1 Nov 2013

“Martha is the oldest primate at the zoo, born in 1965, and has been at Chester Zoo since 1966. She was brought to the zoo, as a baby, by a lady named Barbara Harrisson, who was the wife of the curator of the Sarawak Museum. Following the receiving and raising of an orphan orangutan, she went on to study wild orangutans and care for more orphans. She wrote the first book solely dedicated to the orangutan, aptly named ‘Orangutan’ which was published in 1962. It’s still very readable if you can find a copy! She also helped set up the first orangutan rehabilitation centre.

Black and white image of Martha the Bornean orangutan at 18 months old

Martha at 18 months old. Photo credit: Sarawak Zoo

“Martha was brought to Chester Zoo as she unfortunately couldn’t be returned to the wild – Martha does have a stunted index finger and this may have been perceived as a hindrance to her.

“Martha was a very pretty orangutan baby and the earliest photos of her that appear in old zoo publications show her admiring herself whilst holding a small mirror. When she arrived she lived in the old Monkey House, in 1969 she became one of the first inhabitants of the Ape House which held all of our orangutans until the completion of Realm of the Red Ape in 2007.

“Today her outdoor habitat is part of Realm of the Red Ape, and lives here with the other Bornean orangutans; as the Sumatran orangutans have moved over to Islands.

Bornean orangutan at Chester Zoo

One of the Bornean orangutans at Chester Zoo.

“As Martha matured she became a mother to many offspring and reared the babies herself, following a couple of attempts that resulted in keepers needing to hand rear. This ability to rear her own young, alongside another Bornean female, has paved the way for the rest of the orangutans that have bred at Chester to learn from her. It’s been over 25 years since an orangutan had to be hand reared here!

“Following a few years with no Bornean orangutan male being present at Chester, Tuan arrived from Antwerp. We kept our fingers crossed that Tuan could deliver the goods and within months Martha’s daughters Sarikei and Leia were both pregnant, but despite repeated matings between Tuan and Martha babies never arrived so we assume she can no longer conceive.

“Today Martha shares her enclosure with her two daughters, and also her grandchildren Iznee and Latifah. She doesn’t socialise with her relations much, which isn’t uncommon as socialising isn’t really built into an orangutans DNA, but when she shared her space with a gibbon was surprisingly quite at ease sharing a hammock with the lesser ape.

“Through the years she has mellowed quite a lot. When I first started working with her in 1998 I would have described her as cranky and cantankerous, but now she ambles along at her own pace and enjoys a bit of attention from the keepers.

“She is still very inquisitive and often sits in a hammock watching the world go by. If it’s a particularly bright day she will sit with a hand over her eyes to shielding her gaze from the sun.

“It is estimated that the lifespan of a wild orangutan is approx. 40 years. The current record holder for the oldest orangutan in a zoo is a female Sumatran; Puan at Perth Zoo, who turned 63 in January 2016. (Incidentally, Puan is also mother to Puluh our Sumatran male!) We all hope that Martha will be with us for a long time to come and we owe her a great deal for teaching the other orangutans to rear their own offspring.

“It is nice to have an animal with so much history and links the early pioneering orangutan conservation work of Barbara Harrisson to our conservation efforts here at the zoo today. Thanks Martha!”

Orangutan using wires to cross a break in the canopy

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