Bornean Orangutan
(Pongo pygmaeus)
The orangutan is the only great ape that occurs outside Africa, and is the largest arboreal mammal in the world. Orangutans are extremely intelligent, and have shown evidence of tool use and culture - traits once believed to be uniquely human. Despite being one of our closest relatives, human activities are having a devastating impact on the species. Orangutans are the slowest breeding of all mammal species, giving birth to a single young every 6-8 years. With such a low reproductive rate even a small decrease in numbers can lead to extinction. Scientists predict that unless immediate action is taken, this peaceful primate could be the first great ape to become extinct in the wild.
Urgent Conservation Actions
More effective management of existing protected areas, better protection from poachers, habitat restoration, and the creation of additional forest corridors to link protected areas.
Restricted to the islands of Borneo (Malaysia, Kalimantan and Brunei) and Sumara (Indonesia).
The Mega-Rice Project In 1995-97 one million hectares of primary peat swamp forest in Kalimantan were cleared for conversion to rice fields, despite the fact that this land was unsuitable for agriculture. As a result of the draining of the proposed rice area and surrounding forest, fires started up and raged through much of Borneo for six months during the 1997-98 dry season. It is estimated that up to 8,000 orangutans perished in the worst fires in recorded history, along with millions of other wildlife. The project was a complete disaster – not one blade of productive rice was ever produced and the area remains a barren wasteland today. Each year, during the dry season, forest fires continue to kill, orphan and displace orangutans throughout their range.
Associated Blog Posts
20th Feb 10
This week the list of the World’s 25 most endangered primates was released, highlighting which of man’s closest relatives are on the brink extinction and...  Read

18th Aug 09
The EDGE team has received a request from the Orang-utan Tropical Peatland Project (Orangutantrop) to help raise awareness about forest fires that are curren...  Read

22nd May 09
The EDGE team has just heard about a major proposal that threatens a reintroduced population of the Critically Endangered Sumatran orangutan (EDGE mammal no....  Read

Evolutionary Distinctiveness
Order: Primates
Family: Hominidae
The family Hominidae comprises seven living species in four genera: Homo (humans), Gorilla (gorillas), Pan (chimpanzees) and Pongo (orangutans). Apes are thought to have diverged from Old World monkeys between 22 and 30 million years ago (mya). They were confined to Africa until around 15-17 mya, when they colonised Eurasia across a newly formed land bridge between the two continents. Here they underwent rapid dispersal and diversification, with the evolution of many new species including the ancestors of modern orangutans. This Eurasian ape radiation also includes the extinct genus Sivapithecus (formerly known as Ramapithecus), which was once thought to be one of the earliest human ancestors. Out of all the great apes, orangutans are the least closely related to humans, having split off from the early hominid lineage 10 to 12 million years ago. Gorillas were the next lineage to diverge, followed finally by the chimpanzee-bonobo lineage.
Head and body length: 1.25-1.50 m
Arm span: 2.25 m
Weight: Male: 50-90 kg
Female: 30-50 kg
The orangutan is the only great ape found outside Africa, and the largest arboreal mammal in the world. It has a coarse, shaggy reddish-brown coat, and long, powerful arms which can reach up to 2 m in length. Both the thumbs and the large toes are opposable, allowing the ape to grasp branches with both its hands and feet. The orangutan is highly sexually dimorphic, with males growing to about twice the size of females. When sexually mature, males develop flanges on either side of their faces, known as ‘cheekpads’. These are deposits of subcutaneous fat bound by connective tissue. Adult males also develop throat sacs, which can be inflated to add resonance to the male’s loud ‘long-call’. The two species of orangutan differ slightly in appearance and behaviour. Sumatran orangutans tend to be lighter in colour and have longer fur around their faces than the Bornean species. Bornean orangutans have wider faces, particularly the males, which have wider cheek pads than their Sumatran relatives.
Orangutans eat, sleep and travel in the trees. They are active during the day, and spend the majority of their time searching for and consuming food. Fruit such as figs, durians, jackfruit, lychees, mangosteens and mangos are eaten when available, along with smaller quantities of leaves, seeds, ants, termites and bark. Individuals tend to switch to eating these lower quality foods when fruit is scarce, rather than move to another area. In some areas over 400 different types of food have been recorded as part of the species’ diet. At night, individuals sleep in a nest made of twigs or leaves high up in the trees. They generally make a new nest each night, although old nests are occasionally re-used. Unlike other diurnal primates – which are social and gregarious – orangutans lead a semi-solitary lifestyle. This is thought to be primarily due to the scattered distribution of their food. There is generally not enough fruit in an area at any one time to support a large group of orangutans. Adult males of both species occupy large, overlapping home ranges, which encompass those of several females. They spend almost all of their time alone, coming together with females only to mate. Although males are not territorial, they are generally hostile to one another. Confrontations are rare, as the male’s long-call is thought to serve to repel rivals, as well as advertise his availability to sexually receptive females. Female orangutans are slightly more social than the males. They maintain small, overlapping home ranges, and occasionally come together to feed when food is plentiful. Social behaviour has been observed more frequently in the Sumatran species. In particular, it coincides with the simultaneous (or “mast”) fruiting of fig trees, which does not occur in Borneo. Juvenile males and females of both species display the most social behaviour, and are often observed feeding, playing and travelling together in groups. The fact that Sumatran orangutans have more opportunity to come together to eat fruit that the Bornean species has enabled greater sociality among individuals. This in turn has enabled them to learn tool-using behaviour from one another. Orangutans play an important role in their forest habitat; they act as seed dispersers and help to open up the forest canopy which allows light to reach the forest floor so that the forest can regenerate. The orangutan is the slowest breeding of all mammal species. Females reach sexual maturity at around 10-15 years of age, and generally give birth to a single young every 6-8 years thereafter, depending on the quality of the habitat. Infants are totally dependent on their mothers, and are carried constantly for the first two to three years of their lives. Weaning occurs at around 3.5 years, but the infant will remain close to its mother for at least another three years, learning the spatial and temporal patterns of fruiting in the forest. When the young disperse, females usually set up a home range adjacent to their mothers, while males tend to travel further afield. Life expectancy in the wild is thought to be 45-50 years. The incredibly long inter-birth period means that a female orangutan can produce a maximum of four surviving young during her lifetime.
Known from primary and secondary forest, typically in lowland dipterocarp, freshwater and peat swamp forests. Orangutans are rarely found above 1000 m.
Fossil evidence indicates that orangutans once ranged throughout south-east Asia as far north as China. Today, they are only found in pockets of forests on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. The Sumatran orangutan is restricted to remaining patches of rainforest in northern Sumatra. Most remaining populations occur in and around Gunung Leuser National Park near Aceh, a protected area around 9,460 km² in area. Populations of the Bornean orangutan are found in both Malaysian and Indonesian Borneo: P. p. pygmaeus (northwest Kalimantan to Sarawak), P. p. wurmbii (southwest Kalimantan) and P. p. morio (northeast Kalimantan to Sabah).
Population Estimate
Orangutan population sizes are difficult to estimate with precision. The most recent estimates of total surviving numbers for the Sumatran and Bornean orangutans are around 7,300 and 57,000 respectively.
Population Trend
Densities and population sizes are in decline across the species' range, and forest continues to be lost at a rapid rate.
The Bornean orangutan is classified as Endangered (EN A2cd) on the 2006 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The Sumatran orangutan is listed as Critically Endangered (CR A2bcd).
Orangutan populations have crashed during the past 200 years, as a result of deforestation of their habitat. Today the species continues to be threatened by habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation as a result of legal and illegal logging, forest fires, illegal gold mining, and conversion to agriculture, in particular oil palm plantations. The species’ highly arboreal lifestyle makes them particularly vulnerable to habitat fragmentation, as they rarely travel long distances on the ground. More than 80% of orangutan habitat has been altered or destroyed by these factors. If this alarming rate of habitat loss continues then the orangutan may become extinct in the wild in as little as 10 years. Individuals that have lost their natural habitat sometimes enter oil palm estates, where they are often shot as pests. Mothers with babies are particularly vulnerable. They are often killed and the infants sold into the illegal pet trade. It is estimated that at least three orangutans are killed for each one that is captured and transported. The species is also hunted for meat in some areas. With such a low reproductive rate, the orangutan is particularly vulnerable to these threats. Small, fragmented populations are at considerable risk. Many of the remaining populations, particularly in Sumatra number fewer than 250 individuals. These small, isolated populations do not have the capacity to recover from population declines. A slight rise in female mortality rate of just 1-2% can drive a local population to extinction.
Conservation Underway
Orangutans are protected by law in Malaysia and Indonesia, and listed on Appendix I of CITES, which prohibits international trade. However, weak law enforcement in both countries means that the species continues to be at risk from the above threats. Populations occur in a number of national parks and other protected areas, although illegal logging is still a problem in many of these areas. The Orangutan Conservation Forum is a consortium of groups working to stop illegal logging and hunting by patrolling protected areas, increasing sustainable economic alternatives for communities surrounding critical orangutan habitat, raising awareness, and releasing ex-captive orangutans into suitable protected habitat. There are currently three orangutan rehabilitation centres in Kalimantan, one in Sabah, one in Sarawak and one in Sumatra.

Increasing the conservation awareness of orangutans to every organisation involved in the issues facing orangutans in Sumatra, including plantation owners and their workers, villages in the remaining forest, educationalists, government ministers and general public.

Orang-utan nest surveys in Murung Raya region as part of the Barito River Initiative for Nature Conservation and Communities (BRINCC) expedition.

Conservation Proposed
Areas of important orangutan habitat are in urgent need of some form of legal protection. Existing protected areas need more effective management and better protection from poachers. Rehabilitation of degraded areas of forests and the creation of additional forested corridors to link protected areas would also be beneficial. Recent studies have shown that orangutans can survive in selectively logged areas of forest, albeit at low densities. This indicates that selective logging may be able to continue in certain areas of orangutan habitat, providing it is managed appropriately. Awareness and education programmes for local communities, and the promotion of alternative sources of income should help to relieve the pressure of illegal logging and poaching on the two species. Finally, long term research and monitoring of important populations should continues to learn more about the species and its habitat requirements. Research stations can provide a presence that would deter outsiders from entering.
Associated EDGE Community members

Madelaine is actively involved in Great ape conservation and has been involved in the production of many wildlife documentaries

Research expedition to the scientifically unstudied Murung Raya region in Central Kalimantan, Borneo. 

I am a criminology graduate student. Research interests: Wildlife trade, illegal logging

Orangutan Foundation International
The mission of this organisation is to establish conservation efforts for this species through increasing public and policy maker support and to promote the understanding of the orangutan and its habitat. It also provides necessary care and rehabilitation for ex-captive orangutans.

Ape Alliance
The Ape Alliance is an international coalition of organisations and individuals, pooling efforts to ensure the conservation and welfare of apes.

The Orangutan Conservancy
This organisation highlights the importance of conserving the remaining wild orangutans. It provides support and resources to various other orangutan projects throughout Indonesia and Malaysia, and aims to increase public awareness and support.

Caldecott, J. and Miles, L. (eds). 2005. World atlas of great apes and their conservation. Berkeley; London: University of California Press.

Eudey, A. and Members of the Primate Specialist Group. 2000. Pongo pygmaeus. In: IUCN 2006. 2006 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Downloaded on 23 January 2006.

Nowak, R.M. 1999. Walker's Mammals of the World. Sixth edition. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.

Orangutan Foundation International

Orangutan Population and Habitat Viability Assessment Final Report 15-18 January 2004, Jakarta, Indonesia.

Distribution map based on data provided by the IUCN Global Mammal Assessment.

if you can provide new information to update this species account or to correct any errors, please email us at info@edgeofexistence.org

Forum comments
  1. nicejosecastro

    Wonderful job


    Posted 5 years ago #
  2. gailgalentine

    I want to see an orange orangutan!!!

    Posted 6 years ago #
  3. avaviney

    Goodluck with this!

    Posted 6 years ago #
  4. bytze

    May God Bless you and all your efforts.

    Posted 6 years ago #
  5. cockatoos

    We have seen and read so much the Orangutan so we could really understand when you wear reading about these gentle creatures, which could become extinct if suitable measures are not taken to preserve them! It is interesting to know that Orangutans are the only great apes to be found outside Africa and the largest arboreal mammals in the world and are in danger of becoming extinct because of their slow breeding rate!

    Posted 7 years ago #

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