Biji the Sumatran orangutan was a beloved member of Zoo Atlanta’s great ape population. Sumatran orangutans (Pongo abelii) are critically endangered primates native to the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Biji’s story is a testament to the importance of conservation and the bonds that can form between humans and the animals they care for.
As one of the founding members of the Zoo Atlanta great ape population, Biji first arrived in 1988 along with a group of orangutans from Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center. While most orangutans are solitary in the wild aside from mating or gathering where food resources are plentiful, Zoo officials said Biji was even more solitary, pursuing what they called an independent life.
Biji was the ultimate incarnation of the intellect, resourcefulness, and adaptability of orangutans. Beneath that surface, she was a huge personality with a goofy side she only showed to those who knew her best. She has been an inspiration to decades of Zoo visitors, and it has been our privilege and honor to have been her home for more than 30 years. She has helped all of us, and our visitors, better understand the incredible nature of these amazing apes.Jennifer Mickelberg, PhD, VP of Collections and Conservation
Biji enjoyed weaving and lounging in her hammock at the Zoo’s outdoor habitat. Orangutans are outside and usually may be seen year-round as long as temperatures are above 40 degrees Fahrenheit. On cooler days, or mornings, and during storms, they will be snuggled up indoors with their favorite blankets and nests they build from fresh straw every day.
Zoo Atlanta is home to one of North America’s largest populations of orangutans, with nine individuals representing both Sumatran and Bornean orangutans.
Sumatran orangutans are a critically endangered species of great ape native to the Indonesian island of Sumatra. They are one of the two species of orangutans, the other being the Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus). Sumatran orangutans are remarkable and unique creatures with distinct characteristics, behaviors, and complex ecological roles.
- Solitary Lifestyle: Unlike some other primates, Sumatran orangutans are generally solitary creatures. Adult males and females come together primarily for breeding, and mothers raise their offspring on their own.
- Nesting: They construct nests in trees for sleeping and resting. Each orangutan may build a new nest every night.
- Tool Use: Sumatran orangutans are known for their exceptional problem-solving abilities and tool use. They use sticks to extract insects from tree crevices and leaves to cover themselves during rain.
Sumatran orangutans are the smallest of all orangutan species. Adult males typically weigh between 50 to 90 kilograms (110 to 200 pounds) and can stand about 1.25 to 1.5 meters (4 to 5 feet) tall. Adult females are smaller, weighing between 30 to 50 kilograms (66 to 110 pounds). They have long, shaggy reddish-brown fur and a prominent beard. This fur acts as protection from rain and sun. Adult males develop flanges, or cheek pads, on the sides of their faces as they mature, making them easily distinguishable from females.
Sumatran orangutans are primarily found in the rainforests and swamp forests of Sumatra, which is part of Indonesia. They inhabit lowland and hilly forests and are known to be highly arboreal, spending most of their lives in trees. However, they do come down to the forest floor to travel and forage. Their diet primarily consists of fruits, leaves, bark, and occasionally insects. They are known to be frugivorous, with fruit making up a significant portion of their diet.
This diet can vary seasonally as different fruits become available. Sumatran orangutans are critically endangered due to habitat loss and illegal pet trade. The destruction of their rainforest habitat for agriculture, logging, and palm oil plantations has been a significant threat to their survival.
Efforts are ongoing to protect Sumatran orangutans and their habitat. Conservation organizations work with local communities and governments to establish protected areas, combat illegal hunting and trade, and promote sustainable land-use practices.
The zoo says that Biji’s age of 52 was an exception for orangutans, which are considered geriatric after the age of about 40, and is a testament to the state-of-the-art healthcare she received in her years at the Zoo – care that she herself helped to advance. Thanks to an extensive positive reinforcement training program that enabled Biji to be part of her own healthcare, she was able to participate in the voluntary blood draws which originally led the Veterinary Team to diagnose her condition nine years ago, and which have helped the teams to manage her kidney disease.
On Friday morning, August 11, 2023, Biji the Sumatran orangutan, died at the age of 52 while receiving treatment for kidney failure. Zoo officials said the Animal Care Teams had been treating her for the health issue, but due to her poor prognosis, “made the heartbreaking decision to euthanize”. Her body was transported to the University of Georgia Zoo and Exotic Animal Pathology Service in the College of Veterinary Medicine, Athens, Georgia, for a necropsy.
- Sumatra, the sixth-largest island in the world and part of Indonesia, is a land of unparalleled biodiversity and natural beauty. This tropical paradise boasts lush rainforests, rugged mountains, and pristine beaches along its extensive coastline. Home to unique and endangered wildlife such as Sumatran orangutans, tigers, and rhinoceroses, Sumatra plays a crucial role in global conservation efforts. Rich in culture and history, the island features a diverse tapestry of ethnic groups, languages, and traditions, making it a captivating destination for travelers seeking both natural wonders and cultural experiences. [Back]
- Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a renowned institution dedicated to advancing our understanding of primates and their relevance to human health. Established in 1930, Yerkes is one of the world’s leading primate research centers, housing a diverse population of nonhuman primates and conducting groundbreaking research in areas such as neuroscience, infectious diseases, psychology, and genetics. The center plays a pivotal role in scientific discoveries, contributing to medical breakthroughs, including the development of vaccines and treatments for diseases like HIV/AIDS. Yerkes is committed to ethical and humane treatment of its primate residents and serves as a vital resource for scientists, educators, and healthcare professionals seeking to improve human and animal well-being through research and education. [Back]
- “‘Feisty Queen’: Zoo Atlanta’s Sumatran orangutan Biji dies at 52” (August 11, 2023) https://www.wsbtv.com/news/local/atlanta/feisty-queen-zoo-atlantas-sumatran-orangutan-biji-dies-52/ZLAHTXID4VFKZJUEBQCWI2MQ2I/#:~:text=ATLANTA%20%E2%80%94%20Zoo%20Atlanta%20announced%20sad,receiving%20treatment%20for%20kidney%20failure.
- Zoo Atlanta
- “Biji, oldest Zoo Atlanta orangutan and resident since 1988, dies” (Aug 11, 2023) https://www.ajc.com/news/atlanta-news/biji-oldest-zoo-atlanta-orangutan-and-resident-since-1988-dies/VXMFV5JDNZGZBIFJLAEYW2Q22U/