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Twins offer hope for rarest ape in the world

Last year a species of orangutan was discovered in Indonesia and immediately classified as the rarest ape in the world.  In May this year, researchers made a significant find when they documented the first-ever sighting of twin baby Tapanuli orangutans.

However, the Batang Toru forest where the Tapanuli orangutans live is under immediate threat from a Chinese-funded hydroelectric project that will destroy their existing habitat. The Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP) team is working with The Body Shop to create ‘bio-bridges’, restoring wildlife corridors in damaged landscapes that help endangered species to reconnect, breed and thrive again.

Andayani, a forestry graduate and joint manager of SOCP’s forest monitoring station takes up the story: “I only started managing the camp a couple of months ago, and we were on a routine search mission. Then seeing this Tapanuli orangutan mother with not one but two young infants at the same time was very exciting. The twins looked very similar and were about the same size, but one of them was quite adventurous while the other one seemed quite shy and stayed close to mother.

“We first saw the family at about 2.30 in the afternoon about 15m up in the trees and managed to watch them until about 3.40 when the mother started to move off with an infant clinging on to each side. It is going to be fascinating to see how this mother brings up these twins. So far she seems to be doing a wonderful job.”

Twin orangutans and other great apes are extremely rare, and only one previous record of a twin birth to a wild Bornean orangutan has been found, with none for Sumatran orangutans. Twin births do occur in captive animals, but even if these occur in the wild, the lack of sighting would suggest that it is extremely rare for both infants to survive.

Dr Ian Singleton, Director of the SOCP who himself spent several years studying wild Sumatran orangutans was also thrilled with the news: “I spent years studying orangutans in the wild and never saw a mother with twins, so yes, this is wonderful news.” He continued: “But we also need to remember that the Tapanuli orangutan is the rarest and most endangered great ape in the world and only described last November. But these last forests where it occurs are already fragmented, and under immediate threat from a Chinese-funded hydroelectric project. We need to stop destroying more orangutan habitat and reconnect these forests as soon as possible. These still twins are a sign of hope that this species can be saved if we take urgent action to save it.

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