As we approach Mother’s Day, we shine a light on the special women in our lives, who have watched us grow, taught us right from wrong and held our hand through the highs and lows of adolescent life. Some mothers live high up in trees in the tropical rainforests across Sumatra, and have to fight to help protect their families from an ever-changing world, that is driving their species to extinction.
With increasing threats in the wild, due to the insatiable demands of the palm oil industry, orangutan families are facing new challenges, having to adapt their lives in order to survive. As a critically endangered species, experts at the zoo and partners overseas, have been closely studying orangutans and the threats they face in the wild, to understand what it will take to help save them from extinction.
Female Sumatran orangutan at Chester Zoo, Subis, aged 32, is proud mum to three brown eyed youngsters; Tutu, Siska and the littlest in the family, Arga, who was born in November 2019. We sat down with our incredible orangutan keepers, to find out more about the relationship between Subis and Arga, the importance of orangutan life skills and how the unsustainable palm oil industry is affecting mothers and babies in the wild.
Meet, Chris Yarwood, Lead Keeper, and his team Mark Wylie & Kate Brice…
How does the relationship in organutans compare to other ape species?
Kate: “Because they don’t stay in large groups like chimps or monkeys do, infants stay with their mothers for years, so the bond is a lot stronger. A young orangutan can be with its mother for up to 8 years plus.”
Do you see any similarities between human and orangutan relationships?
Mark: “The mum does the feeding, which creates a close bond between mum and baby, similar to humans.”
Kate: “You can also tell when mum has had a rough night with the kids! Haha. Orangutans have a strong mother and infant bond, similar to us humans.”
How would you describe Subis & Arga’s relationship since he was born?
Chris: “Arga has been clinging to Subis since birth, but up until a week ago, we’ve spotted him sitting next to mum for the first time. For us, that’s quite a milestone in his development. He’ll quite often try to reach out to other orangutans in the habitat, but it’s up to Subis whether she wants him to be able to actually touch them. She’s always keeping an eye on him and is very protective.”
Kate: “But she’s also quite a laid back mum in a way. She lets her older children do what they want, so long as it’s within her comfort zone. Once they get a bit bigger, she lets them go off and do their own thing..”
Mark: “..Just like most human mums would. As Arga becomes more aware, he’s always reaching out to touch new things, and it’s Subis’ job to decide whether to let him carry on, or pull him back. Even if it’s just a little thing like touching different materials, foods or plants.”
At what age will Arga separate from mum to fend for himself?
Mark: “Up until Arga was born, Subis would still carry Siska around, and she’s nearly 5.”
Chris: “A lot of primates live in big social groups, such as chimps. Because of the way chimp hierarchy’s work, it’s good to have a strong bloodline to battle for your position within the group. With orangutans it’s different. They have very strong maternal bonds. It could be up to 10 years before offspring completely separate from mum, and then reach sexual maturity between 10 to 12 years old. They would then mate, and have their own family. So the cycle continues. They also gain lots of learned behaviours and skills from their mums.”
What do you love most about orangutans?
Mark: “What’s not to love about orangutans? they’re a special kind of animal. They’re completely different from other species of ape.”
What effect does the palm oil industry have on mother and baby orangutans?
Mark: “It adds a lot of extra pressure to their survival. There’s no doubt that if rainforests are being cut down, there is less and less space for them. The mum still needs to look after their young, but with less food, and areas they’re familiar with, it becomes a lot more challenging. They’re also having to encroach on other orangutan areas within the rainforest, which could cause conflict when in search of food. Parenting becomes much harder.”