Our Opinion: The Culture of the Neglected Ape

By Kaleigh Rhoads, Borneo Project Communications Intern

3 Apes onto something

I have developed a reputation for myself among my family, friends, and co-workers, as a person obsessed with orangutans. As the self-appointed “Orangutan Girl” I am eager to take advantage of World Orangutan Day as an opportunity to discuss what orangutans are really losing with mass deforestation and what we, as humans, have to lose by not taking an active role in protecting the habitat that is left.

In September, I will be traveling to Sarawak to volunteer at Matang Wildlife Centre for three weeks. It will be a dream come true to travel to Borneo and to see orangutans in person. As much as I’ve tried to prepare myself, I still have little idea of what to expect from this adventure. My goal is to learn as much as possible about how orangutans are cared for in these rehabilitation centers, what these centers need, and what the orangutans need, so that I may learn how to better aid in the survival of this great species.

Orangutans get their name from the Malay words “Orang” meaning person and “Hutan” meaning forest. In recent decades though, it seems more appropriate to refer to these great apes by the name sometimes used by scholars, the “neglected ape”, referring to the prominent neglect for the survival of the species.

Photo Credit: Andrew Walmsley

Photo Credit: Andrew Walmsley

Orangutans could once be found all throughout Asia, even extending into China, but they now exist only on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. On these islands, humans are not the only residents to be displaced from their land due to industry; just as indigenous communities are evicted from their land by palm oil and mega dam companies, conversion of rainforest to palm oil plantation kills, or displaces, about five thousand orangutans annually [1]. Those that do not die in land-clearing forest fires are found starving, searching for new habitat on the very plantations that replaced their home. Considered “pests of agriculture,” any orangutans discovered on plantations are killed, often brutally.

The fortunate few that survive, mostly young orphans, may end up at a rehabilitation center. At these rehabilitation centers are people who do wonderful work and pour their hearts into the rescue, rehabilitation, and eventual release of orangutans, yet despite all of this good work, these orangutans are still unable to live the same life that they would have originally, had they grown up in their natural forest habitat.

Like humans, orangutans have a long period of reliance on their mothers, averaging nine years, and have a lot to learn before they can survive in the rainforest on their own. Orangutan mothers and their infants are said to have one of the closest bonds in the animal kingdom [2]. Caretakers of orangutans teach the orphans skills, such as foraging, food processing, nest building, and predator avoidance, in the hopes that they can maintain this livelihood upon release.

In 2002, The Leakey Foundation sponsored a gathering of top orangutan researchers who identified twenty four behaviors with evidence for cultural transmission [3]. Though orangutans are low on the social spectrum, they are not entirely solitary and do learn culturally variable skills from not only their mothers, but from social interactions with other orangutans.

Photo Credit: Ch'ien C. Lee

Photo Credit: Ch’ien C. Lee

With the mass destruction of  orangutans’ rainforest habitat, orangutans lose so much more than just their shelter and food. While those orangutans who make it to rehabilitations centers are certainly luckier than most, they miss out on much of the group knowledge that would have been passed down to them by their mothers and by other wild orangutans. Ultimately, they will grow up with very different experiences to shape them. The selfless people who care for injured orangutans come up with new and innovative ways to teach them the skills that they will need to survive back in the wild, however, all would agree that there is no substitute for being raised in the forest by their mother.

Lead author of the orangutan cross-cultural study Carel van Schaik warns, “Some of the areas included in this study have already been lost to illegal logging, and even if somehow you could restore the forest and the animals, just as with human cultures, once a culture is gone, it’s gone.” [4]

If we do not take an active role against further deforestation and destruction, humans have a lot more to lose than a cute, iconic endangered species. In addition to the vital ecosystem services orangutans provide which support healthy rainforests, if humans were to drive one of their closest evolutionary relatives to extinction, we would miss out on a lot of opportunities to learn more about our own origins of culture.   

[1] “About Great Apes.” Center for Great Apes. 2013. Web. <http://www.centerforgreatapes.org/great-apes.aspx>.

[2] “Orangutans.” Orangutan Land Trust. 2013. Web. <http://www.forests4orangutans.org/orangutans/>.

[3] “Evidence for Orangutan Culture.” Science Daily. 07 Jan 2003. Web. <http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2003/01/030107073934.htm>.

[4] ibid