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The name orangutan comes from the Malay “orang” meaning person and “hutan” meaning forest, so the orangutan is literally a “person of the forest.” The Dayak tribes of Borneo traditionally regarded the orangutan as a type of human, one that pretended to be mute so as to avoid being put to work. Indeed, the orangutan shares 97% of its DNA with humans, making it one of our closest relatives, and along with humans, chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas, are one of the Great Apes. Other than humans, they are the only Great Ape living in Asia, and today are confined to the islands of Borneo and Sumatra.

An orangutan infant typically spends from 7-9 years with its mother learning what it needs to learn about survival in the forest entirely from her. It is said that orangutans enjoy the strongest and longest mother-infant bond in the animal kingdom, with the exception of humans. This long learning period makes the orangutans one of the most intelligent animal species on the planet (Scientists continue to debate whether this accolade belongs to the chimpanzee or the orangutan.)

In the wild, the orangutan lives a semi-solitary existence. Infants and youngsters travel with their mothers, and adult males, who have nothing to do with the raising of offspring, tend to travel long distances on their own. This solitary existence is determined by the distribution of their food sources. In Sumatra, where fruit is in more abundance, orangutans enjoy a slightly more social existence, congregating on more occasions when there are mast fruitings. And in Sumatra, scientists have documented numerous examples of culture amongst orangutans, the spread of which is perhaps made possible by this more social lifestyle.

The largest arboreal mammal on the planet, the orangutan makes nests high in the forest canopy, sometimes incorporating leafy roofs to keep out the rain in rainy season. (They also use enormous leaves as umbrellas! ) The forest canopy is their home; there, they find all their food, avoid predators, travel along aerial highways and even give birth. And as much as the orangutan needs forest, the forest needs the orangutan. The orangutan serves as a major seed distributor. Using their strong jaws, they can open fruits that other animals cannot, and many seeds pass through their gut undigested. Some of these seeds can only germinate when deposited in the dung of the orangutan. In their role as gardeners of the rainforest, they also are responsible for essential pruning. As they travel through the upper canopy, they break off branches, allowing the sunlight to reach the forest floor to permit new shoots to grow.

The only great ape in Asia, the largest arboreal species and the longest mother- infant bond known in nature, second only to humans. The orangutan, literally meaning person of the forest, is one of our closest relatives together with chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas. Orangutans are found only in the tropical forest on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. Different than all other great apes, orangutans lead a semi-solitary existence. Only infants and young orangutans travel with their mothers, and adult males travel alone, with groups of orangutans only gathering during when fruit is abundant.


Person of the forest

Types of orangutan

There are three species of orangutan, which are all native to the islands of Borneo and Sumatra in Southeast Asia. The first species is the Bornean orangutan, which is found only on the island of Borneo and is divided into three subspecies: the northwest Bornean orangutan, the northeast Bornean orangutan, and the central Bornean orangutan. The second species is the Sumatran orangutan, which is found only on the island of Sumatra. The third species is the Tapanuli orangutan, which was only recently discovered in 2017 and is the rarest of the three species, with only around 800 individuals remaining in the wild. All three orangutan species are critically endangered due to habitat loss, hunting, and the illegal pet trade.


Bornean orangutans

Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) are fascinating primates native to the island of Borneo in Southeast Asia. They are known for their remarkable intelligence and remarkable adaptability, with some individuals exhibiting sophisticated tool-making skills. These great apes are highly arboreal, spending most of their lives in the treetops, and are one of the few non-human species known to use tools in the wild, such as using leaves as umbrellas and branches as tools for extracting insects.



Tapanuli orangutans (Pongo tapanuliensis) are the most recently discovered species of orangutans, with their existence confirmed in 2017. What makes them particularly intriguing is their extreme rarity, as they are found only in the Batang Toru forest region of Sumatra, Indonesia. They are distinct from other orangutan species due to their unique genetic and physical characteristics. With an estimated population of fewer than 800 individuals, they are one of the rarest great ape species on Earth, making their conservation efforts critical to ensure their survival and the preservation of their distinct genetic lineage.

Sumatran orangutans

Sumatran orangutans (Pongo abelii) are critically endangered primates native to the Indonesian island of Sumatra. What sets them apart is their remarkable adaptation to their environment. They are the most arboreal of all great apes, spending nearly their entire lives in the trees, and are known for their incredible strength and agility in the canopy. Sumatran orangutans are also distinguished by their flanged males, which develop large cheek pads, or "flanges," making them visually striking.


Human activities in particular deforestation, poaching and wildfires – have been catastrophic for orangutans and lead to the loss of orangutan habitats and the decline of orangutan populations. But despite being critically endangered, the orangutan is still alive and kicking! Thus, there still is time to implement holistic but strict solutions to halt the loss of orangutan habitats and the decline of orangutan populations.

The future of the orangutan is heavily debated as ongoing habitat destruction, illegal wildlife trade and hunting cause declining populations. The vulnerability of the orangutan is best revealed in the palm oil debate.

Read more about each threat in the slide show below.

Threats to orangutans

Learn more about each threat


One of the rescue and relocation stories in 2024

What are the solutions to these threats?  

Have look at our projects to find out what we are doing....


The vulnerability of the orangutan is best revealed in the palm oil debate.


It is true that palm oil is a major threat to orangutans. Unsustainable practices such as deforestation, forest fires and habitat fragmentation put the future of viable orangutan populations at risk. The palm oil sector is especially relevant because the majority of orangutans live outside protected areas. (In fact, in Borneo alone, over 10,000 orangutans live in areas allocated for industrial oil palm.) Here orangutans live in degraded forest, isolated forest patches in a plantation landscape. But they are still there and can play an important role if we want to connect and protect orangutans in the wild.

Sustainable Palm Oil


Forests. For orangutans. Forever.

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