Ever-fascinating orangutans have been delighting San Diego Zoo guests since 1928. Over the years, we’ve had both Bornean and Sumatran orangutans and have celebrated 30 births at our facility.
Orangutans are known for their clever ability to get into places they’re not supposed to go! One of the Zoo’s most famous orangutans was Ken Allen, a Bornean orangutan known for his creative escape techniques. He would unscrew bolts with his fingers, reach around to unlatch things, climb up a steep incline by the back of his enclosure to slip over a wall, and so on. Every time keepers figured out one of his escape routes, he would discover a new one. He never seemed to mind being led back into his enclosure—he just seemed to enjoy the challenge of finding a new way out! Ken Allen became a San Diego Zoo legend, with his own fan club and T-shirts, bumper stickers, and songs created in his honor. Many people were saddened when this gentle, mischievous ape developed cancer and passed away in December 2000.
Today, our orangutans share their exhibit with playful siamangs, the largest of the gibbons, which inhabit the same forest of Indonesia and Malaysia as the orangutans. Their exhibit includes climbing structures that are joined by ropes and cargo nets, a man-made “termite mound” that is often filled with tasty treats for the orangutans to retrieve, rocky caves, and vertical “sway poles,” which are sturdy poles that gently bend like tree branches and help create aerial pathways through the exhibit and provide entertainment for both apes and Zoo visitors who come to watch their antics.
Some of the orangutans stay right up close to the exhibit glass, observing their human visitors and interacting with them any way they can. They might want to show off their newest enrichment item, such as a burlap sack that can be worn quite smartly as a shawl, or they might want to just look at you as enrichment!
Our current group of orangutans includes adult male Satu and females Indah, Janey, and Karen. The only member of the group to be hand-raised as an infant, spunky Karen survived a widely publicized open-heart surgery in 1994. Karen has a LOT of personality and is a guest favorite. She can be stubborn and willful, but keepers love her, too! Look for Karen: she likes to roll around on the ground and twirl around on the sway poles.
Of all our orangutans, Janey has the most colorful history. She likes to be near the exhibit glass to see the humans and their many "items," as she was hand raised and in a private facility for the first 15 years of her life. She arrived in San Diego in 1984 and gets along with everyone in the group. Do not let her old age fool you: she lets her feelings be known and will stand her ground. Janey is something of a primate Picasso and has used edible chalk, paint, and other media to try her hand—and face, and feet—at expressing herself through art. Her one-of-a-kind masterpieces have been auctioned off to help support our orangutan conservation efforts.
Unfortunately, these highly intelligent red apes are now extinct in much of Asia. Most of their forest habitat has been destroyed to make palm oil plantations. On top of that, poachers often kill orangutan mothers and sell their young to the illegal pet trade. In those cases, the orangutan orphan is usually doomed to a short and depressing life unless it is rescued by an orangutan organization that takes care of orphans in special reserves. Many of these organizations have programs to educate loggers and local people about the need to protect their rare red neighbors and to help enforce the laws against poaching.
Indonesia is the top supplier of wood products and paper pulp in the world, and at least 70 percent is illegally logged. The world operates on the law of supply and demand, so we need to lessen the demand and carefully manage the supply. Conserve and recycle: we hear this often, but it really is an important part of the answer for helping wild orangutans.
San Diego Zoo Global is working to raise awareness of the dangers all great apes face. We provide financial funding and support various conservation projects via the Association of Zoos and Aquarium’s Ape Taxon Advisory Group’s Conservation Initiative.
Studies identifying levels of genetic variation between the two orangutan species have provided information that can be used for habitat conservation efforts. Comparing the genomes of five Bornean and five Sumatran orangutans with DNA provided from our Frozen Zoo® identified that both species have high levels of genetic diversity but contrasting histories of population growth and decline. Previous studies conducted by our geneticists identified chromosomal differences between Bornean and Sumatran orangutans. This information helps build the Association of Zoos and Aquarium’s Species Survival Plan programs for these apes.