It may be well known that orangutans share 97.6% of their DNA with humans, but the similarities go deeper than numbers...

Orangutan C-section

We started to realise just how close humans and orangutans really are ten years ago, when the local hospital Gynaecologist and Obstetrician, Dr Neil MacLachlan, helped us perform an emergency c-section on Gina one of our Sumatran orangutans.

The result was the successful delivery of a healthy male baby, named “Jaya”, and the procedure “just like working on a human patient”, said Dr MacLachlan at the time.

Keepers noted behavioural changes in the heavily pregnant Gina and so after being sedated, she was taken to Durrell’s onsite Veterinary Centre where she was scanned, and found to be in labour but with a dangerous complication where the placenta was blocking the birth canal. She was losing amniotic fluid rapidly, and without an emergency caesarean, it was likely that both mother and baby would die. A full surgical team was soon on hand, including the hospital’s consultant anaesthetist Gary Purcell-Jones, Durrell’s vet Javier Lopez, veterinary nurse Sarah Hole, a scrub nurse and assistants.

A decade ago the procedure was and still is very rare, and only the second time that a caesarean section has been performed on a great ape at Durrell Wildlife Park in the last 55 years.

Durrell’s Javier Lopez, commented: “Obviously we were very worried when we noticed Gina having problems so close to her due date, complications in orangutan pregnancies are very rare and are often very serious. The support we received from the team at the General Hospital has been tremendous, and over the years has been a key factor in the success we have had in breeding gorillas and orangutans”.

40-year-old Gina's recovery was monitored closely and after just a few days newborn Sumatran orangutan Jaya was reunited with his mother.

Head of Mammals Richard Johnstone-Scott's confidence that Gina would accept her baby back without any problems proved well-founded, for she showed no hesitation whatsoever in scooping Jaya up when he was offered to her by staff, and whisking him off to a quiet corner for a reassuring motherly cuddle and a top-to-toe inspection. Seemingly satisfied that her son had been properly cared for by his human foster parents, she retired to her straw nest to relax and get properly acquainted. The final confirmation of success came a couple of hours later, when Jaya was seen suckling for the first time.

Orangutans – especially the Sumatran species that we work with – are not just endangered, but critically endangered and in real danger of extinction in our lifetimes. So not only are they closer to us, they're also closer to extinction than you'd think...

Neil MacLachlan
Consultant Obstetrician & Gynaecologist

Over the last 25 years I have had the great honour and joy to be involved with many aspects of great ape reproduction and this has taught me just how incredibly similar we are to them. When asked to consider a medical or fertility problem with orang-utans, I have first considered what the solution would be if the question related to a human.

In almost all cases this has worked, and I suppose I should not be surprised when we consider that we shared a common ancestor 12 million years ago, and that 97% of our DNA is shared with the orang-utan! To have helped Gina deliver her baby by emergency caesarean section when she would have probably bled to death, and then to find she had gone through a natural menopause 10 years later, has been fascinating. To then have helped Dana conceive by unblocking her fallopian tubes after she lost her first baby, and being involved in scanning her during her successful pregnancy, were also wonderful moments, and I truly consider myself fortunate to have been involved with these extraordinary animals.

Working with the veterinary and animal staff at Durrell has been a great privilege and I have witnessed some extraordinary care. Realising how close to humans the orang-utans are, I just wish that the rest of mankind would give them the same respect that they deserve and the support to live in peace, in their own environment; surely their basic civil rights?"

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