April 9, 2014
Tengku, the zoo’s male Sumatran orangutan, has something new to add to his resume: International Researcher. Tengku’s contribution to the research of Dr. Graham L. Banes, a biological anthropologist who visited the zoo last week, may help save these rare apes from the brink of extinction.
Dr. Banes studies the biodiversity of orangutans in zoos and in the wild and is building a database containing genetic information on every captive orangutan in the world.
Tengku provided a blood sample so researchers can study his DNA as part of a four-generation study. Zoo keepers had already trained him on this procedure via operant conditioning. This video from 2012 shows the procedure:
Managed programs have existed in zoos for decades, but zoos are not the only participants in orangutan research. Orphanages and rehabilitation centers, which are found on the “front lines” of orangutan conservation, are also included in this study. Such facilities house orangutans who have been displaced, injured, or orphaned as a result of habitat destruction.
Dr. Banes explained that ensuring genetic biodiversity in zoos and rehabilitation centers is important. A genetically diverse population decreases the likelihood of health problems and reduces the rate of infant mortality.
A healthy zoo population will become essential if Sumatran orangutan populations continue to decline. Orangutans have endured an 80-90% reduction in their natural habitat. In other words, they are running out of places to live. Their species is listed as “critically endangered” by the IUCN (source: http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/39780/0). To compound this situation, proposed changes in Indonesian law further threaten the survival of orangutans in the wild. According to Dr. Banes, “Preserves are being un-protected.”
Tengku is helping his wild cousins, and so can you. The AZA has prepared an online petition to the Indonesian government regarding the destruction of the 10-20% of rain forest cover that remains. You can go to change.org to review and sign the petition.
The IUCN estimates that there are around 7,000 Sumatran orangutans left in the wild. To put that number into perspective, consider that Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis holds 70,000 people for NCAA basketball tournaments.
The zoo’s conservation page lists resources for those wanting to get involved with the conservation of wild animals and wild places.
Click on the photos to enlarge: