With the release of the Apple iPad 3 rumored for March, a bunch of first- and second-generation iPads are probably about to hit the secondary market. Some of them just might end up in the hands of orangutans.

The nonprofit Orangutan Outreach is collecting donated iPads for its new Apps for Apes program, which is matching primates at Milwaukee County Zoo with the tablet computers. The apes don't get to hold the iPads themselves—the devices aren't strong enough to withstand the full strength of an orangutan—but they do get to interact with the computers through glass walls or the mesh of their cages. So far, the animals have been watching videos of themselves and playing with simple games or an app for finger painting. They might one day also be able to connect to animals in other parts of the zoo—or even other zoos—through Skype or programs like it.

The goal, says Orangutan Outreach Director Richard Zimmerman, is to keep the orangutans engaged. "Orangutans in captivity can get depressed and lethargic," he says. Stimulation through various methods, such as an iPad, "helps keep their minds active and prevents boredom."

The first iPad was given to the Milwaukee County Zoo by photographer Scott Engel, a volunteer at the zoo and a long-time supporter of Orangutan Outreach. He originally intended it for the zoo's gorillas, but they didn't gravitate to the device. Orangutans, however, quickly became Apple converts.

One of the orangutans is Mahal, a five-year-old orphaned Bornean orangutan who enjoys watching video of himself. Mahal has been raised at the zoo by his 31-year-old surrogate mother, MJ, who likes playing with the iPad's Doodle Buddy drawing app. Mother and son have also used music apps and simple games. Because the tablets are only for entertainment, the apes can only use the iPads twice a week and they do not receive food rewards for using them.

Orangutan Outreach has since received several more donated iPads, and other zoos will soon be getting involved. Zimmerman says he has also been contacted by developers who are interested in creating new apps, either for use by the apes themselves or perhaps for people who want to interact or play competitive games with the orangutans online. Funds raised from selling any apps would be used for conservation efforts, he says.

Outside of keeping the primates engaged, Zimmerman hopes that this project will call attention to the plight of orangutans, which are rapidly disappearing in the wild. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources Red List of Threatened Species classifies Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) as endangered and Sumatran orangutans (Pongo abelii) as critically endangered, mostly due to illegal habitat loss. "They need to be saved in the wild and protected in the forests," Zimmerman says. "We really do want people to know that these captive orangutans are ambassadors for their wild relatives."

Orangutan Outreach has not put any money into the Apps for Apes project, preferring instead to spend donated funds on conservation efforts. "We're working with several organizations on the ground on orangutan rescue, survival and protection," Zimmerman says. The group's primary focus right now is the development of a new 25-hectare, cage-less rehabilitation center in Ketapang on the Indonesian island of Borneo, being done with International Animal Rescue. "There are already 44 rescued orangutans there," Zimmerman says. "It's a forested sanctuary with really big enclosures where the orangutans will spend their time in trees, not in cages."

A video of Mahal and MJ using the iPads can be seen here:

Photos courtesy of Orangutan Outreach

Previously in Extinction Countdown: Orangutans illegally killed in the past decade: 20,000–Prosecutions: 0