You Could Learn a Thing or Two About Living a Long Life From the World’s Oldest Orangutan

The iPad-loving Inji just celebrated her 55th birthday at the Oregon Zoo. What she teaches us about staying fit could help save her wild brethren.
(Photo: Courtesy Oregon Zoo)
Mar 6, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Inji, a Sumatran orangutan, looks pretty darned good for her age. At 55, she still has a luxurious coat of bright orange fur and eyes full of curiosity. She doesn’t move quite as quickly as she used to, but that’s to be expected. After all, she’s probably the world’s oldest orangutan.

“She’s actually in great shape,” said Jennifer Davis, the curator who oversees the primates at Oregon Zoo in Portland, where Inji has lived since 1961. “She’s got a lot of spunk in her still.”

Inji responded to that comment with a loud raspberry.

Wild orangutans don’t tend to live much past the age of 40, so Inji definitely stands out from the crowd. Although she isn’t the oldest orangutan ever—that would have been Charly, who died last year at Frankfurt Zoo at age 57—Davis said her advanced age offers numerous clues as to how to protect and preserve others of her species, both in captivity and in their native habitats.

One of the biggest lessons is one you might have heard from your own doctor: Staying active is critical. To keep Inji healthy, they keep her moving.

“We feed our orangutans five times a day, but we don’t make it easy on Grandma here,” said Scott Jackson, the zoo’s orangutan keeper.

Instead of handing Inji all of her food on a tray—something the zoo did until about four years ago—they spread it all through her enclosure, forcing her to walk, climb, and otherwise work hard for her dinner.

“We encourage foraging, just like they’d do in the wild,” Jackson said.

When I visited the zoo last week, he threw some of her food into a plastic 50-gallon barrel, which itself sat above the ground in a hammock. Inji wouldn’t rest until she finally moved the barrel and got to the fruits and vegetables inside.

Sometimes the food itself is enough to keep her active. The rare coconut, Jackson said, will engage Inji for four hours while she figures out how to open it and get to the meat inside.

Of course, food alone isn’t enough to engage Inji’s mind.

Most recently, the zoo learned something unexpected about orangutan sexuality.

Oregon Zoo recently acquired a nine-year-old male Sumatran orangutan named Kumar from Gladys Porter Zoo in Texas. The two were introduced last month and have since been observed engaging in mating behavior through the mesh between their cages. (Inji’s tubes have long since been tied, but orangutans don’t appear to undergo menopause.)

“I would say her quality of life has definitely been enhanced since Kumar arrived,” Davis said.

Inji also loves her iPad. Oregon Zoo primate keeper Colleen Reed helps coordinate the international Apps for Apes program through the conservation organization Orangutan Outreach. Inji and other orangutans use their iPads to watch videos and play simple games, a way to stimulate and enrich their lives.

Inji’s physical health is of great concern to zookeepers and conservationists around the world. The zoo collects data about her behavior, as well as blood and urine samples, and shares it with other primatologists. “There’s a lot of interest in her activity level, how mobile she is, and how she interacts socially,” said Davis.

Perhaps the most important lessons about Inji come from her own past and her species’ potential future. Inji came to the U.S. in 1960 as a pet, a practice that has long since been banned in this country, although it still threatens wild orangutans elsewhere.

More important, Inji stands as an example of what could happen if wild orangutans were not losing the battle against habitat loss.

“From a conservation standpoint, Inji shows what is possible,” Davis said. “This shows that they could live past ages that we typically see in the wild if they weren’t having their rainforests depleted. Inji is certainly showing what’s possible, and that always translates back to conservation and if we can leave nature alone.”

Inji reacted to that with another raspberry.