Are Orangutans Dangerous?

Bearded Animals
Don Mammoser/Shutterstock.com

Written by Cindy Rasmussen

Updated: September 20, 2023

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Orangutans are large apes with shaggy orange fur. They are frequently displayed at zoos so you may have seen one before. Orangutan families are often displayed together, with baby orangutans being a very popular attraction. In the wild, orangutans are only found in Borneo and Sumatra. Due to habitat loss, all three species of orangutans are critically endangered. Let’s look at the three kinds of orangutans, and let’s find out if orangutans are dangerous!

Bornean Orangutans

Bornean orangutans can only be found in the rainforests of Borneo.

Bornean orangutans can only be found in the rainforest of Borneo, high in the tree canopies. Orangutans are arboreal, living in trees, and they use their strong long arms to swing from tree to tree. They are larger than chimpanzees but smaller than gorillas. The adult males can grow to be 4 feet tall or more and weigh around 285 lbs. Females are a bit smaller. The males will grow cheek pads that stick out on the side of their face, and they have a long sagging pouch under their chin that helps echo their loud bellows. Orangutans are intelligent animals similar to chimpanzees and gorillas.

Sumatran Orangutans

Sumatran orangutans have longer facial hair than Bornean orangutans.

Sumatran orangutans also live in rainforests, but they can only be found in the northern parts of Sumatra. They look much like Bornean orangutans but have longer facial hair. The cheek flanges on the males look different as well, with the Sumatran being more rounded. Another difference is that they tend to stay in the trees more, not venturing down to forage around on the ground.

Tapanuli Orangutans

Tapanuli orangutans have a smaller head and flatter face than the other species.

Tapanuli orangutans were only recently identified in 2017, and they live in the northern rainforests of Sumatra as well. Most are located in the Batang Toru Ecosystem. What makes them different from Sumatran orangutans is that they have smaller heads and flatter faces than either of the other two orangutan species. It is estimated that there are only 800 left of their species, making them the most endangered great ape.

Are Orangutans Dangerous?

Orangutans are not dangerous, they are mild-mannered, and they avoid humans. The “Great Apes” family of animals includes orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, and humans. That’s right, humans! Orangutans share 97% of our DNA, but they seem to be the least aggressive of all the Great Apes.

Do Orangutans Attack Humans?

There do not seem to be any reported attacks on humans. It is possible that a large 285 lb orangutan could attack a person, but considering the limited interaction they have with humans, it is very unlikely.

Are Orangutans Aggressive Towards Each Other?

Orangutans typically get along with one another.

No, orangutans are pretty peaceful, even amongst themselves. Hippos can kill each other if they clash in a territory, but orangutans are pretty solitary, only coming together for mating. The only time they display some aggressive behavior is during mating season in front of females as a show of dominance, but they do not fight to the death. They prefer to use their throat pouches to create a “long call,” a loud bellow that typically lasts a minute but can last as long as five minutes. It might be their way of showing who’s the boss. These long calls can be heard as far as 1.2 miles away.

Do Orangutans Bite?

Orangutans are generally not aggressive and do not attack people, but there is one incident of an orangutan biting a zoo volunteer, which resulted in the worker losing her thumb. In January 2019, a 57-year-old woman volunteered at the Toledo Zoo in Ohio to help care for the orangutans. She was standing outside the 14-year-old male orangutan, Bajik’s cage feeding it, when it reached through the bars, grabbed her arm, and bit her thumb. It also bit her in the arm. She was brought to the emergency room, where she underwent surgery to reattach the thumb and repair the arm.

Researchers found that accidents like this one are extremely rare. More than 180 million people visit zoos and aquariums each year, and since 1990, there have only been 16 incidents where primates have escaped or attacked in an AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) accredited facility that resulted in a human injury. There are no primate incidents resulting in human fatalities.

Do Orangutans Have Sharp Teeth?

Orangutans have the same number of teeth as humans – 32 teeth. Their front four teeth on the top and bottom look much like human teeth as well, but the canines are quite a bit larger than human canines and are long and sharp. However, they don’t use these teeth for hunting and catching wild prey. They are primarily herbivores and live off of ripe fruit, bark, leaves, seeds, and nuts.

Are Chimpanzees More Dangerous Than Orangutans?

Chimpanzees are in the same family as orangutans, but they tend to be a bit more aggressive.

Chimpanzees are more dangerous than orangutans. Orangutans are pretty solitary animals and keep to themselves. When humans come across them in the wild, they report that the orangutans will typically scurry away. The males live on their own, except during mating season, and the females will usually be found with their offspring.

Chimpanzees have been trained and kept as pets, but they are still wild animals, and there are cases where chimpanzees have attacked humans. They are also more aggressive toward each other, and male chimp to chimp violence can be common. Jane Goodall was a famous primatologist that studied chimpanzees for decades and studied them peacefully without incident. Each incident needs to be looked at individually. Humans are sometimes at fault by provoking wild animals and not respecting their space. 

Are Gorillas More Dangerous Than Orangutans?

A male silverback mountain gorilla in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

Gorillas are much larger than orangutans and chimpanzees but are not overly aggressive.

Gorillas are more dangerous than orangutans, but not unless provoked. They are larger than orangutans and chimpanzees but are considered “gentle giants.” You may have seen a gorilla stand up on its legs and beat its chest, but gorillas do not actively hunt humans or act aggressively.

Do Primates Get Along In The Wild?

Aggressive Animal: Chimpanzee

Primates generally live in peace in the wild.

For years, primates have lived in peace. But for one time, a team of researchers observed a large group of chimpanzees attack a small group of gorillas. In 2019, researchers at the Loango National Park, Gabon, watched a dozen chimpanzees approach five gorillas and then begin to attack. The gorillas were able to escape, except for one of the infant gorillas, who was killed. The researchers were shocked, but unfortunately, a separate incident similar to this was repeated in December of 2019, which also resulted in the death of an infant gorilla. The researchers were trying to determine why these incidents happened when these species have lived peacefully with each other for centuries. Both chimpanzees and gorillas are also endangered, like orangutans.

What Is the IQ of an Orangutan?

The orangutan is believed to have the highest intelligence of any primate.

A recent study of orangutans, documented in the Smithsonian Magazine, concluded that orangutans may have the ability to communicate based on memories–a skill called displaced reference. In the study, orangutans were presented with a posed threat–two scientists posing as potential predators–dressed in sheets colored with stripes or spots similar to fur patterns of tigers or leopards. The researchers found that some of the orangutans shouted warnings to others, including young, in delayed time, demonstrating that they remembered threats and could communicate them in a future time from when the threats occurred.

Displaced reference was only thought to be present in humans. This study has shown that it may be possible in certain primates like orangutans. On a broader scale, the IQ of an orangutan is thought to be at a level of around 75 compared to humans, while the average IQ of a human is 100. On the Scale of Primate Intelligence, it scores 185–the highest IQ of any primate.


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About the Author

I'm a Wildlife Conservation Author and Journalist, raising awareness about conservation by teaching others about the amazing animals we share the planet with. I graduated from the University of Minnesota-Morris with a degree in Elementary Education and I am a former teacher. When I am not writing I love going to my kids' soccer games, watching movies, taking on DIY projects and running with our giant Labradoodle "Tango".

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