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Green Zone finds out about the hazards of life
for the Orang-utan in Asia, and some ways we can help them.

The gentle people of the forest

Say hello to some of our closest genetic relatives and Asia's only great ape, the distinctive red-haired orang-utan. The word 'orang-utan' means 'person of the forest'. These great animals are as close to human as you’re going to get, but sadly we humans aren't treating them kindly. Dig around this page and you'll find out what's going on.

Let's find out a little bit more about these great apes: well for starters the orang-utan is the largest tree-living mammal in the world, living in the oldest rainforests in the world, on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. There are two subspecies: the Bornean orang-utan (Pongo pygmaeus) and the Sumatran orang-utan (Pongo abelli). The Sumatran orang-utan has a narrower face and longer beard than the Bornean, which is darker in colour.

Loss of their rainforest habitat due to logging and palm oil plantations, as well as hunting for the pet trade, has these amazing 'people of the forest' on the brink of extinction.

Photo courtesy Zoos Victoria

Orang-utan facts

  • This large gentle ape shares 97% of our DNA making it one of our closest relatives.
  • Sumatran orang-utans are about 1.25-1.5 metres tall. Adult males weigh up to 90kg, but females are considerably lighter, usually weighing up to 50kg.
  • Like the other great apes, orang-utans are highly intelligent, as seen in their advanced tool use and problem solving abilities.
  • An orang-utan's arms stretch out longer than its body – over 2m from fingertip to fingertip. On the ground, it walks on all fours, using its palms or fists.
  • Apart from humans, the orang-utan has the longest childhood dependence on a mother of any animal in the world (nine years).
  • Male orang-utans develop large cheek pads at about 15 years. They apparently act as a megaphone for their long calls, which can be heard about a kilometre away.
  • The orang-utan is the only great ape that lives in Asia, and the only ape living outside Africa.
  • They are the largest arboreal (almost completely tree-living) animals. They don't often venture down from the treetops, and when they do, they move slowly and awkwardly on the ground.
  • Much of their time is spent eating. They are big fruit eaters. Wild figs and durians are among their favourite foods.

Sumatran orang-utans are classified as Critically Endangered.

Bornean orang-utans are classified as Endangered.


Meet Kiani and Gabby

This is Kiani. She is a 31 year old female orang-utan who lives at Melbourne Zoo with her daughter Gabby. She is an extremely intelligent individual, as are all orang-utans, which means that the keepers need to come up with challenging behavioural activities on a daily basis to keep these girls active.
Sometimes the keepers teach orang-utans enrichment activities that they think will be fantastic and keep the animals busy for hours. This isn't always the case, however, as humans often underestimate just how clever the orang-utans are.

Recently the keepers developed a great enrichment activity for Kiani and Gabby. The keepers decided to smear honey and oats inside 20 cm hollow pieces of bamboo, thinking that the orang-utans would use sticks to remove the oats, one piece at a time, and that the task would occupy them for a couple of hours. This activity took the keepers quite a lot of time to prepare as they had to get the oats all through the bamboo. With Kiani and Gabby in their night dens, the enrichment was scattered around the enclosure while staff and visitors watched.

Kiani was the first to come out into the enclosure and immediately collected as many pieces of bamboo she could fit in her hands and feet and climbed up a tower in the enclosure. She then went over to a water tap and cupped her hand under the first piece of bamboo, filled it up with water, shook it to mix it all up and drank the honey and oats drink in a few seconds flat. Kiani did this with all her pieces of bamboo and was finished in a few minutes. So much for the few hours of activity!!!

Kiani and Gabby live in the very safe environment of a zoo, however their wild relatives are not so lucky. One of the main threats to orang-utans in Borneo and Sumatra is the clearing of rainforest for palm oil plantations.

photos by Trent Browning

What is Palm Oil?

Palm oil is derived from the fruit of the oil palm. It is one of the world’s leading agricultural commodities and is widely used as an ingredient in food products, cosmetics and other household items. Palm oil is found in approximately 40% of the products you buy in the supermarket.

In South East Asia alone, the equivalent of 300 soccer fields are deforested every hour for palm oil plantations. It is estimated that close to 50 orang-utans die each week due to palm oil. At this rate, orang-utans could be extinct in the wild in less than 10 years.

Palm oil is able to pass as a secret ingredient within
Australia, often labelled as 'vegetable oil' because current legislation does not mandate the labelling of this product. Australians unknowingly consume an average of 10kg of palm oil per person each year.

Palm oil is used in heaps of popular foods from peanut butter to chips and chocolate. It's not often clearly labeled as such, so you might not even know if you're eating it. Food manufacturers can find other ways of making these products however we can't find other ways of making orang-utans.

And, don't forget about cosmetics and toiletries: if palm oil is used in these products it must be labelled. No exceptions. However it is usually not labelled as palm oil, it is labelled as Elaeis guineensis. This is the name given to palm oil by the International Nomenclature Cosmetic Ingredients. (INCI). Misleading labels on cosmetics can lead to action by the Australian Competition and Consumer Association.

Once palm oil is labelled on all food products, consumers can then exert pressure for a sustainable palm oil industry. Without labelling, consumer influence is difficult and our right to make informed decisions is taken from us.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) has the power to change food labelling legislation. However in order to justify this change the community needs to ensure that FSANZ know that you want the choice.

You have the right to choose food products that don't destroy Orang-utan habitat, yet you currently do not have the choice. Tell Food Standards Australians New Zealand that you want palm oil labelled on all food products. Tell them don’t palm us off.

What you can do!
  • Visit the palm oil section of the Melbourne Zoo website to sign a postcard online.
  • Sign a postcard at Melbourne Zoo and post it free of charge at the postage box inside the zoo.

Check this out

  • Visit

  • Find out more about how you can get involved and join the campaign for change at

  • Learn all about it and what you can do to help at the Australian Orang-utan Education Project

  • Watch this informative short film about the plight of the orangutans, made by a British volunteer in Borneo (and search You Tube for other films on the topic). Click here

  • Watch this video for some shocking truths about palm oil. Click here