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Indonesian orangutans cling to shrinking habitat

orangutan strip

JAKARTA, Indonesia (CNN) -- Life is a jungle everywhere in Indonesia these days.

In the concrete jungle of the capital of Jakarta, riots and unrest during the past year have sometimes turned the streets into battle zones between anti-government protesters and troops.

Meanwhile, in the forests of Borneo and Sumatra another battle is taking place, as environmentalists try to save endangered orangutans from the ravages of logging and fire.

CNN's Gary Strieker shows the orangutans in Indonesia
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The problems of the orangutans are expected to increase amid Indonesia's growing economic and political crises.

"If the people are in trouble, the forest and animals inside it are in trouble as well, so the economic crisis is also having a very heavy impact on the surviving orangutans," said Willie Smits of the Ministry of Forestry.

The word orangutan means "man of the forest" in the Indonesian language. These sociable, endearing primates may reach 200 pounds (91 kg) in the wild and they are among the few animals that use tools -- including sticks to dig for honey or termites, stones to crack nuts and leaves as vessels for drinking water.

Fires decimate forests

The orangutan population, which had already dropped as much as 50 percent during the previous decade, suffered a devastating blow in 1997, when fires raged for months in their rain forest habitat. The fires, sparked by an unusual drought and the clearing of jungle for agriculture, scorched an area twice the size of Switzerland in Sumatra and Borneo.

Thousands of orangutans died in the blaze while starvation drove others to look for food near villages and farms. The orangutan numbers were further decimated by farmers who killed them to protect their crops and then captured their young for sale as exotic pets on the black market.

Environmentalists are now releasing those orangutans they managed to rescue from the fires back into remote areas where they hope they will be safe. They estimate that only 15,000 wild orangutans survive.

But Indonesia's economic and political upheaval is fueling what conservationists fear could escalate into the final plundering of the country's forests as the government presses for more exports, including plywood and paper.

That means the endangered orangutans -- found nowhere else on earth -- will be pushed even closer to the edge of extinction.

Correspondent Gary Strieker contributed to this report.

Southeast Asian fires quicken orangutans' demise
February 25, 1998
Orangutans, saved from fire, return to freedom
February 11, 1998
Fires, drought in Indonesia threaten orangutans
October 21, 1997

Balikpapan Orangutan Society (BOSUSA)
Indonesia Environmental Impact Management Agency
Orang Utan Page
Orangutan Foundation International
BBC World Service - Indonesian Service
Jendela Indonesia - Indonesian Magazines and Newspapers in English
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