Amazing Animals; Orangutan mothers really love their babies
* Article appears on animalsasia.org and is republished with permission.*
The relationship between a parent and their infant is an extremely important one. In the early postnatal period, the mother composes the primary environmental influence on her young and she can modify their behaviour to their future environment. Therefore, the early experiences of an infant will have an impact on the rest of their lives.
Orangutan mothers are single parents and the bond between an orangutan mother and her young is one of the strongest in nature. The mothers stay with their young for six to eight years, teaching them where to find food, what and how to eat, how to avoid predators, and the technique for building a sleeping nest. Female orangutans are also known to 'visit' their mothers until they reach the age of 15 or 16. Demonstrating the extraordinary strength of the mother-infant bond. Primatologists believe that orangutans have such long 'childhoods' because there is so much that they need to learn before they can live alone successfully.
Following birth various circumstances such as physical stress, diseases, and naturally occurring variations in maternal behaviour, such as the frequency of licking, grooming and nursing can all contribute to altered neurological development of the infant.
It is therefore crucial for all animals which are under human care such as those in captivity to be in a stress-free environment which allows them to behave as they would naturally when they have their young. And for the offspring to remain with their mother for a natural period to ensure they have the best chance of developing both physiologically and psychologically.
When stressors are introduced into the offspring's environment it has been demonstrated that these have a significant negative impact on both the physiological and the psychological health of the individual.
In many cases, social animals, are unfortunately removed from their mothers at an inappropriate age, to be sold as pets or to be used for photographic opportunities. Artificial rearing disrupts this natural process and often results in socially maladjusted animals which may be difficult to place in a group or lack the skills for normal behaviour.
Rearing females in isolation can also disrupt their future maternal behaviour, and they are likely to be less attentive to their future offspring. Separation also has a devastating impact on the mother that ‘loses’ her baby.
Orangutans are no different to us, they raise their young with the same amount of love and care as we raise our own children, and in doing so they help them to develop into well-adjusted young adults with the skills needed to succeed within their own environment.
Thus, the importance of the mother-infant bond can never be underestimated, and we must do all we can to prevent this bond from being broken for all animals both wild and captive.
Orangutans really are amazing animals.
There are three species of orangutan, the Bornean and the Sumatran, along with the Tapanuli. All are classed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List, and this is after a sudden fall in their numbers over the last 100 years. Orangutans face severe threats due to conflict with people through human population expansion and habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation and poaching for the pet industry.
Orangutan forest habitat in Indonesia and Malaysia is rapidly disappearing, putting the future of Asia's only great ape in peril.
Habitat loss is by far the greatest threat to orang-utans. Huge tracts of forest have been cleared throughout their range and the land used for agriculture, particularly palm oil - a product that is found in more than half of packaged products in supermarkets around the world.
Road development, illegal timber harvesting and unsustainable logging, mining and human encroachment also contribute to habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation.
Today, more than 50% of orang-utans are found outside of protected areas, in forests under management by timber, palm oil and mining companies.
But even protected areas are not secure since the boundaries of protected areas in Borneo are often not clearly delineated, which makes them difficult to patrol. Furthermore, many parks are understaffed and underfunded. Consequently, oil palm companies and logging firms have encroached into all the parks.
Along with habitat loss, young orang-utans up to the age of seven are sought after for the illegal pet trade. When infants are targeted, usually the mother is killed so this trade represents a real threat to wild orang-utan populations.
In addition, orang-utans are hunted in some areas for food. They are also sometimes killed when they move into agricultural areas and destroy crops.
And fire is also a major threat. In 1997-98, the drainage of peat-swamp forest contributed to uncontrollable fires in Kalimantan, which lasted for 6 months and killed up to 8,000 orang-utans.
Click here for more details on how you can help conserve orangutans in the wild
Orangutans in captivity
Many orangutans live in poor living conditions, often socially isolated in substandard zoos and private collections around the world, many hundreds are also used in circuses and in the tourism industry, forced through fear and punishment into performing meaningless tricks and being forced to have their photograph taken with tourists. Orangutans are wide-ranging, social animals with diverse physical, social, behavioural and psychological needs. Poor captive facilities and the use of orangutans in entertainment causes orangutans to suffer unnecessarily
Oranguans require specialised conditions in captivity to ensure that their physical and behavioural needs are being met. They are likely to suffer considerably if they are not provided with an environment which allows them to express their innate natural behaviours.
An example of good captive animal management for orangutans can be found at Chester zoo in the UK. At the zoo, the orangutans are provided with an extensive enclosure which imitates their natural environment, with natural vegetation, and plenty of climbing opportunities for an animal that spends almost all of its time in the trees. The babies are raised in the enclosure by the mother, and the enclosure is available for the animals both day and night and provides opportunities for the orangutans to exhibit their natural climbing and feeding behaviours and includes the provision of nesting sites high up in the ‘trees’.
For a video showing the old and the new enclosures at Chester zoo see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IxwXqTCvmAg
For additional enclosure ideas for orangutans see:
Dublin Zoo; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jeOBwqOnJxc&t=12s
Singapore zoo; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P-8mHDdks90