If you’ve ever watched recordings of gorillas, chimpanzees, long-tailed macaques, langurs, gibbons, or proboscis monkeys, you would have seen them gathered in groups, exploring their surroundings or foraging for food together.
Orangutans follow a completely different lifestyle. They are known as ‘semi-solitary’ animals, meaning they spend more time alone in the forest than they do in the company of others. However, if you have watched ‘Orangutan Jungle School’ or other footage from young orangutans playing, eating, and sleeping together, you might wonder why they behave differently than their wild relatives.
This kind of grouping only occurs regularly with orangutans that live together in rehabilitation centres or in captive care. In the wild, this is a much rarer sight. As a lot of the orangutans in our care are orphans that have been robbed of their mothers’ love, they form strong bonds with other students in forest school or with their babysitters, which is essential for their recovery.
A life of solitude also means that orangutans must get used to doing things on their own – even when it comes to grooming. They cleverly use their lips as pinchers to pluck insects and other irritants from their body and will sometimes nibble at areas of their body that are prone to feel itchy.
Learning to do everything independently is a gradual process for young orangutans, both in rehabilitation centres and under the care of their mothers. In the wild, a young orangutan will learn all of its life skills through observing and mimicking its mother until around seven or eight years of age, when it is time to separate and live alone. In Forest School, our students learn from their surrogate mothers and their older classmates.
Even though they are used to a life of solitude, some orangutans, especially females, will occasionally spend time with other females in the forest. This behaviour typically occurs when there are plentiful fruits available. Yet, after enjoying the fruit bounty together, they will again go separate ways. By travelling alone, orangutans do not have to share food and therefore experience less pressure than a group of primates when the season means less food is available.
Despite the lack of support from a social group, orangutans prove time and time again that they are incredibly self-sufficient and smart. Even when a new challenge presents itself, they are persistent and creative in finding a solution. Take, for instance, tool use. Orangutans are known to incorporate the use of ‘tools’ to help them forage more effectively for difficult to access food sources. They have also been observed using broad leaves or clusters of leaves to cover their heads when it rains, forming a makeshift umbrella. Our red cousins never cease to amaze us!