Orangutan School | 360°

Orangutans (Pongo) are a genus of hominid primates comprising three species of great apes originating in Indonesia and Malaysia. A third species was added to the Borneo orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) and to the Sumatra (Pongo abelii), when the Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis) was identified and described. They are distinguished from African apes by reddish fur and a constitution more adapted to tree life. In addition, they have the loneliest lifestyle of all anthropomorphic monkeys; There are only lasting social ties between mother and child. They are not left behind, however, in terms of intelligence. In their natural environment, they manufacture and use sophisticated tools and show great skill building nests in trees. Populations have declined dramatically in recent decades; Currently there are only about 70,000 individuals (2017 data) in the jungles of Borneo and Sumatra. All species of this genus are on the verge of extinction according to IUCN data.

The name derives from the Malay (or Indonesian) words “orang”, which means person, and “hutan”, jungle or forest, that is, it is a “man of the jungle.” The first reference to the use of this word is from 1631, date of publication of the book Historiae naturalis et medicae Indiae orientalis, by the Dutch physician Jacobus Bontius. He reported that, according to the Malays, the ape knew how to speak but preferred not to prove it, unless it was put to work.4 Linnaeus later gave him the name Simia satyrus.5

As for the name of the genus, Pongo, its origin is due to an error. It comes from the narration of a 16th-century English sailor whom the Portuguese were imprisoned in Angola and who describes two anthropoid monsters called Pongo and Engeco. It would probably be gorillas. The word “Pongo” is from the Kongo language, one of the Bantus languages of the region.

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