ Outdoor Code) we can keep such majestic creatures around for a little while longer. Cheers!


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