Orangutans of Borneo: Woken by the People of the Forest

The rainforest never truly sleeps.  When one group of animals finishes their shift, they are instantly replaced by a suite of other unimaginably unique and noisy creatures. After a night full of frogs croaking, geckos chit-chatting, insects buzzing and owls screeching,  first light began to filter through the trees. Lying in bed, we could hear the sounds of the forest change. Birds began to sing and a different assortment of whirring insects started their engines. I could hear something larger though. Large enough to bend branches and shake trees. Needless to say, I was up and out the door.

Morning Break in the Rainforest

With my eyes struggling to adjust, I noticed two long-limbed silhouettes moving towards me. Considering our short stay at the field centre and the tiny number of orangutans left in the wild, I knew that our chances of seeing orangutans would be slim. Despite knowing this, I was almost certain that my eyes weren’t deceiving me. I whispered as loud as physically possible, ‘EMMMMMA!’

As we both watched, the female and her baby moved from tree to tree foraging for fruit. Then, I heard a roar in the distance and saw a tree shake violently. I had a brief glimpse of what I could swear was a huge orangutan, maybe twice the size of the female. We called the others at the centre in the hope we had been in the right place at the right time to see Hantu, the resident mature flanged male. We were told that sightings of flanged males were rare as they have huge territories. We didn’t see or hear anything in that direction again, and put it down to noisy proboscis monkeys, or an unflanged male orangutan. The mother and baby then slowly moved higher and higher into the canopy until we could no longer get a good view.

Later that day after a morning of activities, we were back in the room once more. From the hallway we could hear someone whistling. The mystery whistler was Samsir, one of the Malaysian staff, who wanted to get our attention. He beckoned us to follow him. He led us along a path from the accommodation to the research centre where the same two orangutans had come down from the canopy. This time they were closer than ever, literally meters off the path.

Pongo pygmaeus [BORNEAN ORANGUTAN] Sabah, Borneo 07-10-2017 (16).jpg

We took the opportunity and snapped these photos. Before long, they were gone. This was our last sighting of these two, but it wasn’t our last orangutan encounter…   Until our next blog post, be surprised by some orangutan facts we have sourced below.


Orangutan Facts

• The Bornean orangutan together with the Sumatran orangutan belong to the only genus of great apes native to Asia

• There are three subspecies of Bornean organutan: Northwest Bornean orangutan P. p. pygmaeus, Central Bornean orangutan P. p. wurmbii and the Northeast Bornean orangutan P. p. morio.  Pongo pygmaeus morio was the star of this particular post, as we were in Sabah.

• In Malay “orang” means “person” and “utan” (derived from “hutan”) means “forest.” Therefore, orangutan literally means “person of the forest”.

• They are the third-heaviest living primate after the two species of gorilla

• They are the largest truly arboreal animal alive today

• 60% of the their diet is made up of fruit, but they also eat young leaves and shoots, insects, tree bark, and occasionally eggs and small vertebrates

• Orangutans play an crucial role in seed dispersal, keeping forests healthy.  More than 500 species of plant have been recorded in their diet

• Bornean orangutans are critically endangered, much like the Sumatran orangutans

• Bornean orangutan populations have declined by more than 50% over the past 60 years, with their habitat reduced by at least 55% over the past 20 years primarily due to human activities and development

• According to IUCN and the most recent population estimates based on updated geographic ranges, there are thought to be 104,700 Bornean Orangutans and 14,613 Sumatran Orangutan individuals left in the wild

• Orangutans have opposable thumbs and opposable big toes

• Oddly, approximately 1/3 of all orangutans do not have nails on their big toes

• They make use of tools. They use leafy branches or large leaves to shelter themselves from rain and sun; Twigs are sometimes used during insect foraging, honey collection, and as protection against stinging insects; They “fish” for branches or fruit that is out of reach using twigs.

• They also demonstrate socially learned traditions (culture), such as Bornean orangutans using leaves as napkins, or Sumatran orangutans using leaves as gloves for handling spiny fruit.

• Orangutans’ infants have a prolonged association with their mothers. They can be carried by their mothers until they are 5 years old, breast-fed until 8, and continue to accompany their mothers until 10. Some female orangutans continue to return to their mothers after time spent apart until they are 16. Probably only humans have a more intensive relationship with their mothers.


Want to know more?

To read about our experience at Danau Girang Field Centre, check out our previous post: Into the Jungle: One Week at a Field Research Centre in Borneo

Zoomology DGFC


References and Further Reading

Animal Fact Guide Website  – http://www.animalfactguide.com/animal-facts/bornean-orangutan/
(Retrieved 18 October, 2017)

Cardiff University Website, Danau Girang Field Centre – http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/danau-girang-field-centre

IUCN Red List Website, Bornean Orangutan – http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/17975/0
(Retrieved 18 October, 2017)

Orangutan Foundation International Website – https://orangutan.org/orangutan-facts/quick-orangutan-facts-figures/
(Retrieved 18 October, 2017)

Orangutan Trekking Tours, – https://www.orangutantrekkingtours.com/orangutan-blog/how-many-critically-endangered-bornean-orangutans-are-left/
(Retrieved 19 October, 2017)

World Wildlife Foundation Website – https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/bornean-orangutan
(Retrieved 18 October, 2017)

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