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The National Zoo Welcomes New Baby Orangutan
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The National Zoo Welcomes New Baby Orangutan

Picture of Kate McMahon
Updated: 20 September 2016
After a mere four minutes of labor, first-time mother Batang birthed a healthy male on September 13th at The National Zoo in Washington, D.C. The zoo’s Great Ape House is currently closed to the public to provide private time for the newfound mother to bond with her son — every newborn orangutan is critically important to the species as their numbers decline. Orangutans are severely endangered due to deforestation in their native homes of Borneo and Sumatra, Indonesia; the National Zoo works to establish a viable captive population of orangutans to allow the species to persist. The National Zoo researches and houses a wide variety of species that no longer exist in the wild, working hard to prevent extinctions.

Batang’s new son is critical to the survival of their declining species. The driving force of endangerment is attributed to habitat loss from palm oil plantations — the biodiverse rainforests of Indonesia are bulldozed and cleared in order to grow profitable oil palms. The crop’s demand has soared in the last decade; palm oil is a key ingredient found in many American junk foods, particularly Nutella. Eating Nutella thus contributes to the decline of orangutan populations and further accelerates the demand for deforestation. Photos of recently cleared rainforests depict a gruesome scene of orangutan bodies dotting the landscape as the land is sowed and prepared for its new agricultural use.

Indonesian Rainforest Cleared To Plant Palmoil| © Hayden/WikiCommons
Indonesian Rainforest Cleared To Plant Palm Oil | © Hayden/WikiCommons

A century ago, there were approximately 300,000 orangutans. Presently, less than 70,000 remain in the world. Borean orangutans are estimated at 45,000; Sumatran orangutans are more severely endangered — only around 15,000 exist today. Both species are on a fast track to becoming the first primate extinctions as a result of anthropogenic (human) causes. However, The National Zoo is working tirelessly to save the primates through public education, providing funding to lessen deforestation and maintaining a healthy captive population that can one day be introduced to the wild — making Batang’s new son crucial to its species’ survival plan.

Fortunately, zookeepers report that Batang is doing wonderfully for experiencing motherhood for the first time. The ideal choice is always to allow mother and baby to remain together — keepers will only separate the pair if the mother is incapable of caring for the baby or rejects it. Planning on the cautious side, the zoo trained two other female orangutans to act as surrogates if Batang proved unfit for motherhood. All three females were trained to allow keepers to use breast milk pumps on them. However, Batang is exceeding exceptionally well; she and baby are bonding and keepers anticipate that they will stay together.

For the last three years, zookeepers have prepared Batang for motherhood, anticipating an eventual pregnancy. Batang mated with the zoo’s male orangutan, Kyle, in February, and a June ultrasound revealed that the mating was successful. Keepers trained Batang how to properly hold her young with a doll and how to present the doll to her trusted keepers when asked — this gives the veterinary staff ability to intervene and medically examine the baby without causing stress to either parties.

Their hard work and careful planning has paid off; Batang continues to nurse and swaddle her new son. The little guy hasn’t formally met dad yet, who is currently housed in a separate adjacent enclosure, but mom held their son to the glass so he could take a peek. The zoo has yet to announce a name, but it often hosts polls and competitions to allow the public to name affectionate newcomers.

Welcome to the world, little guy.