The Zoo Atlanta family is saddened to announce the passing of Chantek, a 39-year-old male orangutan, on August 7, 2017. Although his cause of death is not yet known, the Zoo’s Animal Care and Veterinary Teams had been treating Chantek with a regimen of advanced medical therapy targeted at mitigating his progressive heart disease. At 39, he was one of the oldest living male orangutans within the North American population of individuals overseen by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA) Orangutan Species Survival Plan® (SSP). Orangutans are considered geriatric after the age of about 35.
Born December 17, 1977, at the Yerkes Language Research Center, Chantek was a beloved member of the Zoo’s orangutan population for 20 years, arriving at Zoo Atlanta in 1997. He was well-known for his knowledge of American Sign Language (ASL), learned prior to his arrival at the Zoo. Although he frequently used ASL to communicate with his caregivers, with whom he developed close personal bonds throughout his years at Zoo Atlanta, he was shy about signing with individuals he did not know and often chose forms of communication which are more typical of orangutans, such as vocalizations and unique hand gestures.
“Chantek will be deeply missed by his family here at Zoo Atlanta. He had such a unique and engaging personality and special ways of relating to and communicating with those who knew him best. It has been our privilege to have had him with us for 20 years and to have been given the opportunity to offer him a naturalistic environment where he could get to know and live with his orangutan family,” said Hayley Murphy, DVM, Vice President of Animal Divisions. “Chantek’s long life is a great testament to the dedication of his care team and to the work of the Great Ape Heart Project, the combined efforts of which made it possible for us to give him the best care and quality of life the zoological community has to offer.”
Zoo Atlanta announced in September 2016 that the Animal Care and Veterinary Teams had begun a progressive medical regimen to treat Chantek’s symptoms of heart disease. Thanks to the ongoing successes of the Zoo’s positive reinforcement training program, Chantek participated in the world’s first voluntary echocardiogram (EKG) ever performed with an awake orangutan. This procedure monitors the heart’s electrical rhythms and was used to aid in the diagnosis of Chantek’s condition. Like other orangutans at Zoo Atlanta, Chantek also participated in voluntary cardiac ultrasounds, blood pressure readings and blood draws, all of which were valuable means of monitoring his health. As is often the case for human cardiac patients, Chantek was on a healthy, low-sodium diet as part of his care regimen.
In addition to forming bonds with his human caregivers, Chantek also formed close relationships with other orangutans at Zoo Atlanta. The other members of his group are 34-year-old female Madu, 2-year-old female Keju and juvenile males Dumadi, 10, and Remy, 6. Chantek particularly enjoyed play with the younger males, especially Dumadi, who could often be seen with or near him in the group’s Asian Forest habitat.
A necropsy, or the animal equivalent of an autopsy, is being performed through the Zoo’s partnership with the University of Georgia Zoo and Exotic Animal Pathology Service in the College of Veterinary Medicine. Preliminary results should be available in several weeks.
Cardiac disease (CVD) is a primary cause of mortality among great apes in zoological populations. The Great Ape Heart Project (greatapeheartproject.org) based at Zoo Atlanta is the first coordinated clinical approach to targeting and treating CVD in all four non-human great ape taxa: gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees and bonobos. Of the four taxa, orangutan cardiac conditions are the least understood. Chantek’s case was regularly reviewed by Great Ape Heart Project subject matter experts, including human cardiologists, from around the U.S. These partnerships and the insights gained as part of the close monitoring of his heart health will enable Chantek to continue to make lasting contributions to the care and health of orangutans and other apes living in zoos throughout North America and beyond.
Zoo Atlanta is currently home to 11 orangutans and 21 gorillas. All four great ape taxa are endangered or critically endangered. Both Bornean orangutans and Sumatran orangutans are critically endangered in the wild, and both species are experiencing dramatic population declines as a result of habitat loss, overharvesting of timber for palm oil plantations, and human encroachment. Experts predict that Sumatran orangutans could be extinct within 10 years without targeted conservation efforts.