The excitement in the air was palpable, accompanied by an undercurrent of nervous energy, and the knowledge that there was only one chance to get this right. Days like this don’t come along very often – ones that are the culmination of over two years of emotional rollercoasters and hard work.

Auckland Zoo is undergoing the biggest redevelopment in its near 100-year history in the Zoo’s new South East Asia Jungle Track and part of this has involved building a world class habitat for the orangutans and siamang. Amy Robbins, Team Leader of Primates, personally travelled the world exploring and hand-picking from the best primate habitats that exist today, to create her vision for our beautiful Bornean Orangutans – Charlie, Melur, and Wanita.


Our orangutans return to Auckland!

We follow primate team leader Amy and the Auckland Zoo team as they welcome our orangutan trio back home and into their world-leading high canopy habitat

To build this incredible facility, Orana Wildlife Park in Christchurch agreed to house the orangutans alongside the gorillas in their Great Ape Centre. Auckland Zoo’s primate team wanted to ensure the orangutans experienced the same care they had received their whole lives, so to ensure continuity and consistency, the team uprooted their lives with keepers spending time living in Christchurch to enable this to happen. It’s pretty special to see two organisations coming together for the benefit of wildlife, with keepers from both zoos expressing fondness for the friendships they made, and the camaraderie they formed, and mixed emotions from coming to the end of this journey.

Many flights, friendships, and farewells later, the day came to move everyone – including Charlie, Melur, and Wanita – back to their new exciting home. Anesthetising three orangutans to health check and move into their travel crates is a huge job which involved nearly the entire Auckland Zoo veterinary team travelling to Christchurch. They worked alongside the primate team who have built strong, trusting relationships with the orangtuans, this allows them to carry out procedures safely and quickly, like hand injecting each primate with sedatives. Apart from a slow start with Wanita not wanting to get out of bed, it ‘couldn’t have gone any smoother.'

With the orangutans comfortably in their travelling crates, and a lunchbox full of their favourite treats, half of the team said goodbye as they returned to Auckland to greet them at the other end, whilst the other half remained the ensure they still had an excellent level of care in the interim.

“I’m really proud of the way that Auckland Zoo and Orana have come together, that’s what zoos are about, working collectively for the species, or orangutans in this particular case, I’m really delighted that we’ve formed some really cool friendships as well. It has been an absolute delight and privilege for us to work with the orangutans, they are simply amazing animals.”

Rachel Mason, Manager of Exotic Species at Orana Wildlife Park

Around 15 hours later, at 3am the following morning, the NZ Post plane arrived into Auckland Airport, greeted by a tearful Amy – they were happy tears she insisted – who went over to their crates and told them how proud she was, and reassured them with her familiar, calming presence.

“They’re looking really good, Charlies having a look around, and Wanita’s just chilling. They’ve travelled well, and they’re much more capable and adaptable than we give them credit for. They’ve done this before, so they know what they’re doing and I’m sure they’re aware of what’s going on,” Amy said.

Finally, on the way back to Auckland Zoo, 20 hours after beginning the move process, elation is well and truly in the air, this was the final hurdle – getting them in to their brand new home! Would the plan work out? Would they like it? Would they continue to be the super-calm, incredible travelers they have been this entire time?

We are met by the remainder of the primate team; contractors NZ Strong, as this was still an active worksite; the grounds and maintenance teams who were the experienced ‘strong-men’ and capable forklift drivers, Curator of Mammals Warren Spencer, and even the Project Director Monica Lake. Everyone was there to lend a hand and ensure the final stage of the process went to plan. There was a safety debrief, a containment check, and then the plan was rolled out. In order to get the orangutans into their new ape house, the plan was to let Charlie out first as he is known to give Melur the confidence she needs to feel safe and comfortable in this new space, and lastly, finish with the super calm and collected Wanita.

As the plan unfolded, there were excited whispers, a sense of profound love and pride, smiles, and high-fives, and finally once it was all over a group huddle, hugs, thanks and praise, and coffee! It was suddenly 6.30am, and success was achieved! Charlie, Melur, and Wanita would now take their time getting used to the new ape house over the next month, also getting used to having the whole team around again, acclimatizing to Auckland, and settling in at their own pace in order not to overwhelm their senses.

It’s around a month later, and the team is thrilled once again. It’s another big day, the first day Charlie, Melur and Wanita will explore their outdoor habitat. It’s an extraordinary space, hats off to the ingenuity of everyone involved. Everything inside and outside completely caters to an orangutans’ inherent behavioural needs – to be high off the ground, up in the trees, living arboreally.

“It’s been a collaboration of people that are all here for the same thing, and that also goes for the design team and build team, everyone that has input into this amazing new facility that we have. In my opinion it’s the best orangutan habitat in a zoo, anywhere in the world. Seeing this come to fruition, it’s overwhelming. Now, the really exciting part is about to start. Getting to work with these incredible animals in this world class facility. It’s only just the beginning, I’m very happy,” Amy said.

Everything we do at Auckland Zoo is about connecting our visitors to wildlife, with the aim to inspire others to care about conservation, and right now orangutans need all the help they can get as they grapple with habitat loss, deforestation, and the oil palm industry – there is an incredible amount of pressure on these animals and their wild homes. We can’t wait to use this world-class facility to connect our visitors to these incredible primates, so that everyone is driven to do their part to ensure their future.