A Sumatran Orangutan born on November 22 at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo is the only one born in a United States zoo so far in 2014, and therefore represents a significant addition to the population of this critically endangered species.
Zoo keepers and veterinary staff expected 19-year-old Tara to give birth between mid-November and early December. They had been watching Tara by remote camera overnight for several weeks. When keepers observed Tara pacing in her off-exhibit bedroom late in the evening on November 21, they suspected she was in labor and arrived at the zoo to monitor the birth.
Tara’s labor lasted a few hours, and she delivered her female baby unassisted. Immediately following the delivery, Tara began cleaning her infant and placed it in her nest – a pile of wood shavings and blankets – where she sleeps at night.
Zoo officials are cautiously optimistic about the baby’s future. Because this is Tara’s first baby and she has never observed another female caring for an infant, officials were concerned that she may not know how to care for her baby.
To address any potential problems, zoo keepers spent several months preparing an extensive Birth Management Plan. Prior to the birth, zoo keepers used a plush stuffed toy and operant conditioning to train Tara to bring her “baby” to keepers who could bottle-feed it if Tara failed to nurse. Tara has also been trained to present her nipple to keepers to nurse a baby, in the event that keepers must provide daily care for the infant.
“So far, none of these measures has been needed,” said Animal Curator Mark Weldon. “Tara is proving to be a good mother.”
The breeding of Tara with 28-year-old male Tengku was recommended by the Orangutan Species Survival Plan (SSP), a program of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums that seeks to maintain genetic diversity within populations of endangered animals. Lori Perkins of Zoo Atlanta chairs the Orangutan SSP, and she says that only eight other orangutans have been born in United States Zoos in 2014, but all are Bornean orangutans – a separate subspecies from the Sumatran Orangutans that are held at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo. Perkins notes that two other Sumatran Orangutans are currently pregnant at other US zoos.
About 320 Sumatran Orangutans live in zoos worldwide, and an average of 15 babies are born each year in the world’s zoos. In the wild, these red-furred apes are found only on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia, where the population is in drastic decline due to illegal hunting and the destruction of their forest homes to build palm oil plantations. Fewer than 7,000 Sumatran Orangutans remain in the wild. Some experts predict Orangutans could become extinct in the wild within a few decades if circumstances remain unchanged.