A Dutch zoo is helping one of its female orangutans find a suitable mate by providing her with a touchscreen all kitted up with pictures of aspiring males.
Samboja is an 11-year-old female orangutan at the Apenheul primate park in Apeldoorn, central Netherlands, who’s taking part in a four-year experiment appropriately called “Tinder for orangutans.” The aim is to increase the chances of mating, a process which, as humans are well aware, doesn’t always work on the first try. “Often, animals have to be taken back to the zoo they came from without mating,” says Thomas Bionda, behavioural biologist at the zoo, to Dutch broadcaster NOS.“Things don’t always go well when a male and a female first meet.”
For orangutans as well as other species in captivity, zoos can spend significant time and resources bringing in would-be suitors, sometimes from thousands of kilometres away, in hopes that sparks might fly. Now, with a quick swipe left or right (or an approximation thereof), Samboja can hopefully make everyone’s job a little easier.
Bionda says that part of their task will be to make a touchscreen strong enough to be man-handled (orangu-handled) by Samboja. Reportedly, a steel-enforced version was first offered but didn’t last too long in her affectionate grasp.
“This is completely digital, of course,” Bionda said. “Usually, smell plays an important role too. But with the orangutans, it will be what you see is what you get.”
Staff tried a similar approach last year at the Wilhelma Zoo in Stuttgart, Germany, when zookeepers showed videos of potential mates to a pair of female orangutans named Conny and Sinta. The process seemed to be going well as Sinta appeared to be interested in one particular video of an orangutan named Gempa at a zoo in Belgium. Unfortunately, when the two were introduced, the magic just wasn’t in the air, as no offspring came of the encounter.
“Orangutans have always bred successfully in captivity,” said Mary Galdikas, president and founder of Orangutan Foundation International, to the Washington Post. “What has been a problem is to make sure that … they try to select the proper orangutans with breeding so that natural populations or natural subspecies of Bornean and Sumatran orangutans are maintained.”
At the Toronto Zoo, orangutans have been using ipads for years, with a program first launched in 2012 called Apps for Apes. The aim is to provide mental stimulation in the form of donated touch screens. The orangutans were first taught to how to manipulate the screens then were given the opportunity to Skype with apes from other zoos. “Orangutans are intelligent animals,” said Matthew Berridge, zoo wildlife care keeper. “At the Toronto Zoo we provide our orangutans with various forms of behavioural enrichment, and the iPads provide an added form of enrichment for the orangutans.”
Considered an endangered species, there are an estimated 30,000 orangutans left in the wild on the Malaysian islands of Borneo and Sumatra. The Orangutan Foundation International Canada says the orangutan’s greatest threat comes from land clearance of native habitats.