Why We Don't Allow Hands On Contact With Orangutans - The Reasons

Why We Don't Allow Hands On Contact With Orangutans - The Reasons

Posted by Connor Whelan on Aug 1, 2016

We are often asked questions along the line of "Will I get some hands on time with the orangutans?" or "Can I play with the babies at the project site?"

The simple answer to this is, and will always be, no. Whilst we do realise that this may be a disappointing answer to hear, hopefully after reading this article you will understand why this is such a crucial policy in continuing the hard work our projects and our project partners do for orangutan conservation. There are three main reasons as to why human-orangutan contact is prohibited to volunteers.

1.The Risk of Infection

The risk of a human passing a disease to one of our primate cousins is very real. As these Great Apes are very genetically similar to us (they share 97% of our DNA,) they can suffer from any illness or disease we can and often these prove to be a lot more dangerous for the orangutans than they are for humans. Any sort of cough or sneeze around an orangutan could prove to be fatal for them and this is why contact is not allowed. If an animal has been exposed to a disease which is not found in its natural habitat, then it is not allowed to be released back into it for fear it will decimate the healthy population.

More often than not at the rehabilitation and rescue centres, young orangutans are brought in after they have been orphaned at a very early age. Not only do disease and infection carry more risk for younger primates, but as they have been deprived of the nutrients and benefits of their mother's milk, they almost always have much weaker immune systems than other similar aged wild orangutans. Any exposure to germs that are common for humans; including the cold sore and cough can prove fatal to these underdeveloped babies. This is why it is crucial that the young Orangutans especially are looked after in a controlled way and not introduced to a large number of new people consistently.

There are points that people may not consider when it comes to the risk of infection posed towards orangutans. People often argue that one incident of contact with the animals won't make a difference as they themselves are healthy and it wouldn't pose a problem to the health of the orangutan. The issue with this is that when people are looking for their "once in a lifetime" moment with the great apes, it is often the same for groups of up to 40 or 50 people that day and the chances of spreading illness increase drastically. These same people often arrive at the sanctuaries after long flights, which are breeding grounds for germs, again ultimately increasing the risk of infection for the orangutans.

2.Habituation and Behavioural Changes

If you imagine a human child who had new care givers coming in and out of its life every two weeks or so, you will understand that they are unlikely to have had the chance to learn the social norms and become well adapted to their situation. The same applies for orangutans. As the ideal scenario for a lot of the orangutans that come in to the centres is to be rehabilitated and eventually re-released back into the wild, consistency is key in their lives. In a perfect world, each baby would be cared for by one of its own species, but unfortunately we do not live in a perfect world. This is why human surrogacy is necessary. A human will never be able to do a job even half as good as an orangutan mother would but they have to suffice. The key is to keep the number of carers to a minimum. Not only does this again decrease the risk of infection as mentioned previously, but it allows the orangutans to feel safe and comfortable, surrounded by a permanent group of staff who will be in the animal's life in the long term. If there are new faces appearing in the orangutans life every other week, then not only will they be unable to settle into a comfortable routine in their everyday lives, but they will begin to assume that all humans are approachable and friendly. If they are to be released back into the wild this is a huge problem as unfortunately not all humans are as friendly and helpful as those at the centres.

Baby Orangutan and mother

3.The Risk to Humans

Due to their inherent ability to look cute, cuddly and playful almost all of the time, people assume that they would be able to walk up to an orangutan and play with it in a similar way they do with their household pets. This is simply not true and whilst they may look similar to humans in size and build, our arboreal cousins are up to seven times stronger than the average man. Even if they have been at a centre for a long period of time they still have their natural instincts to protect themselves and if they feel you are a threat they could do an incredible amount of damage. For your safety and that of the animals, this is another reason as to why contact is prohibited. Should an orangutan injure a volunteer they may have to be put down as they will be seen as an aggressive animal, and this would be as a result of unnecessary human contact. No contact with the orangutans completely eliminates this possibility.


This policy of no animals contact often comes as a bit of a reality check for people wanting to go to the projects. This is the difference between a tourist and a volunteer. Whilst a tourist may, albeit unintentionally, see no harm in playing with or touching an orangutan at one of the sanctuaries, a volunteer knows why this is a very inappropriate thing to do. The orangutans are in the sanctuary to protect them and to help restore the species to its former numbers out in the wild. Something that may seem as simple and innocent as a cuddle or holding hands to you can be unknowingly fatal to the orangutan. To continue to protect these wonderful animals' people need to know that the orangutans safety and wellbeing comes before our own desires to experience new things.

If you would like to volunteer with orangutans in Borneo then why not take a look at the different orangutan conservation projects we offer here at The Great Projects!

Update – How Volunteers Have Helped The Orangutans Whilst Remaining Hands Off!

As is already mentioned in the blog below, ensuring that people know the reason behind our strict no hands on policy with the orangutans is something that is very important to everyone here at The Great Projects. That is why we wanted to bring you an update on the ways the volunteers have helped care for these Great Apes without getting hands on.

They helped to build an island at the Samboja Lestari Orangutan Sanctuary

At this project in Borneo volunteers were very hard at work this year preparing one of the orangutan islands for the release of Romeo, Fani and Itsi. These three apes were moved from enclosures onto the island to enjoy a life where they are free to climb and display their natural behaviours, and none of this would have been possible without the help of volunteers! Large platforms can be found on the island and volunteers helped with the entire construction process for these, from digging the foundations right through to putting on the finishing coat of paint. Romeo, Fani and Itsi love their new island home, and they can often be seen climbing and playing together on the volunteer built platforms! This is a fantastic example of how volunteers can help without getting hands on with the Great Apes.

They have helped to provide enrichment for the orangutans

At Samboja Lestari, IAR and The Great Orangutan Project volunteers play a crucial role in providing enrichment to the Great Apes. A good recent example of this can be found at The Great Orangutan Project where volunteers have been helping to create a new form of scent enrichment for the apes. Working alongside Healing Animals Organisation, a non-profit company from the UK, the volunteers have been hard at work stimulating the orangutan’s sense of smell via some essential oils which have been incorporated into the ape’s enrichment routines. At all of the projects mentioned above enrichment plays a key role in ensuring the orangutans have the best life possible, and without the help of volunteers, staff members would simply not have the time to provide it to all of the animals in their care.

There are a lot more examples of how volunteers have helped the orangutans without getting hands on, but to see these in action you will need to visit the projects yourself! What are you waiting for?


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