Published 23 October 2020
In December 2019 and February this year, two orangutans were born at Taiping Zoo & Night Safari, Malaysia. We contacted the zoo in September to ask about its purpose for breeding orangutans.
In its response, the zoo stated that its reason for breeding the apes is to maintain a viable captive population in case a need to reintroduce them into the wild arises.
On average, wild-born orangutans spend around seven to eight years with their mothers. The first few years of life are crucial as infant orangutans are taught a wide range of skills on forest survival such as nest-building, avoiding predators, foraging and integration into a wild orangutan population. The natural conditions in a forest are near-impossible to replicate in a zoo.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) indicated in its guidelines for the wild reintroduction of great apes that it is a significant challenge to rehabilitate and release rescued wild-born infant orangutans that had not lived in the wild with their mothers for at least a year. Such is the importance of mother-infant interactions in the wild.
Orangutans in zoos may also be too habituated to humans; over-habituation to humans can cause forest-dwelling orangutans to be more susceptible to poachers and hunters. Additionally, captive-born and bred orangutans may not be as resistant to diseases as wild orangutans.
Breeding orangutans in captivity with the aim of releasing them into a forest is currently not common practice in the area orangutan conservation. The IUCN does not include any orangutan species in its list of wildlife species for which captive breeding has been recommended as a conservation action.
We argue that the primary reason zoos import, breed and keep exotic animals such as orangutans, chimpanzees and tigers are to lure visitors. In mid-September, the president of the Melaka Hang Tuah Jaya Municipal Council (MPHTJ) stated that Melaka Zoo, a zoo two hours south of the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, was attempting to acquire more orangutans to increase visitor numbers.
Orangutans are highly intelligent and complex animals, and it can be a challenge to meet their needs in captivity. Till this day Friends of the Orangutans continue to reveal substandard living conditions of orangutans in Malaysian zoos.
Legitimate ape sanctuaries that care for rescued orangutans do their best to avoid animals in their care from breeding. According to the Center for Great Apes, a sanctuary caring for unreleasable orangutans and chimpanzees, it is irresponsible to intentionally breed great apes and add more individuals to a life of captivity when there are already so many in need of rescue.
Captive breeding of orangutans is not conservation, and breeding these highly intelligent animals to only keep them captive for life is unethical. Zoos around the world should stop breeding orangutans.
Instead of breeding orangutans in captivity resources would be better spent on genuine orangutan conservation efforts, such as protecting and connecting the habitats of wild orangutans, addressing human-orangutan conflict and tackling the illegal wildlife trade. Support from the general public to fight deforestation is also crucial to secure the future of dwindling wildlife species.
What can you do today? Share this article on your social media outlets, and send this article to your local elected officials and zoos and demand them to stop breeding orangutans in captivity.