On a warm afternoon at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo last week, a crowd gathers in the Great Ape House to see a new baby. His mom, a 19-year-old orangutan named Batang, peeks out from an enclosure, snatches some fruit with a long, hairy red arm and makes a quick retreat. The other arm probably holds the small, sleepy infant that many have come to see.
Just a month ago, Redd, a critically endangered Bornean orangutan, was born at the zoo. (He is the first of his species to be born there in 25 years.) Redd’s mom has been busy caring for her precious little redhead: nursing him, snuggling him and keeping him clean and warm.
“They spent the first two weeks sleeping,” animal keeper Amanda Bania said.
More recently, the baby has been making a lot of cute faces, she said.
Redd’s extended family members — the zoo has five adult Bornean orangutans in addition to his mother — have been somewhat curious about the baby, but most haven’t gotten too close. Soon zookeepers will let Batang introduce Redd to his dad, Kyle.
In the wild, orangutans are born in trees. Orangutans are the largest arboreal (tree-dwelling) species on Earth: Adult males in the wild weigh about 200 pounds. Redd (staff members at the zoo named him that to honor his species, which is known as the “red ape”) instinctively clings to the hair on Batang’s body to keep from falling, as if he lived in a tree. Redd’s mom holds on to him to keep him safe. When she wants to climb from one part of her enclosure to the next, she stations Redd on her face (as if she’s wearing a mask) to free up her hands.
“He holds on to the hair on her head, and she can’t see anything,” Bania said.
Redd’s job is to eat and grow. He’ll be dependent on his mom until he’s about 8 years old. But from the minute he was born, the infant has had an important job: as an ambassador for his species. Orangutans may become the first of the ape species to go extinct during our lifetime if people continue to destroy the Southeast Asian tropical rain forests where wild orangutans live.
Redd will help educate tens of thousands of people who visit the zoo about the importance of his species and how to help save wild orangutans. He will also eventually join the group of breeding orangutans in zoos across the country.
For now, he’s helping his species by doing something that comes easy: just being cute.
Orangutans on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra are disappearing because people are taking over their habitat, cutting down tropical rain forests to plant a type of tree called the oil palm. That causes orangutans, Sumatran tigers, pygmy elephants and native rhinos to lose their homes. Here are some ways you can help save orangutans and their neighbors:
● Read all you can about the species and share what you learn.
● Talk to your parents about what products they buy that are made with palm oil and about the importance of supporting companies that use sustainable palm oil.
● Persuade your family to use less water, heat and air conditioning to preserve the natural resources we all share.