How do you transport two young orangutans to a zoo thousands of kilometers away from their native lands?

Here’s the simple answer: FedEx.

Here’s the less simple answer: It’s a lot of work.

Meet Bob and Kumar

Kumar and Bob are in playful moods on the rainy morning that I see them at Oregon Zoo in Portland. Of course, life in a zoo enclosure is natural for them, as neither of the young apes is really from Indonesia, the only place where orangutans live in the wild. Kumar, a Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii), was born at a Texas zoo nine years ago. Similarly aged Bob, a Bornean orangutan (P. pygmaeus), came from South Carolina. Their arrival in the Pacific Northwest late last year helps illustrate how zoos acquire endangered species and bring them into their collections.

“We don’t take orangutans, or any of our apes, from the wild,” says Jennifer Davis, a curator who oversees Oregon Zoo’s primates. “It’s extremely challenging to bring endangered species over from another country.” In this case, orangutans are protected by the Endangered Species Act and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), both of which forbid cross-country trafficking of the two species without rarely granted permits and reams of paperwork.

Beyond the legal requirements, there’s also an ethical reason not to collect animals from the wild. They’re just too valuable to the breeding population to risk removing any from their native habitats unnecessarily.

Zoos, however, have come up with a solution: Make more orangutans.

Making connections

Dozens of zoos in the U.S. hold orangutans in their collections. And, of course, they want to keep having orangutans for many years to come. With no new animals coming into the country from the wild that means they need to breed.

That’s where the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) comes in. The organization keeps track of what animals are in which zoos and what needs to be done to keep those populations healthy and ensure their long-term survival. For that, they use a framework called a Species Survival Plan (SSP). More than 450 endangered species have SSPs under the AZA, some of which even aim to release captive-bred animals back to the wild.

Bornean and Sumatran orangutans are collectively managed by the AZA Orangutan Species Survival Plan, which carefully governs the apes in 55 zoos in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. “Every year the SSP does a master plan,” Davis explains. “They look at the genetic relation between individuals and they come up with mean kinship values to keep the genetic population at a good, healthy place.”

The SSP not only looks at which animals can be matched but which institutions can support them. Zoos, in turn, submit their wants and needs to the SSP, hoping to enhance their own collections. “We tell them what we would ideally want and what we can house,” Davis says.

Zoos don’t always get what they want, however. “We might have a male here that matched genetically with a female but maybe she matches better with a different institution,” Davis notes. “Maybe there’s a lone animal somewhere that might take precedence over ours, where the animals are in more social situations.”

It’s a match!

After the SSP has conducted its annual genetic analysis, it writes to the zoos with suggestions about which animals should be moved where. “I get the recommendation and I ask Peter to make it happen,” Davis says.

That’s Peter Grimm, the zoo’s animal registrar. “I manage our animal records database,” he says. His job involves daily record-keeping of each animal’s well-being, plus taking care of any permits for keeping or transporting those animals.

In the case of Kumar and Bob, that meant getting them to Oregon from Texas and South Carolina. Here, a lot of factors come into play, the first of which involves the federal government and whether or not money is changing hands: “The sale of a threatened or endangered species will require an interstate commerce permit or a captive-bred wildlife permit issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” Grimm says. That didn’t end up being the case for Kumar and Bob, as the orangutans are technically on loan from their home zoos.

Next comes the states: “Before travel, veterinarians at the sending zoo work with the receiving zoo and the destination state’s department of agriculture to ensure the animal meets all necessary health requirements,” Grimm says. “An animal is then issued a certificate of veterinary inspection by a vet at the sending zoo.” The rest of the process varies widely according to the laws in each state, the species being shipped, how dangerous the animals might be, and whether the animals are being transported by truck or plane.

Air transport is simpler—yes, Kumar and Bob really did go FedEx. Drives take a bit more coordination but the process isn’t too much more difficult. “We usually just let zoos in each state know we’re passing through and may have an emergency if we need to lay over,” says Scott Jackson, the orangutan keeper at Oregon Zoo. As long as the veterinary health certificate stays with the animals, they’re usually free to pass through each state along the way.

Now that Kumar and Bob have arrived—and passed through a necessary quarantine stage to make sure they truly are disease-free—the process will soon start all over again. Oregon Zoo hopes to acquire a female orangutan next and start breeding. The request has already been made to the SSP.

Holes in the system

Of course, not every zoo is AZA-accredited or participates in an SSP. Plenty of less reputable institutions import at-risk animals, breed their endangered species indiscriminately and sell animals back and forth, often in violation of the law. The problem is even worse internationally. Zoos in China have been accused of stealing apes from the wild to be put on display in the country’s ever-growing number of animal parks. Meanwhile, some conservationists believe that zoos shouldn’t even exist in the first place.

But zoos remain popular and Kumar and Bob seem to typify what happens when zoo conservation is done properly. It may not be life in the wild, but with orangutans dying daily on Sumatra and Borneo it may be the best option for now.

Photo: Bob the Bornean orangutan, courtesy of Oregon Zoo

Previously in Extinction Countdown: