Discovering Suaq and it’s unique orangutans

The Suaq research station was founded in 1994 when Professor Dr. Carel van Schaik was looking for a research site to study the behavior of the Sumatran Orangutans. Right at its discovery, Carel realized that the orangutans in this peat swamp forest are different than orangutans at other sites. First of all, the orangutans at Suaq occurred at a higher density and showed a uniquely high level of social tolerance. Second, the Suaq orangutans were found to habitually use tools, a behavior that very few non-human species show in the wild.

Suaq raised to one of the most renowned orangutan research sites

With the aim to understand the biology and behavior of this unique orangutan population, behavioral research was started in 1994. A research camp was established at the shore of the Lembang River in the heart of the rainforest, providing accommodation to researchers and local staff members. A wooden boardwalk made it possible to access the more remote areas of the deep peat swamp forest.

Soon, the uniqueness of Suaq orangutans, especially the complexity of their behavior, attracted researchers from all over the world. After a disruption from 1999-2007, due to the civil war in Aceh, the research camp was rebuilt several hundred meters down river of the previous camp.

Carel and his team resumed research activities, now under the Department of Anthropology of the University of Zürich (AIM) in collaboration with Universitas Nasional Jakarta (UNAS) and under the administrative management of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program (SOCP).

The long-term research effort is paying off

Over the last 20 years, behavioral data on more than 100 individually recognized Sumatran orangutans was collected at Suaq, resulting in more than 10’000 observation hours. This data has produced a variety of highly relevant findings for conservation such as the first wild life history data on longevity, reproductive rates, mortality as well as home range use and other ecological needs of the Sumatran orangutan. Also, the behavioral data has provided unique insight in cultural and cognitive evolution.