Troop Dynamics

Life Among the Zoo’s Orangutans

BY Peggy Scott

Photography by Ken Bohn

Average age, in years, at which female orangutans first give birth

Dad is lounging in his favorite spot, seemingly lost in thought. Auntie is teaching the little one how to turn a somersault. And Mom sits in her special seat, not missing a single minute of the action.

Spend even a short time observing interactions among the Zoo’s troop of Sumatran orangutans—Satu, Karen, little Aisha, and Indah—and it becomes obvious why their common name, orang hutan, translates to “people of the forest.” In the animals’ native ranges in Borneo and Sumatra, they are revered in folk tales that depict orangutans as almost supernatural beings.

While orangutans can’t control destiny or dispense justice, they are intelligent, complex creatures. From their relationships with each other to the bond they share with visitors, the orange primates convey a depth that people may not expect. Those who know them best, however, see it all. Tanya Howard, a senior keeper at the Zoo, considers herself privileged to work with the Zoo’s troop of four. “The close relationship between mother and offspring is so special,” she says. “The mothers are the sole caregivers, and the bond between the two is undeniable. And orangutans are such thinkers. They look at you, and you know they’re thinking deep thoughts.”

Satu knows a good thing when he finds it—whether it’s a treat or a lookout spot.

The width, in feet, of a male orangutan’s arm span

A Special Group

Even though orangutans share the designation of “great ape” with gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos, their lifestyle is different. Largely solitary, it’s mostly mothers with a single dependent offspring that spend extended periods of time together. “The kids are with their mothers for 8 to 12 years,” Tanya says. Other than that, orangutans in the wild go about their lives in a more solitary fashion, foraging for food, with fruit being a favorite.

Orangutans eat up to 100 kinds of fruit, along with leaves, flowers, bark, honey, termites, ants and other insects, and even bird eggs. At the Zoo, food offerings include cabbage, lettuce, kale, carrots, yams, broccoli, bananas, apples, oranges, and grapes. Treats might include papayas, mangos, corn, turnips, onions, popcorn, raisins, peanut butter, and walnuts. Of course, some menu items are more popular than others. “Everyone likes corn and popcorn, and Indah loves mango,” Tanya says. “Citrus seems to be the least appealing.”

The orangutans coexist quite peacefully, and their personalities mesh well. “They enjoy different activities, whether that’s using sticks to get honey or other treats out of faux termite mounds, swinging their way through the climbing structure, or creating a masterpiece with nontoxic, food-based paints. They choose what they want to do,” Tanya says. Each ape seems to march (or swing, or roll) to his or her own drummer.

The percentage of genes that we share with orangutans

Satu the Statesman

At 23 years old, Satu has matured into a laid-back guy. His keen eyes are framed by impressive cheek pads that are characteristic of an adult male orangutan—along with his long, somewhat dreadlocked hair. He often settles himself near the front of the exhibit, or by the waterfalls. Using burlap sacks given to the troop as enrichment, Satu might fashion himself a poncho or headwrap—or simply drag the bag along with him. “He’s active and really wants to please his keepers,” Tanya says, noting that Satu willingly participates in ultrasound procedures to monitor his heart health. “He chooses to cooperate. It’s part of who he is.”

Despite his easygoing nature, Satu, like everyone, has his limits. “He tries to lay down the law when the siamangs [who share the exhibit with the orangutans] won’t stop teasing him,” Tanya says. “But even then, he keeps his cool.” His real soft spot is his daughter, Aisha. “She loves to play with him, and he is really indulgent with her.”

Karen waits to greet visitors at the viewing glass.

Keeping Up with Karen

Karen has been a celebrity since she was a baby. Born in 1992, she didn’t seem to be thriving, and the Zoo’s veterinarians determined that she had a problem with her heart. Plucky Karen made headlines in 1994 as the first orangutan to undergo open-heart surgery. Karen then flourished, and remains a visitor favorite. “She is our resident artist, and will sometimes ‘paint’ her whole face,” Tanya says. “And she is the one who taught Aisha to roll in the grass in front of the viewing glass. They love to interact with guests.” Karen’s story is told in Karen’s Heart, one of the titles in the Hope and Inspiration children’s book series, written by San Diego Zoo Global employee Georgeanne Irvine and published by San Diego Zoo Global Press.

Adorable Aisha

At 32 pounds, 5-year-old Aisha is petite for her age, but as Tanya notes, she more than makes up for that in spirit. Always on the go, Aisha divides her time between encouraging guests to follow her as she scampers near the window, climbing on Satu, romping with Karen, or sitting for a cuddle with her mother, Indah. “Aisha gets along with everyone and loves to play with Karen. She’s always up to something,” Tanya says.

Inspector Indah

Perched in the climbing structure on the right-hand side, Indah enjoys surveying all the action below her. When Aisha was smaller, Indah would swing across the structure, hand over hand, with her tiny baby clinging to her. She still holds her orange bundle of joy, if only to study her little hand carefully—as if still in wonder of her offspring. “The loving relationship between them is amazing,” Tanya says, adding that Indah is not only a good mother, but a good exhibit mate as well. “She shares food with the siamangs. That’s really unusual for primates.”

Looking Ahead

Like many other animals, both species of orangutan (Sumatran and Bornean) face many challenges in the wild, including massive habitat destruction from deforestation, logging, and human-made fires. One of the main factors driving deforestation is the clearing of land for unsustainable palm oil plantations. More than half of manufactured items found in grocery stores contain palm oil. From 1990 to 2010, there was a 600 percent increase in the amount of land dedicated to palm oil production in Indonesia.

Aisha and Unkie hang out together.

However, if planned and managed properly, palm oil crops can require less land than alternative oil crops. Consumers can make sure they are buying products made from these sustainable sources. “There are phone apps you can download to help you choose sustainable palm oil products,” Tanya explains. “We can all help to save habitats and the animals that live in them.”

On your next visit to the Zoo, stop by the orangutan and siamang habitat, and spend a few minutes observing these amazing animals—and think about their counterparts in the wild and what we can do to help them. If you look up, chances are, Indah will be observing you, too.

Add a comment

Due to the increased volume on our many social media channels, we are unable to respond to all comments or questions. Comments are now posted automatically but may be removed if deemed inappropriate according to the San Diego Zoo Global Blog Comment Policy.


  1. Tracy
  2. Connie
  3. Reda Lackey
  5. Reda Lackey
  6. Reda Lackey
  7. Veronica
  8. Anne
  9. Cindy Beck
  10. Anne
  11. Anne
  12. Anne
  13. Anne
  14. patricia
  15. suzanne in new york
  16. AB
  17. Anne
  18. Anne