Print More

(HOST) Orangutans share many traits with humans, including the need to spend up to nine years being carefully taught by their mothers. Without that teaching, they cannot survive in a jungle any more readily than a human baby could do so, as commentator Ruth Page explains.

(PAGE) Orangutans, called Men of the Forest by natives in Borneo, have earned their nickname. They’re not only very intelligent; they live much longer than their cousins among the great apes; many live to 60 years. Like us, they have a long maturation period. Children need to stay with mom for seven to nine years in order to learn how to survive in their home jungle. They have no more idea what to eat in the jungle than a human infant turned loose in a grocery store. Mother orangs teach them food-finding and many other skills. As adolescents, the young refine and expand what they’ve been taught, just as our children do.

Much has been learned about how orangs develop by people who try to rescue those who have lost parents by accidents, death, killings, and severe habitat loss. Some are stolen to be sold in the markets, usually a prelude to abuse and death. Babies that are coddled never learn necessary forest-survival skills. Some expect to sleep in beds with pillows and even to eat at a table. That’s abuse of an intelligent animal who evolved to live among the rich offerings of wild jungles.

Orangs need so much food each day, they must travel far and wide to find enough. An adult orang can eat the entire fruit-load of one tree in a single meal. Learning what to eat and how to get at it takes intelligence and experience. They figure out how to get food from a tree covered with long spines; from sources that offer both bad-tasting and better food, depending on maturity of the fruit; behind tough bark; and hidden among many other barriers that forest plants develop to protect themselves. Since eating, experimenting, and teaching offspring consume the adults’ entire day, young develop very advanced skills.

That means that when reserachers and rescuers try to introduce formerly captive, very young orangs back into the forest, both humans and babies face formidable challenges. Like people, these young babies of the forest must be taught everything. What foods are safe to eat? Where do we find them? How do we learn climbing skills? Some of the former pet orangs have fallen out of trees — unheard of among orangs who have spent normal lives in the forest.

Luckily, even hungry young orangs are suspicious of new foods; rarely does one turned loose in the forest try mushrooms, for example. When in human care, they often refuse even healthy, tasty food. In their normal habitat, they eat as the adults do and in time become more adventurous, teaching themselves how to find good-tasting pith behind tough bark, for example. They also learn which foods have medicinal uses, an important survival skill.

A considerable investment is being put into saving orangs, perhaps our closest primate relatives. Is it worth it? I think so.

This is Ruth Page in Shelburne.

Comments are closed.