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Connecting to Save Orangutans

By Ronda Schwetz
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Wild orangutans in Borneo and Sumatra are considered critically endangered under the IUCN Red List. These species face constant pressure of extinction due to many complex issues such as loss of habitat, illegal mining and logging, and high consumer demand for palm oil found in many consumer products. These factors also contribute to the illegal pet trade which leaves many wild orangutan infants without their mothers and in unsuitable living conditions. Several rehabilitation and rescue centers have been established to focus on the rehabilitation and release of orphaned and injured orangutans in their range countries.

The SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction orangutan program was launched in 2018 to focus on these threats and how AZA institutions can assist in the recovery of the species. Founding AZA institutions include Henry Vilas Zoo, Kansas City Zoo, Como Park Zoo and Conservatory, and Seneca Park Zoo. The SAFE orangutan three-year action plan was recently submitted for review and approval through the Wildlife Conservation Committee. Much of the work that will be done under this plan adopts and supports long-standing orangutan conservation initiatives led by the Orangutan Species Survival Plan (SSP)® program. As part of these efforts, to benefit wild and rehabilitant orangutans, AZA members participate in SSP-led field trips to Asian zoos and orangutan rescue centers. These trips have been occurring for over 10 years and have facilitated information exchange focused on training, husbandry, and enrichment among professional colleagues for rehabilitated orangutans in range countries. Other efforts include donations of equipment and medicine, professional exchanges with caretakers and veterinary staff, global education awareness of the issues impacting wild orangutans, and work with local communities to develop solutions that benefit both humans and orangutans.

CREATE (Corridor Restoration for Animals Threatened and Endangered), a project started by the Kansas City Zoo and in partnership with APE Malaysia, is an excellent example of one such collaborative effort. By hiring local community members to plant, maintain and grow forest trees to link gaps in wildlife corridors, CREATE provides a sustainable way of life for local people and animals. In November 2018, a team of AZA experts from four AZA-accredited zoos traveled to Northeast Borneo to help not only with the habitat restoration efforts but also to work with a local zoo on how to enhance their animal welfare. To offset the consequences of unsustainable slash and burn agriculture practices, participants planted 130 trees and performed maintenance on another 300 trees that will eventually grow to expand habitat for the animals, including orangutans, which live there.   

Investing in trips like this and providing extra people-power for these projects can be a great benefit for all who participate. Facilities on both ends, expand their knowledge and networking, which ultimately results in better orangutan care, habitat conservation, and even release back into the wild. AZA professionals who take part in the trips come back able to enthusiastically share their conservation and welfare efforts with visitors at their zoo, as well as engage their own staff to share this experience. To learn more about these efforts or to get involved, visit The Orangutan SSP website or the AZA SAFE species page.

Originally published in the February 2019 issue of Connect Magazine. 

Ronda Schwetz is the Executive Zoo Director at Henry Vilas Zoo, the Orangutan SSP Field Committee Chair, and the SAFE Orangutan Program Leader

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