Orangutans: Interesting facts about Borneo's most famous animals

When one thinks of Borneo, many first think of rainforests and orangutans. And in fact, the great apes live only in Borneo and Sumatra today. They are also the only great apes in all of Asia. However, different species occur on the two islands. Borneo’s animals are slightly smaller and have darker hair than their Indonesian counterparts. Translated, orangutan means person of the forest. Orang means person, and hutan means forest.

The DNA of the apes is over 96% identical to that of humans. Therefore, it is unsurprising that the similarity between animals and us is enormous. Primates are intelligent creatures and have the ability to think and understand. They also show emotions. For example, they can whimper and cry.

Borneo orangutans
A rarity: wild orangutan on the ground

Characteristics of the Bornean orangutan

Orangutans are among the largest ape species in the world. And indeed, it is awe-inspiring when you virtually face an adult animal in the jungle. Male Bornean orangutans grow with a head-torso length of up to 100 cm, while females usually do not exceed 80 cm. At up to 100 kg, male Bornean orangutans are twice as heavy as females, who rarely weigh more than 45 kg.

A striking feature of the great apes is that their arms are significantly longer than their legs. The wingspan of an adult animal can be up to 220 cm long. Another distinctive feature of the animals is their ability to use their feet equally with their hands.

Orangutan - Adult male
Adult orangutan
Orangutan - mother with cub
Mother with young

The life expectancy of wild animals is about 40 years. Depending on how the primates are kept, they can even live up to 50 years in captivity. During this time, females give birth to a total of up to 4 young every 5 to 6 years. The young stay with their mother for many years, about 5 to 6.

No other animal on earth has such a long dependence on its mother. While young males leave with the onset of „puberty“, young females often stay a little longer. They learn parenting skills from their next sibling.

Way of life of the animals

Orangutans prefer to live away from any human civilization in the middle of the rainforest. Usually, they spend their time on trees and only very rarely come down to the ground. In the treetops, they can use their abilities in the best possible way, while on the ground, they move instead slowly.

In addition, threats are more likely to be waiting on the ground, including humans. They also spend their nights high up in the trees. And since orangutans constantly migrate, they build new nests out of branches and leaves daily.

Orangutan builds a nest
Orangutan builds a nest

The „persons of the forest“ feed mainly on fruit. And they eat almost everything, whether already ripe or still unripe. Outside the fruit season, leaves, tree bark, and insects are on their menu.

Sexually mature males produce a long and loud roar. This is to let females know they are there and warn other males to stay away. Females live with their young. Males, on the other hand, remain alone. However, if they find a female ready to mate, the two stay together for a few days. Afterwards, the male moves on alone again.

Orangutan climbing
Orangutan climbing
Young orangutan
Young orangutan


In earlier times, orangutans lived almost all over Southeast Asia. They even migrated as far as the southern Chinese areas. The country was covered with vast, contiguous rainforest at that time.

However, the spread of humanity has led to massive deforestation of rainforests. And with that, orangutans have been deprived of their livelihood in huge areas. Where orangutans lived in prehistoric times, there are now cities, fields used for agriculture, and palm oil plantations planted.

Only in Borneo and Sumatra are the animals still at home today, as only here do they still have intact rainforest areas. But the living conditions are deteriorating dramatically also in Borneo and Sumatra. Rainforests are being cut down or cleared by fire and replaced by palm oil plantations or arable land on an enormous scale.

Slash-and-burn agriculture poses even more dangers. Fires have already spread uncontrollably on several occasions, destroying enormous forest areas. In many cases, orangutans are then killed by the fires because they have no chance to escape.

Rainforest destruction is a threat to orangutans
Destroyed rainforest

Poaching is another major problem. Animals are caught in the jungle and sold. Some are then kept as pets, and others are killed and eaten. It is true that hunting, killing, or capturing orangutans is illegal. Unfortunately, much money can be made from it, which motivates the relatively poor population.

The number of orangutans is continuously decreasing due to these human influences. If this trend continues, it could mean the end of wild orangutans.

Where you can see orangutans in the wild in Borneo

In Borneo, there are several national parks where you can see free-living orangutans. Of course, you need a bit of luck. One adult orangutan occupies about one square kilometre of habitat. So the density is not very high.

But the rainforest is very dense, so the animals can hide perfectly from approaching humans. The areas around the Kinabatangan River in the state of Sabah and the Batang Ai National Park in Sarawak are especially promising.

Orangutan in a sanctuary
Orangutan in a sanctuary

There are also three orangutan sanctuaries in the Malaysian part of Borneo. Near Kuching in Sarawak is the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre. However, no animals are rehabilitated today, as this is done at the nearby Matang Wildlife Centre. Many animals that were successfully rehabilitated in the past live in Semenggoh’s forests.

The third facility is located in Sabah near Sandakan. Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is a similar conservation facility but offers everything in one. There, injured animals or animals released from captivity are prepared for a life in freedom and then released into the adjacent forests.

The animals in Semenggoh and Sepilok are considered semi-wild. This means that although they live in the wild, they are fed and given medical care as needed at the sanctuaries. You can visit all three facilities. It is worth it!

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