Orangutans have long arms and are very strong ©Getty Images

Orangutans have long arms and are very strong ©Getty Images

The orangutan (say uh-rang-oo-tan)  is one of the great  apes.  Apes are the largest of the primate  family, which includes humans . Orangutans are the only apes found in Asia. They are very closely related to humans, and are the largest arboreal (tree-living) mammals.

There are just two species, or kinds, of orangutan, Sumatran and Bornean. Sumatran orangutans have lighter-coloured fur and a longer beard. Bornean orangutans have narrower cheek pads.

Female and young. ©Getty Images

Female and young. ©Getty Images

Habitat and Distribution (where they are found)

Orangutans live in the oldest rainforests in the world,  and only on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. The word 'orangutan' means 'person of the forest'. 

Bornean male orangutan. ©Getty Images

Bornean male orangutan. ©Getty Images

Body and Appearance

Orangutans are covered with long red hair, the only apes that have red fur.  They rarely come down from the trees, and have long, strong arms for swinging through the branches from tree to tree. This way of travelling is called 'brachiation'.  Their feet are like hands,  to help this movement through the treetops. An adult orangutan's stretched-out arms measure over 2 metres, fingertip to fingertip!  

Adult males weigh about 144 kilograms, and the females weigh about 65 kilograms.  Adult males have large cheek flaps on their faces. They have a sac under their chins which they inflate with air to make a long call that can be heard about a kilometre away. 


Male orangutans spend almost all their time alone. Females are accompanied by their young. When wild fig trees are in fruit, orangutans do share feeding at the same trees, but at other times they are alone.  Males and females only meet in order to mate.

Orangutans rarely come to the forest floor, and are rather slow and awkward when they do, moving on all fours. They build a fresh nest each night, high up in a tree. Sometimes they make an umbrella of leaves over the nest if it is raining.

Orangutans are gentle and highly intelligent animals. They use tools to help them get food, for example, using a stick to reach into a beehive to get honey. They have excellent memories, and remember where to go in the forest at different seasons to find trees bearing fruit.

©Getty Images

©Getty Images


Orangutans eat mostly fruit. Much of their time is spent eating because a  mainly fruit diet doesn't give a lot of energy to such large animals and they need to eat big quantities to get nutrition.  Wild figs and durians are their preferred food. However, they do also eat roots, nuts and berries, insects, reptiles, eggs, bark and leaves.  

Orangutans help the rainforests by dispersing seeds. As they move through the forest eating fruit,  they spread the seeds in their poo in different parts of the forest, and the seeds grow into fruit trees.

Life Cycle

In the wild, orangutans live for about 35 years, longer in captivity. Male orangutans are about 15-20 before they are large enough to successfully compete for females.  Females only breed every 7-8 years because the young depend on their mothers for about 8 years.   Females give birth to one young, rarely twins, about 8-9 months after mating.  For its first year, the young orang-utan clings to its mother and suckles milk from her. The young are fully grown at about 10-12 years, by which time they begin to live independently .

Conservation status and threats

Orangutans are Critically Endangered and are seriously in danger of becoming extinct in the wild in a very few years:

Vast areas of rainforest are cut down for palm oil plantations. ©Getty Images

Vast areas of rainforest are cut down for palm oil plantations. ©Getty Images

Habitat is fast being destroyed. About 80% of the rainforest has gone. Logging for timber is one reason. Rainforest does not regrow quickly: some trees take 60 years to reach maturity and 200 years to reach full height.

Palm plantations are planted where rainforest has been cut down: palm oil is in great demand by the western world. It is a major ingredient in soaps, shampoos and processed foods. When a habitat is destroyed, many animal species are left without shelter and food, for example in Sumatra the ancient rainforest is habitat to rare tigers, rare rhinoceros, many species of monkey, among many other small species of animal, reptile, insects, as well as rare plants.

Sumatran orangutan orphaned baby at a rescue centre. ©Getty Images

Sumatran orangutan orphaned baby at a rescue centre. ©Getty Images

The pet trade has also affected the orangutan population. The babies are very cute and poachers take them and sell them as pets. However, in a few years that baby is big and very strong and pet owners dump them in the forest, where they don't know how to survive.

There are rescue centres that house these orangutans and teach them how to survive in wild, protected areas. 

Orangutans give birth to one, rarely two, young every 8-10 years, which makes the job of increasing total wild populations more difficult.



Read more about orangutans and conservation efforts to save them:


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What can I do to help conservation? I'm just a kid.

Read about how a 13 year old boy has started a campaign called Say No to Palm Oil,  and find out how palm oil plantations have threatened habitats and species. Read about what YOU can do!