Thursday, April 18, 2013

A crisis looms for critically endangered orangutans

I try to keep this blog focused on issues affecting captive great apes in the U.S., confident that many great organizations are tackling the huge primate issues around the world. Sometimes, though, a crisis is so immediate, and so potentially devastating, that I must add my voice to theirs. This is one of those times.

The Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme, led by conservation director Ian Singleton, is sounding the alarm about a plan in Indonesia that would be devastating for the critically endangered Sumatran orangutans. The Indonesian province of Aceh, on the island of Sumatra, is currently preparing to open over 1.2 million hectares of protected forest for the development of mines, plantations, roads, logging and palm oil expansion. This plan would reduce total forest cover of Aceh from 68% to 45% and will drive Sumatran orangutans, elephants, tigers and rhinos to extinction. (For more, see Mining company working with Indonesian government to strip forest of protected status.)

Jiggs and Sadie were Detroit Zoo's first captive orangutans in 1955.
To capture them, trappers in Indonesia likely killed their mothers. 
I have never seen an orangutan in the wild. But I can imagine the horror they face when the humans move in with fire and chainsaws, killing the adult orangutans and selling the babies.

I didn't pay much attention to captive orangutans when I was a kid. Even though the Detroit Zoo had orangutans in the 1950s, my heart was with the young chimpanzees there. I didn’t get to know the “wizards of the rainforest” until I met Lucy, Bonnie, Iris, Kiko, Batang, and Kyle at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. If you’ve spent any time at all looking into the eyes of your local captive orangutans, you know what I felt. They are behind bars, but I was the one who was captivated.

Since then, I’ve joined the thousands who support the Center for Great Apes, the only U.S. sanctuary that cares for ex-pet, ex-entertainment, and – recently – a couple of the Great Ape Trust’s ex-research orangutans. (I have a lovely painting by my favorite CGA orangutan, Louie. You do know that your home isn’t complete until you’ve got some ape art for the walls, don’t you?)

In meeting U.S. captive orangutans, you and I know about the intelligence, the individual personalities, and the emotional depth of orangutans. That familiarity makes knowledge about the crisis facing the wild orangutans in Indonesia all the more horrifying.

Please act!

In honor of the captive orangutans I’ve known and loved here in the U.S., I am taking three steps to help prevent the looming disaster in Indonesia. I hope you will do the same.

First, sign the petition to save Sumatra’s rainforest. It urges the Indonesia government to reject the plan to clearcut the Sumatra rainforest in Aceh. They should replace the plan with a version that includes the best available science.

Second, donate to the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme, even if it is just a couple of dollars. They are urgently trying to raise $70,000 to stop this proposed plan and to save the forest from further destruction.

Third, honor orangutans everywhere by participating in MOM – Missing Orangutan Mothers – activities at a zoo near you this Mother’s Day. (See my 2011 blog post, Look into an orangutan’s eyes, to read about the devastating personal experience that motivated Holly Draluck to start the MOM campaign.)

Finally, help spread the word.

Thanks for all you do, for great apes in the U.S., and in their natural habitats.


  1. Thanks Dawn for reaching out to your readers to let them know about this crisis. Orangutans are no longer "wild" no matter where they live- there may not be visible barriers for those who still live in their "home range" countries, but they are held captive by the greed and ignorance of humans, just the same.

  2. Does anyone know what happened to the Berosini orangutans?

    1. I know that Popi ended up at a fantastic sanctuary, the Center for Great Apes. Go to, and see Popi's story (tab Great Apes > Our Apes). I'll find out what happened to the others.

    2. I was able to find out more. Most of the Berosini orangutans went to the Great Ape Trust (under the supervision of Rob Shumaker, not Sue Savage-Rumbaugh) and then moved to Indianapolis Zoo when Rob left GAT. Indianapolis describes their orangutans here:

      I think I'll try to cover their story, in more depth, in a future blog post.

  3. Another great way to help wild-living Orangutans is to stop buying food with palm oil in it.Here in the USA it's in numerous food products,even in products such as New Balance margarine and Tofutti, products that are marketed for vegans and vegetarian who want to stop animal suffering! I'm a vegan and was really disappointed to see these two companies promoted in vegetarian starter kits.Palm oil production remains a major cause of Orangutan endangerment.Please read food labels before you buy, and if says "palm oil", please don't buy it!