Orangutans are a sentient, intelligent, yet critically endangered genus of great apes which have been known to use tools, learn sign language, and display their intelligence in many other ways. There are three extant species of orangutan: the Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus), which lives in Indonesian and Malaysian rainforest on the East Asian island of Borneo; the Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii), which lives on the nearby island of Sumatra; and the recently discovered Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis), whose less than one thousand individuals inhabit northern Sumatra. Mothers raise their babies up until they are seven to eight years old, a remarkably long childhood in terms of great apes.
Orangutans share 97% DNA with humans and are similar to our species in many other ways as well. They have been known to enjoy many common activities, such as watching music videos and movies, and often visibly use tools. One such example is Princess, an orangutan at the Camp Leakey research center in Central Kalimantan Borneo. Princess knew how to lock and unlock doors with a key better than some humans, and once took advantage of this fact to steal one visitor’s complimentary fruit. Princess was also reputed to repeatedly “borrow” a canoe, using it to paddle down the river and find snacks on the other side. As it happens, Princess also knew sign language.
Orangutans are threatened by many environmental factors, including habitat loss to palm oil and paper-and-pulp plantations, poaching, hunting, and the illegal pet trade. Palm oil and paper-and-pulp companies destroy valuable rainforest habitat to make room for plantations, while poachers and hunters murder orangutans, often for food. Since baby orangutans are so cute, some poachers find orangutan mothers with babies, kill the mothers, and sell the babies on the black market, where most of them will die in inadequate conditions. Although orangutans are an extremely intelligent species, they most definitely need our help.
Strawberry, an orangutan fluent in sign language, explains the palm oil issue to Lena, a young deaf girl, in this touching video.