While he doesn’t reside in an ancient palace or command an army of monkeys like King Louie from Disney’s “The Jungle Book,” Kumar, the Greenville Zoo’s male Sumatran orangutan, is still living like royalty. In addition to receiving free meals on a daily basis, he has a playground and personal caretaker, all of which are funded by local taxpayer dollars.
Kumar, however, can’t seem to resist the call of the wild. Since arriving at the Greenville Zoo in November 2016, the 12-year-old orangutan has broken out of his enclosure three times, according to Dr. Nick Kapustin, veterinarian and deputy administrator.
In June 2017, for instance, Kumar chewed through one of the wires used to secure the exhibit’s netting. He then slipped through a small hole and sat on top of the exhibit for about 10 minutes before returning. Crew members used several padlocks to secure the netting immediately after the escape.
But the repair wasn’t enough. Kumar escaped for a second time in July after chewing through another wire in the exhibit’s netting. After a few minutes outside of his exhibit, he grabbed a nearby extension cord and gave it to Lana, the 32-year-old female orangutan who shares an exhibit with him.
Kumar’s most recent escape took place on Jan. 22, when the zoo was closed to the public for annual maintenance. The rebellious ape broke out when contractors finished repairing mesh panels in the enclosure, according to Kapustin. He then found a weak spot, tore a hole, squeezed out, and sat on top of the enclosure for nearly 20 minutes before returning inside. The contractors later returned to “double tie” all the connections of the domed enclosure.
Planet of the Apes
Kapustin said orangutans are much more likely to escape from their enclosures than other animals because of their intelligence. Numerous studies in the wild and in captivity indicate that orangutans, which share 97 percent of the same genetic material as humans, are among the smartest land animals on the planet. In fact, they’re capable of learning and using tools.
Orangutan mothers, for instance, typically only give birth about once every eight years in order to allow their offspring, which start as fully dependent infants, enough time to learn how to climb and distinguish the hundreds of plants and fruits that make up their diet.
As they mature and venture out on their own, young orangutans continue to develop their resourcefulness and put the skills they’ve learned into practice. That includes using various tools to make their lives in the jungle easier. Researchers have observed them turning branches into fly swatters and back scratchers, constructing umbrellas when it rains, using leaves as bandages to dress wounds, weaving twigs together to build a nest for sleeping, and more.
“Their ability to create tools out of ordinary objects is fascinating,” said Jennifer Stahl, a keeper at the Greenville Zoo. “We actually have to scan the exhibit after it rains to make sure there aren’t any rocks in the ground, because they can use them to crack or break the viewing glass.”
Kapustin said the zoo’s staff members perform at least four security drills throughout the year to practice their response to a large animal escape. When an escape does occur, the zoo enters an immediate lockdown, meaning the front gate is closed and guests are moved to the gift shop and various other safe areas. The zoo also keeps darting equipment and lethal weapons on standby just in case, said Kapustin. “Our priority is preserving human life, so we usually have no other choice but to dispatch an animal if it approaches a member of the public.”
He added that the zoo is required to contact local law enforcement agencies if the escaped animal breaches the premises. In Kumar’s case, the zoo’s response team only used a tranquilizer dart during the first escape. “People like to think orangutans are cute, but they’re really just wild animals at the end of the day,” Kapustin said. “Their behavior can change instantaneously.”
Although aggression, especially the lethal kind, is not a common trait among orangutans, the zoo still considers Kumar and Lana a danger to the public. An orangutan is about seven times stronger than a human, according to Kapustin. Luckily, Kumar stayed away from the public and returned to his exhibit during the escapes. “I think his decision to stay in the zoo really speaks to the level of care he’s given here in Greenville,” Kapustin said. “We’re home sweet home.”
Saving a Species
Kumar was born at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas, and later transferred to the Oregon Zoo in Portland. He arrived at the Greenville Zoo shortly after Lana, who was born with her twin sister at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans and later transferred to the Cincinnati Zoo. She was sent to Greenville in September 2016.
Kumar and Lana were transferred to the zoo as a recommendation by the Orangutan Species Survival Program. The purpose of the program is to ensure the survival of threatened or endangered species by monitoring captive populations and making breeding recommendations based on genetic variability and spaces available at other accredited institutions, according to Kapustin.
Bornean and Sumatran orangutans are listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The Sumatran orangutan population is estimated to be under 15,000, while about 54,000 orangutans are thought to live in Borneo.
Rampant logging and the rapid expansion of palm oil plantations have been blamed for destroying their jungle habitat throughout Indonesia. Plantation workers and villagers also attack adult orangutans that feed on their crops, while poachers capture babies to sell as exotic pets.
Since the arrival of Kumar and Lana, the Greenville Zoo has worked to boost its support of local and international conservation efforts to help Sumatran orangutans. In 2016, for instance, Stahl was awarded a $2,000 grant from the Greenville Zoo Conservation Committee to visit the Melaka Zoo and Night Safari in Malaysia. While there, she spent two weeks renovating exhibits, participating in orangutan conservation efforts, and teaching training techniques.
Last year, the zoo donated $5,500 to the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme, a nonprofit that rehabilitates apes kept as pets or driven into conflict with humans. It also began advocating the purchase of palm oil that comes from sustainable plantations, which are certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. The group was established in 2004 to ensure workers producing the oil do not destroy the habitats of endangered animals such as orangutans.
Palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil in the world. It’s used for food, detergents, cosmetics, and biofuels. The establishment of palm oil plantations throughout Indonesia has been a disaster for orangutans and other endangered wildlife as companies prefer to clear primary forests rather than degraded areas or grasslands, according to Stihl. More than 20 million acres have been opened up for plantations throughout Sumatra and Borneo.
“Something as practical as making sure you buy the right peanut butter can make a real difference,” Kapustin said. “And if everybody at least used some of that perspective in their life, then a lot of things might come together to make for a less dreadful situation.”