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Sofie Orangutan with infant

Check out video footage of Sophia and her new daughter!

Clinging to Survival
Stop by Tropic World: Asia in the coming weeks and you may be treated to the site of Sophia Orangutan tending to her infant daughter. The new arrival, born October 6, can be hard to see at first. She clings tightly to her mother, and is often hidden behind Sophia’s protective arms.

The mother-daughter bond is heartwarming—but it’s much more than that as well. It’s evidence of the positive impact that conservationists and keepers can have on the threatened species.

The population of orangutans in the wild has declined 50 percent in the past 18 years. The primary culprit is habitat devastation. Huge tracts on the rainforest islands of Sumatra and Borneo are being logged, and the dense vegetation and high trees that orangutans depend upon are being replaced by palm oil plantations.

Demand for Oil
Palm oil is in demand as an ingredient in baked goods and candies. Many manufacturers favor palm oil because it is low in trans fat—and allows them to label their products “no trans fat” in order to appeal to increasingly health-conscious consumers. (Palm oil is high, however, in saturated fats—which, like trans fat, can increase the risk of heart attack.)

Researchers estimate that 5,000 wild orangutans die every year—a rate of decline that, if unchanged, would result in the species being extinct in the wild by 2025.

Conservation and zoological organizations worldwide are taking a two-pronged approach to addressing the extinction crisis. The first prong consists of education and outreach efforts to prevent habitat loss and other threats faced by orangutans in the wild. The second is the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Orangutan Species Survival Plan, a cooperative program that manages the breeding of orangutans in zoos to maintain a healthy, genetically diverse and demographically stable population.

Sophia’s new daughter is evidence that the latter is working. And the care and attention that Sophia is showering on the newborn demonstrates the important role that keepers play in species conservation.

Modeling Motherhood
Orangutan mothers learn how to care for an infant by watching their own mother. Sophia wasn’t raised by her mother, so she reached maturity with no idea how to tend to an infant.

Understanding that orangutans are best raised by their mothers, and not zoo staff, Sophia’s keepers took it upon themselves to show her how to raise her firstborn by example. They displayed correct maternal behaviors, such as how to carry and nurse an infant, in front of Sophia.

No one had previously attempted to teach maternal behaviors to an orangutan in a zoo. But watching Sophia care for her daughter, her fifth child, it’s evident that the lessons worked.

Sophia will have plenty of opportunities to display her maternal skills in the coming weeks, months and years. Young orangutans have the longest maternal dependency period of all mammals. Newborns cling to their mothers for approximately 10 months. And they may continue to nurse up to age five.

Working on Well-Being
CZS is not just concerned about the survival of orangutans. We place a high priority on ensuring their well-being. Carol Sodaro, our associate curator of mammals, has served as husbandry advisor for the Orangutan Species Survival Plan since 1992. In addition to using her experience and knowledge to promote the well-being of orangutans at Brookfield Zoo, she regularly consults with the other zoological institutions participating in the Orangutan SSP.

In October 2007, CZS hosted an Orangutan Husbandry Workshop, a meeting of orangutan management experts, researchers, and field biologists from around the world. Sodaro and other husbandry professionals shared information on the proper social management of orangutans in zoos and rehabilitation centers and promoted public awareness of the challenges this critically endangered ape faces in the wild.

Find out how you can help save orangutans from extinction, simply by changing your shopping habits! Check out the Orangutan Conservancy's Guide to orangutan-friendly products.

Sophia and her new daughter, born October 6.