Every birth is a little miracle, but this was something truly remarkable – rare film of a Sumatran orangutan delivering a baby. And given new mommy Dana’s medical history, the moment was especially poignant to witness. But her already overwhelmed keepers were perhaps not prepared for what happened next, as Dana gathered her newborn up in her long arms and slowly approached them.
The baby orangutan in question entered the world on July 9, 2013, at the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust’s base at Jersey Zoo on the island of Jersey. Then, just three days later, Gordon Hunt, the facility’s head of mammals uploaded to YouTube the footage of Dana giving birth. And the event is a privilege to watch for several reasons – not least because great apes such as Dana are exceptionally rare.
Indeed, Sumatran orangutans can be found on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) “Red List” of critically endangered species; they were also once classed as one of the 25 most endangered primates in the world. Happily, however, IUCN published a survey in March 2016 that revealed some unexpectedly good news.
That report stated that approximately twice as many Sumatran orangutans were then living in the wild than had been previously thought: estimates put the head count at 14,613. Nevertheless, breeding programs offered by the likes of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust make vital contributions to the orangutan population. And Dana’s offering from 2013 was also important.
In fact, the Sumatran orangutan birth on Jersey was thought to have been the first captured on camera. Jersey Zoo used to be called Durrell Wildlife Park, after its founder, author and naturalist Gerald Durrell. It is operated by the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and has hosted orangutans since 1968.
And, as the name suggests, Sumatran orangutans are native to the island of Sumatra – a territory that belongs to Indonesia. Meanwhile, the word orangutan is derived from “orang,” the Indonesian word for person, and “human,” or forest. The great ape’s name can therefore be translated as “person of the forest.” Of course, though, 29-year-old female Dana is far from Sumatra. Jersey Zoo is her home, as it is for her 32-year-old mate, Dagu, and the little YouTube star who came along in 2013.
But that delivery was not the Sumatran orangutan’s first attempt at having a baby. In fact, Dana had been expecting a child four years previously. Unfortunately, however, there was no happy ending for the great ape then, as her pregnancy tragically ended with her delivering a stillborn baby.
Furthermore, the complications of the unfruitful delivery were physically debilitating to Dana. Sadly, the stillbirth really took its toll physically, as the trauma to her body resulted in a blockage within the orangutan’s Fallopian tubes. For all intents and purposes, Dana was therefore infertile. Or, at least, she would have been, had it not been for the intervention of one Neil MacLachlan.
MacLachlan was the head obstetrician at Jersey General Hospital in the island’s capital of Saint Helier, and he stepped in to assist Dana. The involvement of a human doctor was not as out there as some may think, however, since orangutans share 97 percent of their DNA with homo sapiens and are very similar anatomically. Subsequent to MacLachlan’s treatment, Dana fell pregnant for the second time. But even though the orangutan was with child again in late 2012, her keepers did not dare get their hopes up for a successful birth.
Indeed, Gordon Hunt later admitted to The Huffington Post, “We didn’t know what was going to happen, as we had almost written Dana off as never breeding again.” Nonetheless, an excited Hunt and a number of other keepers were behind the camera when Dana reached the end of her nine-month gestation period in June 2013. The birth itself was incredibly quick by human standards, and it was all caught on video.
Hunt is just one of the voices heard commenting on the events as they unfold. The birth sequence opens with Dana in a standing position, displaying little sign of any discomfort. “Here it comes! Here it comes,” says one excited keeper. “This is it – that’s the head.” We see the female simply catch the newborn in her hand as it slips smoothly out after one extended push.
And when Dana cradles the infant in her massive hands, the awestruck keeper continues, “That’s it – it’s out. That’s it!” Dana then amazes the employees of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust again by instantly switching into motherhood mode. In fact, it seems as if she wastes no time in doing what she instinctively knows to do.
“She’s starting to remove the amniotic sac,” a different keeper explains, as the camera follows Dana’s every move. The amniotic sac is the fluid-filled membrane which keeps the fetus protected as it develops in the womb. After a mother has given birth, however, this item has fulfilled its function, and we see Dana gently remove the sac from her newborn with her lips.
“We watched the birth, but we didn’t know everything was okay until later,” Hunt told The Huffington Post. “We didn’t want to get too excited.” But that’s not the impression viewers get when they watch the YouTube clip; the keepers sound like they are beside themselves with excitement. Meanwhile, a very calm Dana proves that she knows exactly what she is doing.
Initially, the Sumatran orangutan baby is silent and still in the video. But when the amniotic sac begins to fall away, the newborn starts to move. “Yes, it’s alive… It’s moving,” one of the keepers says in relief. The baby also begins squeaking a little, and as Dana’s handlers watch on, the new mom does something amazing.
We next see the super-maternal Dana scoop the baby up in her arms and place her mouth over the newborn’s face. A keeper explains what the footage is showing. “Wow! She’s just cleared the baby’s airways,” he reveals. And with no obstructions now to prevent it from doing so, the new arrival begins to cry out loud.
Dana is subsequently seen holding her newborn in her arms for a while; in time, though, the video captures another incredible moment. “Look, she’s coming over,” we hear Hunt’s voice say, as the orangutan brings her little one up to the bars of her enclosure and closer to the camera. “This is amazing. She’s come to show us the baby,” he excitedly explains.
Dana must have really valued and trusted the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust staff to show them her newborn, especially after her previous loss. Her handlers can not believe how lucky they are, either, and they now seem breathlessly euphoric. “Look at that, that’s fantastic… Brilliant,” one of the off-camera keepers exclaims.
But there was another fact which made this episode extra special. “As far as we know, this is the first time a procedure like that to clear the Fallopian tubes has ever been done with a Sumatran orangutan,” Hunt informed The Huffington Post. “To get the birth on camera is fantastic, and we cannot wait to show the footage to everyone.”
Hunt continued, “Seeing the birth was incredible… Mind-blowing. I watched the birth of my children, and I don’t think you realize until much later what you’re witnessing.” And keepers subsequently dubbed Dana and Dagu’s baby girl Kea. However, her full name is Keajaiban – which just happens to be the Indonesian word for miracle.