August 12, 2010 / 1:41 PM / in 9 years

Dutch Olympian to teach orangutans how to swing

AMSTERDAM (Reuters Life!) - In an evolutionary twist, a Dutch zoo is calling on the services of an Olympic gymnast to teach orangutans how to swing through the trees.

Epke Zonderland of the Netherlands competes on the Parallel Bars during the men's final round of the Doha Gymnastics World Cup at the Aspire Academy in Qatar March 24, 2010. REUTERS/stringer

The zoo Ouwehands Dierenpark Rhenen, located in the center of the country, said it had renovated its orangutan enclosure to allow the long-limbed, hairy, auburn-colored primates to swing from tree to tree in an outdoor setting above the viewing public — but the animals appear to have lost the knack of it.

Friday, Olympian Epke Zonderland hopes to re-teach them.

“It is said that we can learn from apes how to climb, but this time they’ve asked me to get the apes back into the trees,” Zonderland told Dutch radio station BNR on Wednesday night.

In the wild, orangutans rarely come down to the ground, the zoo said, and in the improved enclosure the primates will be able to climb up one tree screened from the public to an outdoor enclosure with seven other trees 10-metres (yards) high.

These seven trees provide no possibility for the orangutans to come back down to the ground. A special lift will bring fruit and other food to the apes at the top of the enclosure, while the public can watch them unseen from the ground.

“This is a unique system in Europe in terms of improved surroundings,” the zoo said on its website.

But Zonderland, who competed in the high bar event at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, said the apes are probably a little afraid of the new situation.

“I hope Friday they will be relaxed enough to copy me. I have no experience with apes ... hopefully they start swinging nicely from the trees,” he told the radio station.

Zonderland said he will use a school playground-type installation to climb to the top of the enclosure, while the orangutans will need to climb the trees.

The experiment is open to public viewing.

Reporting by Aaron Gray-Block, editing by Paul Casciato

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