Lightning and thunder cut through the darkness to reveal that you are staring directly into the intense human-like eyes of a great ape. The gaze does not waver as you peer inside the mind of such an incredible creature. This is the opening shot for “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” (2014). The image is gripping and packed with emotion, which is appropriate, for, since the dawn of time we have marvelled at the world’s creatures – especially those that look and act more like us. There is a reason the name “Orangutan” comes from the Indonesian and Malaysian words meaning “Person of the Forest”.
Like many humans, Orangutans are active during the day, love eating fruit, use tools to get jobs done, and cover themselves with improvised umbrellas in the rain or extra hot sun. Next to humans, Orangutans are considered the most intelligent creatures in the natural world. It’s no mistake that the recent “Planet of the Apes” trilogy chose a large male Orangutan, named Maurice, as the wise and steady counselor to the leader of great apes. An Orangutan’s face and demeanor even appear to give a vibe of wisdom or intelligence. In captivity, Orangutans have learned to express themselves with painting, communicate with sign language, and show an understanding of “self”.
Though there are similarities we can relate to, there are incredible differences too. First off, they live almost all of their lives up in the trees. They are the largest tree-dwelling mammals on the planet. Females can reach 81.6 kg (180 pounds) while males can reach 127 kg (280 pounds) in the wild. Another difference is that their arm span is greater than the length of their body! Adult males can span 2.4 meters (8 feet) from finger tip to finger tip. Then there are their feet that act like hands, with a special toe on each foot that acts like a thumb. Though they are large and heavy, their bodies are truly suited for life in the trees.
Orangutans are very endangered apes. Part of this is due to the fact that females only give birth every 7 years. Considering that they don’t start bearing young until 10 or 12 years of age and that they live up to 30-50 years in the wild, their population is slow-growing. Local hunting of Orangutans over the years has had a definite negative effect on their population. Their habitat ranges have been shown to directly avoid areas where villages hunt Orangutans, but the biggest issue is habitat loss. These special red apes require high-quality fruit, which comes from rich fertile soils also prized for agriculture. Once fertile ground is transformed from forest to a plantation, Orangutans can’t return. The final piece to this puzzle is that Orangutans only live in the forests of Borneo and Sumatra in Malaysia. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates 104,700 individuals left in Borneo (Endangered) and only a mere 7,500 individuals left in Sumatra (Critically Endangered).
Despite their population status, Eco Companions has a unique opportunity for you to go see these amazing apes up in the wild for yourself and give you the opportunity to be part of the solution to save these ginger giants of the forest! Travel to the Northwest corner of Borneo to help improve relations between the indigenous Iban tribe and go on a tour to spot these great red apes for yourself. You might get the chance to stare into their intelligent eyes and see more than you were expecting.