Tara, a Sumatran orangutan at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, is expecting a baby this fall. This is the first pregnancy for 19-year-old Tara, and the baby would be the second orangutan ever born at the zoo.
“We’re excited about Tara’s pregnancy and the chance to add to the population of this critically endangered species,” says Zoo Animal Curator Mark Weldon.
The baby is due sometime from mid-November to early December. The father is Tengku, the zoo’s 28-year-old male orangutan, who arrived in Fort Wayne from Zoo Atlanta in 1995. Orangutans are pregnant for an average of 245 days, or a little over eight months.
Tara came to the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo in April 2013 from the Columbus Zoo in Ohio and was introduced to Tengku and Melati, a 29-year-old female orangutan, about a month after arriving. Zoo keepers regularly monitor Tara’s hormonal cycles and after changes were noted in her cycle this spring, zoo keepers used a human pregnancy test kit to confirm the pregnancy. (Certain brands of over-the-counter tests are known to react accurately with orangutan hormones.)
The breeding of Tara with Tengku was recommended by the Species Survival Plan (SSP), a program of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums that seeks to maintain genetic diversity within populations of endangered animals. About 320 Sumatran orangutans live in zoos worldwide, and only about 15 babies are born each year in the world’s zoos. These red-furred apes are found only on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia, where the population is in drastic decline due to illegal hunting and the destruction of their forest homes to build palm oil plantations.
At age 19, “Tara is the perfect age for breeding,” says Zoo Keeper Angie Selzer, who cares for the orangutans. However, Tara has never given birth, nor has she lived with another female who has delivered a baby. As a result, Tara may not know how to raise an infant. “Orangutans learn by watching others,” says Weldon. “If Tara’s never observed maternal behavior, she may not know how to take care of a baby.”
To address any potential issues with the birth, zoo keepers have prepared an extensive Birth Management Plan. Using a plush stuffed toy and operant conditioning, Tara has been trained to bring her “baby” to keepers who will bottle-feed it if Tara fails to nurse. Tara has also been trained to present her nipple to keepers to nurse her baby, in the event that keepers must provide daily care for the infant.
In 2006, female orangutan Sayang delivered the first orangutan ever born at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo. Just one hour after giving birth to a healthy male infant, Sayang collapsed and died unexpectedly from a blood clot in her lungs.
The baby, named Dumadi, was cared for around the clock by zoo keepers until he was eight months old. He moved to Zoo Atlanta in 2007, where he was fostered by Madu, an experienced mother, and integrated in to the zoo’s orangutan group. Orangutans have the longest childhood of any animal other than humans, and require maternal care until they are six to eight years old.