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Orangutans in Peril: Asia's only species of great ape faces an uncertain future.

Scientist Willie Smits was walking through a market on the Southeast Asian island of Borneo when he saw something that made his heart sink. His eyes met the sad gaze of an ill-looking baby orangutan trapped inside a cage. This ape was for sale.

Orangutans are an endangered species. Just 50,000 are estimated to live in the rain forests of Borneo (see Nuts & Bolts, below), and the neighboring island of Sumatra, Malaysia. To protect the species from dying out, international laws state that it's illegal to commercially trade orangutans or to keep them as pets. But every year, hundreds of baby orangutans are kidnapped from the wild and sold to collectors around the world.

Haunted by what he saw, Smits returned to the market that evening to look for the sick orangutan. He found her tossed in the trash, lying on a pile of rotting vegetables, gasping for air. Smits nursed the dying ape back to health. "I kept massaging her, forcing her to take liquids," he says. After 20 hours, the baby, whom Smits named Uce (OO-tya), started breathing normally.

Uce dodged death, but many other orangutans may not be as lucky. That's because the illegal wildlife trade is just one of several factors that are threatening Asia's only species of great ape. Scientists fear that if conservation measures are not stepped up, then wild orangutans could become extinct in as few as 10 years.

EVICTION NOTICE

Orangutans are the world's largest arboreal, or tree-dwelling, mammals. With hook-like hands, flexible hips, and dexterous, gripping feet, orangutans are tailor-made for living in trees. But year after year, trees are becoming harder for the apes to find.

In the past 20 years, human activities, such as industrial logging and mining, have destroyed approximately 80 percent of the orangutan's rainforest habitat. While some of the remaining forests are protected, large numbers of people illegally chop down the forests' trees to sell the wood for much-needed income.

In addition, demand for palm oil, which is used in foods, cosmetics, and fuels has mushroomed around the world. Indonesia and Malaysia, the two countries that encompass the orangutans' remaining habitat, are also the world's biggest producers of palm oil. As each country converts more sections of its rain forests into financially rewarding palm oil plantations, the apes are further squeezed out of their homes.

FIGHTING FOR SURVIVAL

With their habitat and food source (mostly fruit and vegetation) depleted, some orangutans resort to invading farms and raiding the crops for survival. This prompts some farmers to kill the apes as pests.

Many young orangutans, like Uce, wind up in markets because people are willing to pay high prices to acquire one. Shrinking forests are making it easier for people to find orangutans and kidnap the babies from the wild. "[Orangutans] are large and slow-moving, so they're relatively easy to take potshots at," says Anne Russon, a primatologist at York University in Toronto, Canada. Usually, poachers illegally hunt and kill the mother apes and then snatch their babies.

Most orangutan buyers soon discover that apes do not make good pets. The doll-sized infant orangutans grow into enormous adults that are extremely difficult to control. When their pets go ape, many owners abandon them.

Each year, law enforcement officials confiscate many illegally captured orangutans. But where do these apes go? "There are thousands of baby and juvenile orangutans that are waiting to be rehabilitated and re-released into the forest," says Cheryl Knott, a primatologist at Harvard University.

HOMEWARD BOUND

Returning a stolen ape to the wild isn't easy. Young orangutans rely on their mothers to teach them everything from how to find food to how to socialize with other apes. An orangutan that grew up in captivity--and without a mother's guidance--would have a difficult time surviving in the rain forest.

Rescued orangutans spend years at rehabilitation centers, trying to learn basic survival skills. "Unfortunately, humans don't have very many orangutan forest skills, so it's really hard for us to be teachers," says Russon. "What people provide are opportunities to learn." For example, workers at the rehabilitation centers take the orangutans into protected forests and encourage them to practice climbing trees and finding food. When the apes have built up a sufficient set of skills, they are released into the wild.

Uce inspired Smits, an ecologist, to help save other orangutans. He established several orangutan rehabilitation centers in Borneo, including the Wanariset Center. In the past 15 years, Smits helped release more than 400 rehabilitated orangutans back into the wild.

WILD THING

For rehabilitated apes to be truly successful surviving in the wild, scientists believe that it's critical to tackle what's endangering the apes in the first place.

To this end, the Indonesian and Malaysian governments are making efforts to crack down on illegal logging and poaching. In addition, conservation groups patrol various orangutan habitats and help educate people about the orangutan's ordeals. The groups also help local residents find alternatives to illegal logging. For example, Knott is teaching people how to market sweets made from local fruit. Also, many consumers have written to manufacturers of palm-oil products, urging them to buy oil only from environmentally friendly plantations.

Scientists say individuals can help tinct the illegal pet trade by refusing to think of orangutans as pets. "Wild animals belong in the wild," says Knott.

nuts & bolts

ORANGUTAN DISTRIBUTION ON BORNEO

BURNED FACTS IT FIGURES

UNIQUE ISLAND: The Southeast Asian island is divided into three sections. The countries Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei each control separate parts of the island.

POPULATION: Roughly 15 million

AREA: At 743,330 square kilometers (287,000 square miles), Borneo is the third largest island in the world after Greenland and New Guinea.

MAJESTIC FORESTS: Borneo is home to the world's oldest tropical rain forests--estimated to be between 70 million to 100 million years old. It's home to approximately 3,000 tree species, more than 420 bird species, and roughly 220 different mammal species.

TRADE: Borneo's agricultural products include rice, sugarcane, and tropical fruits. Brunei in northwest Borneo is rich in petroleum (crude oil), and produces approximately 200,800 barrels of oil per day.

web extra

To learn more about orangutans, visit the Orangutan Conservatory at: www.orangutan.com

it's your choice

1. An estimated -- orangutans remain in the wild today.

A 10,000

B 30,000

C 50,000

D 70,000

2. Which of the following countries does not have a role in governing Borneo?

A Vietnam

B Brunei

C Indonesia

D Malaysia

3. In the past 20 years, human activities have destroyed approximately -- percent of the orangutan's rain-forest habitat.

A 20

B 40

C 70

D 80

ANSWERS

1. c 2. a 3. d

PRE-READING PRDMPTS

Jump-start your lesson with these pre-reading questions:

* The orangutan is one of Earth's four great apes. Gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos--the other great apes--live in Africa. The orangutan, also called the red ape, is only found in Asia. Orangutans are an endangered species. What's threatening these animals?

* Orangutans aren't mature enough to reproduce until they are in their teens. A female will have a baby about once every eight years. No other mammal species has such a long gap between births. What kind of bond do you think a mother and an infant orangutan have? For example: Do they have a close relationship? Do they rely on each other?

CRITICAL THINKING:

* It is illegal to buy or sell an orangutan as a pet. Still, hundreds of orangutan babies are taken from the wild each year for the wildlife trade. (To learn more, visit: www.savetheorangutan.co.uk/?page_id=35.) Why do you think the demand for pet orangutans is so high, despite the illegal status? How might this wildlife trade be stopped?

CROSS-CURRICULAR CONNECTIONS:

GEOGRAPHY: Borneo is divided into three separate sections, with each part governed by a different country: Brunei, Malaysia, and Indonesia. How are these three sections similar or different? To find out, divide the class into three groups and assign each group a section of Borneo to research. Have each group create a poster about its region. Then, hang the posters on the wall to compare the three different parts of Borneo.

RESOURCES

* To learn more about Cheryl Knott's work to help save orangutans, visit her Web site at: www.fas.harvard.edu/~gporang/index.html

* Find out more about wildlife and conservation in Borneo. Visit this World Wildlife Fund Web site: www.panda.org/about_wwf/where_we_work/ asia_pacific/our_solutions/borneo_forests/index.cfm

* For more information on how palm oil plantations are threatening biodiversity, visit this Friends of the Earth Web site: www.foe.co.uk/campaigns/biodiversity/case_studies/palm_oil/

* To learn more about the orangutan boxing scandal, read the article at: www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15831675/

DIRECTIONS: Answer the following questions in complete sentences.

1. Approximately how many orangutans remain in the wild, and where do they live?

2. Why are the orangutans' rain-forest habitats disappearing?

3. Why is it unwise to keep an orangutan as a pet?

4. Why is it difficult to return a rescued, stolen ape to the wild?

5. Name three things that scientists and governments are doing to help protect orangutans.

ANSWERS

1. Just 50.000 orangutans are estimated to live in the rain forests of Borneo, as well as on the neighboring island of Sumatra, Malaysia.

2. In the past 20 years, human activities such as industrial logging and mining have destroyed approximately 80 percent of the orangutan's rain-forest habitat. While some of the remaining forests are protected, many people often illegally chop down the forests' trees to sell the wood for much needed income. In addition, demand for palm oil has boomed. Indonesia and Malaysia, the two countries that encompass the orangutans' remaining habitat, are also the world's biggest producers of palm oil. As each country converts more sections of their rain forests into financially rewarding palm oil plantations, the apes are further squeezed out of their homes.

3. It is illegal to commercially trade an orangutan, so it's unlawful to purchase one as a pet. Also, young orangutans grow into large wild animals that are difficult to control.

4. Young orangutans rely on their mothers to teach them everything from how to find food to how to socialize with other apes. An orangutan that grew up in captivity--and without a mother's guidance--would have a hard time surviving in the rain forest. Rescued orangutans need to spend years at rehabilitation centers, trying to learn basic survival skills.

5. The Indonesian and Malaysian governments are making efforts to crack down on illegal logging and poaching. Conservation groups patrol various orangutan habitats and help educate people about the animals' ordeal. The groups also help local residents find alternatives to illegal logging.

For example: The residents could sell sweets made from local fruit
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Around the World
Author:Adams, Jacqueline
Publication:Science World
Date:Feb 5, 2007
Words:1803
Previous Article:Big shot: with the help of physics, a teenage pool player goes pro.
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