Tapanuli Orangutan

Pongo tapanuliensis

Last updated: May 27, 2024
Verified by: AZ Animals Staff
© Tim Laman / CC BY 4.0 – License / Original

Uses homemade tools to help with eating and drinking!


Tapanuli Orangutan Scientific Classification

Scientific Name
Pongo tapanuliensis

Read our Complete Guide to Classification of Animals.

Tapanuli Orangutan Conservation Status

Tapanuli Orangutan Locations

Tapanuli Orangutan Locations

Tapanuli Orangutan Facts

Fruits, Shoots, Insects
Name Of Young
Group Behavior
  • Solitary
Fun Fact
Uses homemade tools to help with eating and drinking!
Estimated Population Size
Biggest Threat
Habitat loss and hunting
Most Distinctive Feature
Long arms and long, orange hair
Other Name(s)
Red Ape, Forest Person
Gestation Period
9 months
Tropical and subtropical broadleaf forests
Diet for this Fish
Average Litter Size
  • Diurnal
Common Name
Tapanuli orangutan
Number Of Species
northwestern Sumatra
Inhabits an isolated mountain range in northwestern Sumatra!

Tapanuli Orangutan Physical Characteristics

  • Brown
  • Grey
  • Red
  • Black
  • Orange
Skin Type
Top Speed
2.7 mph
30 - 40 years
30kg - 82kg (66lbs - 180lbs)
1.25m - 1.5m (4ft - 5ft)
Age of Sexual Maturity
12 - 15 years
Age of Weaning
3 years

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Tapanuli Orangutan Classification and Evolution

The Tapanuli orangutan is one of just three orangutan species in the world (the other two being the Bornean orangutan and the Sumatran orangutan). Only named as a distinct species in science in 2017, the Tapanuli orangutan is the first great ape to have been discovered since the bonobo nearly a century ago. Orangutans are the only great ape species found outside of Africa and like the other great apes, they are incredibly genetically similar to humans as we share more than 96% of our DNA with them. Like the Bornean orangutan and the Sumatran orangutan, the Tapanuli orangutan is actually so similar to humans that it led to them being known locally as Orang Hutan which literally means “forest person” in local dialect. Despite the remarkable discovery of the Tapanuli orangutan in 2017, they were immediately classified as a species that is Critically Endangered with only 800 individuals remaining in a remote and isolated part of the island of Sumatra.

Tapanuli Orangutan Anatomy and Appearance

The Tapanuli orangutan (along with both the Bornean orangutan and the Sumatran orangutan) are unique amongst the great apes as they are largely arboreal which means that they spend most of their time high up in the trees rather than living predominantly on the ground. It is because of this that Tapanuli orangutan have evolved in the way that they have and have a number of physical adaptations that enable them to do this successfully. Due to their large size, Tapanuli orangutan are unable to leap between trees and branches in the way that monkeys do and instead have very long arms which help them to reach out for branches which they then swing from to grab onto the next branch which is how they move around through the forest. Tapanuli orangutans have strong and flexible hands and feet with opposable thumbs that help them to hold onto branches and also when opening fruits. Tapanuli orangutans are similar in appearance to both the Bornean orangutan and the Sumatran orangutan but are slightly smaller in size and the males have smaller cheek pouches compared to their Bornean cousins. Until recently, Tapanuli orangutan were not distinguished apart from Sumatran orangutans as they are very similar in appearance but Tapanuli orangutans have frizzer hair, smaller heads and flatter faces than the Sumatran orangutans also inhabiting northern Sumatra.

Tapanuli Orangutan Distribution and Habitat

Tapanuli orangutans are only found in a small and remote part of northwestern Sumatra. Found inhabiting the dense tropical and subtropical broadleaf forests in South Tapanuli, Tapanuli orangutans are known to exist in the mountains and can be found between 300m and 1,300m above sea level. The entire population of Tapanuli orangutans resides in a small, isolated pocket of the mountainous forests just south of Lake Toba that covers a range of just 1,000 square kilometers, and it is because of this that they are so threatened in their natural environment. With ongoing deforestation in the region to clear land for expanding human settlements, logging and to make way for palm oil plantations, their natural range is becoming increasingly smaller and more fragmented (something which is the same for both Sumatran orangutans and Bornean orangutans), and has devastating effects on populations as there are fewer trees to not only live in but also makes it harder for them to find food.

Tapanuli Orangutan Behavior and Lifestyle

Unlike the great apes found in Africa that exist in communities with a number of individuals, all three orangutan species including the Tapanuli orangutan are more solitary animals that are only really seen together when a mother is raising her young. One theory about why Tapanuli orangutans are not as sociable as Africa’s great apes is just the sheer amount of time they spend both finding food and eating. Tapanuli orangutans spend most of their lives in the trees as historically they would have been threatened on the ground by large predators including Sumatran tigers. Tapanuli orangutans build nests high in the forest canopy to sleep in during the dark nights which they do by folding leaves over until they have made themselves a soft and secure bed. Like the other two orangutan species (and the other great apes), Tapanuli orangutans are known to use handmade tools to help them when both eating and drinking, such as using sticks to collect small insects onto and leaves as cups to collect water to drink from. The exact use of tools varies a surprising amount between orangutan populations in different areas indicating that these skills are actually taught to them by their mothers rather than something that they simply inherit.

Tapanuli Orangutan Reproduction and Life Cycle

Tapanuli orangutans only come together really to mate. Males have loud long-calls that boom through the forest and can be heard for up to 1km through the trees. These calls are used to attract the attention of females and after mating and a gestation period that lasts for nine months, the female gives birth to a single infant. Baby Tapanuli orangutans cling tightly onto the long hair of their mother and remain with her for up to seven years as she teaches her infant how to survive in the forest, passing on vital information about which plants are safe to eat, how to build nests and how to utilize tools to aid them in their daily lives. Tapanuli orangutans (along with Bornean and Sumatran orangutans) are one of the most slowly-maturing animals in the world and are not able to reproduce themselves until they are between 12 and 15 years old. With female Tapanuli orangutans having a maximum of three offspring during their lives, it is thought to be one of the contributing factors to their sharp levels of decline in recent years.

Tapanuli Orangutan Diet and Prey

Tapanuli orangutan are omnivorous animals which means that they hunt for and consume both plants and other small animals, primarily insects and small reptiles. Despite the fact that they do hunt for insects, Tapanuli orangutans survive on a heavily fruit-based diet with favorites including mangoes, lychees, durian and figs both ripe and unripe. Due to their large size and the fact that exist primarily by eating fruit, Tapanuli orangutans most spend much of the day searching for fruit and eating to gain enough of their nutrition and although they are known to drink water, like the other orangutan species they gain most of the moisture they need from their food. In areas where there are high yielding fruit trees, Tapanuli orangutans can be seen around other individuals as there is no competition for food when there is an abundance of it.

Tapanuli Orangutan Predators and Threats

Historically, Tapanuli orangutans would have been under threat from being preyed on by larger predators on the ground such as Sumatran tigers and large snakes. However, with deforestation causing severe habitat loss throughout the region the population numbers of these large predators has drastically declined. Humans are the biggest threat to Tapanuli orangutans because since their arrival on Sumatra, they have hunted them for meat. With the interest from zoos around the world in exhibiting exotic animals increasing, the threat to Tapanuli orangutans shifted from being killed as bushmeat to being captured to be sold on the global market. Due to the large size of the adults though, infants were often captured after their protective mother had been killed. Although their illegal capture still continues, the biggest threat to Tapanuli orangutans is habitat loss caused by deforestation for growing human settlements but more drastically from logging of the tropical timbers and to clear land to create palm oil plantations.

Tapanuli Orangutan Interesting Facts and Features

Like both Bornean orangutans and Sumatran orangutans, the Tapanuli orangutan is known to create mental maps throughout their natural ranges in the forest of where to find the best fruits and at what time of year. This clever technique enables Tapanuli orangutans to keep roaming through the tropical, moist forests but without using unnecessary energy trying to find new food sources. Although the exact tool skills used appears to depend on individual populations, it is not only to obtain food that orangutans have developed tools for but they are also known to use small leaves placed on the sensitive skin on their hands and feed to protect them from prickly vegetation and even use large leaves as umbrellas to prevent them from getting too drenched in the tropical downpours.  One of the subtle but key differences between the Tapanuli orangutan and the Sumatran orangutan (with the nearest population residing just 100km away) is the frequency of the booming loud-call of the males, which is of a higher pitch in Tapanuli orangutans.

Tapanuli Orangutan Relationship with Humans

As with the other two orangutan species and indeed, numerous larger animals throughout South-East Asia, Tapanuli orangutans have been heavily affected by the growing presence of people throughout their natural range. The capture of young Tapanuli orangutans and the killing of the adults for their meat has had devastating consequences to this remote population of individuals but does not even begin to compare to the effect that deforestation of their natural habitats has had on orangutan populations both in Sumatra and Borneo. Although it seemed like deforestation in Indonesia was beginning to slow, the boom within the palm oil industry gave rise to large areas of forest and ancient peat-lands being cleared to turn into plantations.

Tapanuli Orangutan Conservation Status and Life Today

Despite the fact that Tapanuli Orangutan were only named a new species in 2017, they were immediately classified as an animal that is Critically Endangered in the wild by the IUCN. With an estimated 800 Tapanuli orangutan thought to exist in such a tiny and remote pocket of northwestern Sumatra they are severely under threat and could be extinct from the wild in the very near future.

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About the Author

AZ Animals is a growing team of animals experts, researchers, farmers, conservationists, writers, editors, and -- of course -- pet owners who have come together to help you better understand the animal kingdom and how we interact.

Tapanuli Orangutan FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Are Tapanuli Orang-utans herbivores, carnivores, or omnivores?

Tapanuli Orang-utans are Omnivores, meaning they eat both plants and other animals.

How fast is a Tapanuli Orang-utan?

A Tapanuli Orang-utan can travel at speeds of up to 2.7 miles per hour.

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