A STUDY into the dental health of orangutans at Chester Zoo could play an essential role in protecting their wild counterparts thousands of miles away in Borneo and Sumatra.

Keepers at the zoo are gathering new information on the emergence of teeth in their young orangutans in a bid to help vets in Malaysia and Indonesia.

The research is helping to improve age estimations of organgutans observed in the wild and orphaned orangutans in rehabilitation facilities in South East Asia, whose dates of birth are usually unknown.

Chester Zoo vet Steve Unwin, who also leads the Orangutan Veterinary Advisory Group (OVAG) - a community of mostly Malaysian and Indonesia vets working in rehabilitation centres in those regions - said: “An orangutan is reliant on its mum for the first eight years of its life.

“But it’s very, very difficult indeed to tell the ages of young orangutans.

“So, if a rehabilitated youngster is thought to be eight years old but is actually only five, this can potentially affect its chances of survival when it’s reintroduced into the forest.

“That’s where dental emergence studies on zoo-based orangutans which, we of course know the dates of birth of, could be highly relevant for improved age assignment of confiscated orphans in Indonesia and Malaysia.

“This is an excellent example of how zoos, and captive populations of species, can aid conservation efforts in the wild.”

Keepers at the zoo are now busy recording when first teeth start to appear before they later wobble and fall out.

“Whereas most people don’t tend to look forward to a trip to the dentist, our orangutans seem to really like having their teeth checked,” said primate keeper Kate Brice.

“That’s because to encourage them to open nice and wide we often use honey which we smear on a surface for them to lick off. As soon as they come over we then have to take a photograph of the insides of their mouths as quick as we can, as before you know it the honey is gone.

Wirral Globe:
Sumatran orangutan Tripa shows off his baby teeth.

“Currently we’re monitoring baby tooth timings for our two young Sumatran orangutans - Tripa and Tuti - who are both just over one year old. We first saw signs of teeth when they reached five months.

“We know orangutans have 20 baby teeth and 32 permanent adult teeth but what we need answers to in particular is whether or not timings relating to the development of permanent incisors, canines and premolars is different in males and females and between Sumatran and Bornean species of orangutans.”

Felcity Oram, programme development advisor and PhD student with the orangutan research unit of Chester’s Zoo’s partner in the field – Hutan/Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Programme (KOCP) - added: “Better understanding of basic life history is important in order to ensure the continued viability of orangutans in the wild, especially as they increasingly live in human-transformed landscapes.”

Wirral Globe:
Sumatran orangutan Tripa shows off his baby teeth.

Orangutans - or old man of the forest as they are also known - are one of human’s closest relatives.

But in the wild the demand for timber, palm oil, roads, agricultural land and space for mining means huge areas of forest have now been lost, taking with it the homes of both Bornean and Sumatran orangutans and pushing them perilously close to extinction.

The zoo will launch a campaign in October to help further protect orangutans in the wild.

Go Orange for Orangutans will urge schools, families, businesses and individuals to help do their bit to save the critically endangered animals. All funds raised through the campaign will help conservationists continue their work to protect orangutans in the forests of Borneo and Sumatra.

Visit the zoo’s conservation website actforwildlife.org.uk/orange to up find out more.