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Behavior of Orang-utans

We delve deep into the forests of Sabah and Sarawak to better understand our distant cousin, the orang-utan. This is what 96% DNA similarity looks like.

According to a 2009 research, orang-utans, and not chimpanzees, are the closest living relatives to us humans

  • Orang-utans, not chimpanzees, are the closest living relatives to humans, a controversial new study contends. The authors base their conclusion on a close physical resemblance between orang-utans and humans, which they say has been overshadowed by genetic evidence linking us to chimps.

For starters, orang-utans share 96.4% of their DNA with humans

They have opposable thumbs just like humans. Their big toes are opposable too.

Orang-utans use facial expressions to communicate submission, aggression, fear, and worry

They have been known to make simple tools out of branches and leaves to help them in scratching themselves, foraging for food, protecting against insects and such

  • Orang-utans have been observed making simple tools to scratch themselves. They also use leafy branches to shelter themselves from rain and sun, and sometimes even drape large leaves over themselves like a poncho. They have also been observed using branches as tools during insect foraging, honey collection, and protection against stinging insects, and to “fish” for branches or fruit that is out of reach.

During pregnancy, female orang-utans carry the baby for approximately eight and a half months. Usually, a single offspring is born. Twinning happens, but it is rare.

  • Orang utan birthrates are low - once every five to eight years - therefore any external pressures such as hunting and diseases have an enormous impact on the survival of the population.

Baby orang-utans remain with their mother at all times until they are two to three years old. During this period, the infant is totally dependent on its mother for survival, food and transportation.

  • Infant orang-utans stay in close contact with their mothers for a long time. For the first two years of a young orang-utan’s life, he or she is completely dependent on its mother for food and transportation. A baby orang-utan clings to his/her mother’s stomach, side, or back while she moves through the trees, and feeds on his/her mother’s breast milk.

Mother orang-utans will breastfeed their babies for years, until the baby is five to eight years old

  • Once they are old enough to be independent, they will start to spend more time alone or with other immature orang-utans. However, they will not stray far from their mother.

Baby orang-utans have long childhood period to learn all the necessary skills, from feeding to building nests, from their mother before they can be independent

  • Primatologists believe that orang-utans have such long “childhoods” because there is so much that they need to learn before they can live alone successfully. Young orang-utans learn almost everything from their mothers, including: where to find food, what to eat and how to eat it (sometimes this involves using special tools), and how to build a proper sleeping nest. Also, mothers probably protect young orang-utans from predators such as clouded leopards and pythons in Borneo, and tigers in Sumatra.

Adolescent females travel together, especially when age differences are minimal

Last but not least, different groups of orang-utans are known to have their own unique culture too!

  • Not long ago many people thought culture was unique to the human species. However, in recent years scientists have found increasing evidence of socially learned traditions elsewhere in the animal kingdom. In 2003 a group of researchers, including Dr. Carel van Schaik and OFI’s president, Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas, described two dozen behaviors that are present in some orangutan populations and absent in others.

  • According to the report which appeared in the journal Science, these practices are learned from other group members and passed down through the generations. In parts of Borneo, for example, orangutans use handfuls of leaves as napkins to wipe their chins while orangutans in parts of Sumatra use leaves as gloves, helping them handle spiny fruits and branches, or as seat cushions in spiny trees.

There are about 1,300 orang-utans left in Sarawak. The population in Sabah dropped from 20,000 in the 1980s to 11,000 in 2003.

  • In Malaysia, orang-utans can be found in Sabah and Sarawak, the two Malaysian states on Borneo Island. In Sarawak, there are about 1,300 orang-utans, almost all in the Lanjak-Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary and Batang Ai National Park. In Sabah, there were about 20,000 orang-utans between 1979 and 1986. By 2003, the orang-utan population in Sabah was about 11,000 individuals, including approximately 1,100 individuals in lower Kinabatangan.

WWF-Malaysia is doing important work in North Ulu Segama forest, Sabah, to rehabiliate the degraded forest that is home to 300 orang-utans. They need your help.

  • Feeding primarily on fruits, orang-utans play an important role as seed dispersers, allowing more fruit trees to grow and flourish in the forest. Forests form the foundation to sustain the natural resource needs for all living things on this planet -- including us.

  • WWF-Malaysia works to rehabilitate the degraded forests of the North Ulu Segama (NUS) forest, Sabah, home to 300 orang-utans. Unfortunately, funding for our crucial conservation efforts will run out by the end of this year. We need more funds if we are to continue our rehabilitation of degraded forests and ensure the continued survival of wildlife like orang-utans. Learn how you can help WWF save Malaysia's orang-utans here.

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