Fu Manchu was one of the most notorious escape artists at the Omaha Zoo in the 1960s. But he wasn’t a performer, he was an orangutan. The keepers who locked his enclosure every night were baffled to find him outside the next day hanging out with friends in a tree, or sunning on the roof. Only after installing cameras did they realize Fu Manchu had been picking the lock with a metal wire that he kept hidden under his cheek pouch. The keepers shouldn’t have been surprised at Fu Manchu’s cunningness. Along with our other great ape cousins, the gorillas, chimps, and bonobos, they belong to our Hominidae family tree, which stretches back 14 million years.
But it’s not just their striking red hair that makes orangutans unique among our cousins. As the only great apes from Asia, orangutans have adapted to a life high in the rain forest canopies. Many of the skills they learn are transmitted through the special bond they have with their mothers, the most extended in the animal kingdom next to humans. Orangutan mothers usually give birth to one baby at a time, waiting up to eight years before having another. This gives the young, who begin as fully dependent infants, plenty of time to learn how to climb and distinguish the hundreds of plants and fruits that make up their diet.
Female orangutans even stay with their mothers into their teen years to learn child-rearing. As they grow up, orangutans also develop a complex set of cooperative social skills by interacting with their peers and siblings. Much like ourselves, young orangutans involuntarily mimic the facial expressions and emotions of their playmates, with behaviors that closely parallel human smiling and laughter. Once they finally venture out on their own, orangutans continue to develop their resourcefulness, putting the skills they’ve learned into practice. Adults build a new nest each night by carefully weaving twigs together, topping them with soft leaves, pillows, and blankets. This process requires dexterity, coordination, and an eye for design. Orangutans also use a variety of tools to make their lives in the jungle easier.
They turn branches into fly swatters and back scratchers, construct umbrellas when it rains, make gloves from leafy pads, and even use leaves as bandages to dress their wounds. But orangutan intelligence goes far beyond jungle survival. Research in controlled environments has shown that orangutans are self-aware, being one of the few species to recognize their own reflections. They also display remarkable foresight, planning, and cognition. In one experiment, researchers taught an orangutan to use a straw to extract his favorite fruit soup from a box. That orangutan was later given the choice between the straw or a grape that could be eaten right away, and he chose the straw just in case he was given another box of soup.
In another experiment, orangutans figured out how to reach peanuts at the bottom of long tubes by spitting water into them. While orangutans are able to pass cognitive tests with flying colors, there are certain problems that they need our help to solve. Indonesia has the world’s highest rate of deforestation, and millions of acres of rain forest are burned annually to support the logging and palm oil industries. Deforestation exposes the 30,000 orangutans remaining in the wild to poachers.
They kill mothers so that baby orangutans can be sold as exotic pets. But fortunately, the story often doesn’t end here. Orphans can be confiscated and given a second chance. At special forest schools, they recover from emotional trauma and continue to develop essential life skills. Against all odds, these orphans demonstrate incredible resilience and readiness to learn.
In Malay, the word orangutan translates literally to “the person of the forest,” a reminder of our common lineage. And despite orangutans being some of the smartest animals on Earth, outsmarting their extinction requires the creativity, empathy, and foresight that our species share.