LEO Zoological Conservation Center
LEO Zoological Conservation Center

First orangutan born through artificial insemination

Birth is part of effort to save a species that could be extinct within a decade

GREENWICH, Conn. — Maggie lifted her month-old newborn into the air, his arms and legs dangling as he worked up a smile and let out what sounded like a small giggle. Looking into his eyes, Maggie smiled before tucking him safely back under her arm.

“Your baby is beautiful, Maggie!” cooed Marcella Leone, director of the LEO Zoological Conservation Center. “Can I see your baby again?”

But Maggie was already off scaling the walls of the enclosure, a brightly colored block in one hand, her baby nestled into her furry chest.

Maggie is a 22-year-old orangutan and the first of her species to give birth through assisted reproductive technology. Maggie’s baby, still unnamed, was born on May 20 at the LEO center in Connecticut with the help of Leone, veterinarians and an infertility doctor who normally treats humans, Mark Leondires.

“This is the first time we have succeeded worldwide in helping an orangutan to reproduce using assisted reproductive technologies,” said Leondires, who performed natural-cycle intrauterine insemination (IUI) on Maggie using the sperm of another orangutan, Patrick, living at the center.

“To be able to repeat that at this facility, which is a unique space, and then transfer that knowledge to other zoos to generate species diversity within the orangutan population is our ultimate goal,” he added. The team expects to publish its results for other zoological institutions and researchers to re-create.

LEO Zoological Conservation Center

Orangutans are endangered and could face extinction by 2023 if nothing is done to halt the mass destruction of their natural habitat, according to researchers at Harvard University. Once found throughout Southeast Asia, orangutans now live only in the Indonesian islands of Borneo and Sumatra. By some estimates, more than 80 percent of their habitat has been destroyed by illegal logging and the palm oil industry.

“They will clear-cut wild forest areas, burn them until everything is gone, and then they plant palm oil,” Leone said. “Palm oil is in high demand because we use it in so many things, from biofuels to soaps to food.”

According to the World Wildlife Fund, there were an estimated 230,000 orangutans worldwide a century ago. That population has fallen dramatically to an estimated 41,000 on Borneo and just 7,500 on Sumatra.

Leone said she hopes the LEO center’s work will extend to preserving genetic material from wild animals and zoo animals as a sort of “ark” to help save them.

“There are so many animals now in rescue centers in Borneo and Sumatra that could be released into the wild, but there is just not enough wild to release them into,” said Leone, who has run the private breeding center since 2009.

“So if we can perfect this [assisted reproduction] and work with people over there and collect genetic material and save it for the future, we really might be able to save this species,” she added.

Orangutans give birth to their first baby when they are between 10 and 15 years old. The apes typically have just one baby at a time and may wait as long as 10 years between births, which has also contributed to the population decline.

Leone, Leondires and the LEO staff said they worked for two years to closely monitor Maggie’s natural menstruation cycles before attempting the artificial insemination. The semen sample was collected from the center’s male orangutan.

“As a fertility doctor, I am regularly giving injections and monitoring my patients. But every time you do that, you would have to put these animals to sleep. And it’s actually pretty dangerous to put these animals to sleep,” said Leondires. “The vet techs and zoo staff worked very hard to monitor their natural cycles, and when we felt like we had it right, we planned a whole day around regular medical care for the apes. I came in with my ultrasound machine, and we were able to put the specimen that Patrick produced into Maggie.”

Maggie became pregnant after the first round of treatment. Orangutan gestation is between 250 and 260 days, compared with an average of 280 days for a human woman. Orangutans share an estimated 97 percent of our DNA, according to the National Institutes of Health.

LEO Zoological Conservation Center

The team didn’t know Maggie’s exact due date, but they were elated when she went into labor and gave birth in her favorite yellow wheelbarrow.

“When the little guy was born, I got a tear in my eye. And then breast-feeding happened, and now he is doing OK,” said Leondires. “I felt like a proud papa.”

It was also an emotional moment for Leone.

“Maggie, with her soulful eyes, and the way she cares for this baby — it can’t help but bring me back to the way I felt when I was taking care of my children. How tender and gentle she is. She is so strong, but she will clean every little crevice in her baby’s ear, and cradle him and snuggle him, and you can just see the love here,” Leone said.

So far, the team has successfully impregnated one other female orangutan at the center. She is due later this year. But Leone said assisted reproduction is only part of what’s needed to save this species.

“Preserving our wild places is the most important thing we can do to save our planet, and we must keep the balance of nature,” she said. “What we are doing here can only complement that effort. We are losing that war. We need to win some battles. And this is one of the battles.” 

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