The Orangutan: The Overlooked Ape Essay

The Orangutan: The Overlooked Ape Essay

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Study of the orangutan began in earnest in the 70s, when Louis Leakey dispatched Birutė Galdikas to join Jane Goodall and Diane Fossey in their study of the great apes (de Waal, 1995). While Goodall’s work with chimpanzees brought extensive public awareness to the animal (Quammen, 2003) and Fossey’s groundbreaking study of gorillas was so prominent a Hollywood film was based on her work (“The Gorilla King,” 2008), Birutė Galdikas and her orangutans didn’t capture the hearts of the public in quite the same way (Schwartz, 1987). That disregard is a shame, as there is much the orangutan can show us. One aspect is their place in relation to their family members in Hominidae; are the two species that make up the orangutan closer to humans than chimpanzees? Another topic worthy of further examination is their social organization, characterized by a complex social network with mostly solitary lifestyles (Strier, 2000). An additional area of study is their cognitive abilities. Is it possible for the orangutan to speak? These questions must be deliberated quickly, as these animals are in danger of extinction in the near future (Singleton, Wich, & Griffiths, 2008) (Ancrenaz et al., 2008) Hopefully, further education will increase interest in and awareness of the Red Ape.
The term orangutan originates from the Malay and Indonesian words “orang,” meaning “person,” and “hutan,” meaning “forest,” (Harper, 2001). It was once used as a catch-all term for what we now consider the non-human hominids; this is showcased in Edward Tyson’s influential book Orang-Outang, dive Homo Sylvestris, Or, the Anatomy of a Pygmie Compared with That of a Monkey, an Ape, and a Man which, while using the term “orang-outang,” likely refers to a bonobo or ch...

... middle of paper ... in the Forest Again. National Geographic. Retrieved from

Schwartz, J. H. (1987). The red ape: Orang-utans and human origins. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Singleton, I., Wich, S.A. & Griffiths, M. 2008. Pongo abelii. In: IUCN 2013. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. .

Strier, K. B. (2000). Primate behavioral ecology. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Tan, P. (1998). Malay loan words across different dialects of English. English Today,14(04), 44-50.

Tyson, E. (1699). Orang-Outang, dive Homo Sylvestris: Or, the Anatomy of a Pygmie Compared with that of a Monkey, an Ape, and a Man. London: T Bennet and D Brown. Retrieved from

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