International Orangutan Day


August 19 is International Orangutan Day. Orangutans are close to my heart, but the plight of this species should matter to all of us.

While the various gorilla species, chimpanzees and bonobos (sometimes called Pygmy chimpanzees) are all more high profile great apes, orangs share about 97 percent of our genetic makeup, according to a 2011 published study. 

True enough, of all the great apes, orangutans are the most distantly related. Yet, I have held baby gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans – and as infants orangs are, in my opinion, the must human-like. One more trait they share solely with people is the sclera or whites in our eyes. The presumption is that orangs developed this to help to communicate with one another visually in the dense forests where they live. Humans may have evolved the whites in our eyes as a way to communicate information to our canine hunting partners, even dating back 40,000 years.

If any great ape can benefit by the recognition, it is orangutans. They are disappearing from the planet. It’s happening fast, due to deforestization as a result of the demand for palm oil and well as desperate farmers and lumber companies cutting away the very trees orangutans call home, and also wildlife trafficking. In places, orangutan numbers have dropped enough where genetic diversity may be in question.

Holding an orphaned orangutan in Borneo in the 1980’s

Having many years ago worked conducting orangutan field research for primatologist Dr. Birute Galdikas in Borneo, I do have a personal bias. This experience was a highlight of my life.

Dr. Birute Galdikas

The forests in Borneo and Sumatra, where orangutans live, are massive enough – once diminished significantly, they will take hundreds of years to grow back that is if they are ever given the chance. What’s more these forests are so large, that without them the planet’s environment is affected, and that impact has already begun. Of course, many other animals – aside from orangutans – call the forests their homes as well. And then there’s the ethical issue – orangutans are our relatives.

I don’t want the earth to lose any species from aardvarks to zebras. But I’m telling you when you that when you interact with a great ape, you truly do know that; in a sense you are looking into a mirror.

Hear my conversation with Dr. Galdikas on a recent WGN radio podcast. 

She’s been dubbed one of Louis Leakey’s angels. Leakey chose Dr. Dian Fossey to focus on the mountain gorillas, Dr. Jane Goodall to follow chimpanzees, and Galdikas to observe orangutans back around 1970. Galdikas, at 73, continues to research orangutans nearly 50 years later. About all we know about orangutans results from Galdikas’ work.

So, what’s the solution? Galdikas has begun ecotourism to Borneo, last year attracting over 15,000 tourists. Another good answer is never to buy products with palm oil. And to support Galdikas’ Orangutan Foundation International. And share this post.

Want data? Here are the current numbers: The Bornean orangutan is now estimated at about 104,700 based on updated geographic range (Endangered) and the Sumatran about 7,500 (Critically Endangered). A third orangutan species was announced in November, 2017. With no more than 800 individuals in existence, the Tapanuli orangutan is the most endangered of all great apes. This is more than sad. If something isn’t done, aside from zoos and perhaps a few sanctuaries around the world, orangutans will disappear. And there’s no way our world is better off for that. Celebrate the red ape on on International Orangutan Day.

A cry for help. Is the world answering?