Meet Indonesia’s “Man of the Forest”

CLINGING to a branch that seemed too flimsy to support his enormous body, the huge creature stared at us. Holding our breath, we stared back. He seemed indifferent, but we were spellbound. There we stood, eye-to-eye with an orangutan [Pongo pygmaeus], the largest tree-dwelling animal on the planet!

Orangutans belong to the order of great apes, as do gorillas and chimpanzees. These gentle, hermitlike creatures live in the dense jungles of Borneo and Sumatra, two of the largest islands in Southeast Asia. Their name is made up of two Indonesian words, orang and hutan, meaning “man of the forest.”

Would you like to learn more about these fascinating large red apes? Then join us as we travel deep into Borneo to visit them in their native habitat.

Meeting the Orangutan

To see orangutans, we traveled to Tanjung Puting National Park, home to an abundance of animal life. The thousands of orangutans that live there are the main attraction.

Our visit began at the tiny harbor of Kumai, where we boarded a motorized wooden boat called a klotok. Traveling up the river, we snaked deeper and deeper into a narrowing tunnel of jungle greenery. Dense thickets of nipa palms lined the riverbank, and deadly crocodiles lurked in the still, black water. Strange noises echoed through the surrounding jungle, stirring our excitement.

Once off the boat, we doused ourselves with insect repellent and plunged into the forest. Within minutes, we saw our first orangutan​—the large male mentioned earlier. His  shaggy, red fur glowed like polished copper in the afternoon sun. Underneath the fur, his bulging muscles made him a truly awesome sight!

Wild adult males, which stand about five and a half feet [1.7 m] tall and weigh approximately 200 pounds [90 kg], are twice as heavy as the females. Fully grown males develop large cheek pads, giving their face a disklike shape. They also have a dangling throat sac, which they use for rumbling and roaring. Sometimes they emit a booming sequence of sounds that can last up to five minutes and be heard more than a mile away. No wonder it is termed a “long call”! Males typically roar to attract receptive females and scare off rival males.

Treetop Dwellers

As we made our way along the trail, we spotted orangutans swinging through the trees. Their feet and hands are strong, flexible, and hooklike​—with long fingers, short thumbs, and big toes. They grasp branches with ease and move around gracefully and deliberately but never seem to be in a hurry.

Orangutans are experts at camouflage, melting like shadows into the forest canopy. On the ground they move slowly; humans can easily outpace them.

These animals spend almost their entire life in the treetops, and they are the only great apes to do so. Most evenings, around sunset, they select a strong forked bough, gather small branches and twigs, and build a cozy new bed​—as high as 65 feet [20 m] above the ground. To gain shelter from the rain, they sometimes add a protective “roof,” something that chimpanzees and gorillas never do. All of this work takes them only about five minutes!

Trees also provide orangutans with their favorite food​—fruit. They have an excellent memory and know exactly when and where to find ripe fruit. Also on their menu are leaves, bark, shoots, honey, and insects. Orangutans sometimes use a stick to extract honey or insects from holes in trees. All in all, orangutans eat more than 400 different types of food!

Further down the trail, we witnessed another spectacle​—orangutans feeding on  piles of bananas. These animals were raised in captivity and then released into the wild. Lacking the survival skills of wild orangutans, they are given food to supplement what they find on their own.

Orangutan Family Life

We looked on as cute babies clung to their mothers and mischievous little ones frolicked on the ground or in the trees. Female orangutans live up to 45 years. After reaching maturity at age 15 or 16, they give birth once every seven or eight years. The average female orangutan has no more than three infants in a lifetime. This makes them one of the slowest breeding mammals on our planet.

The bond between mother and newborn is remarkably strong. Female orangutans nurse and train their young for eight years or more. The first year of its life, an infant is almost glued to its mother’s body. After that, it will never stray far from her until the next infant is born. Adolescent females may linger and observe how their mothers care for the newborn baby.

Young males, however, are pushed away by their mother shortly after a new sibling is born. They will then wander through the forest alone, covering an area of some six square miles [15 sq km] or more. They tend to avoid other males and will meet with females only to mate.

Females usually stay in a much smaller tract of forest throughout their life. Occasionally, they feed with other females in the same tree, but even then, there is little or no socializing. The solitary life of orangutans makes  them unique among apes. But to learn more about the “man of the forest,” there was one more place we needed to visit.

Apes on the Edge

Within the national park is Camp Leakey​—an orangutan rehabilitation, research, and conservation center named after anthropologist Louis Leakey. Here, orangutans are never far away. Some came up close to us and posed or performed gymnastic feats. One adult female even grabbed for my friend’s jacket! We were thrilled to be so close to these beautiful animals.

Camp Leakey provides a sobering warning, however. Orangutans are slipping into extinction. Some environmentalists believe that the prospects for their survival in the wild are dim​—ten years or less. Consider three main threats.

Logging. About 80 percent of suitable orangutan habitat has been lost over the past 20 years. Indonesia loses an average of 20 square miles [51 sq km] of forest a day, the equivalent of five soccer fields every minute.

Poaching. As humans encroach on the forest, orangutans become more vulnerable to hunters. An orangutan skull is worth up to $70 (U.S.) on the illegal souvenir market. Some view the orangutan as a threat to crops. Others kill them for food.

Pet trade. On the black market, a cute baby orangutan sells at prices ranging from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars. It is estimated that about a thousand baby orangutans are sold each year.

Both government and private agencies are endeavoring to rescue the orangutan from extinction. Their efforts include setting up rehabilitation centers, raising awareness through educational programs, establishing national parks and reserves, and controlling illegal logging.

The Bible reveals that God will soon “bring to ruin those ruining the earth” and establish an earth-wide paradise. (Revelation 11:18; Isaiah 11:4-9; Matthew 6:10) At that time, the words of the psalmist will be fulfilled: “Let all the trees of the forest break out joyfully.” (Psalm 96:12) Animals​—such as the orangutan, Indonesia’s “man of the forest”—​will thrive, unimpeded by human threats to its survival.

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The face of the adult male has distinctive cheek pads

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© imagebroker/​Alamy

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Orangutans move through the trees with ease but are much slower on the ground

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Top: © moodboard/​Alamy; bottom: Orangutan in the Camp Leakey of Tanjung Puting National Park, managed by BTNTP, UPT Ditjen PHKA Dephut

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Orangutan in the Camp Leakey of Tanjung Puting National Park, managed by BTNTP, UPT Ditjen PHKA Dephut

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Orangutan in the Camp Leakey of Tanjung Puting National Park, managed by BTNTP, UPT Ditjen PHKA Dephut