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Fires, drought in Indonesia threaten orangutans

October 21, 1997
Web posted at: 11:14 p.m. EDT (0314 GMT)
An orangutan

JAKARTA, Indonesia (CNN) - The orangutan -- the shaggy, reddish-brown ape found in the jungles of Borneo and Sumatra -- is running for its life.

The brush fires and thick smoke sweeping through the islands, and the drought caused by the El Niño weather phenomenon, threaten to shrink the animals' already small habitat.

It is one of the tragedies of the ecological disaster Asia has experienced for months.

Orangutans aren't the only animals affected by the disaster. Reports of maulings by rare Sumatran tigers and wild elephant stampedes show animals fleeing their normal jungle range. But the plight of the orangutan is particularly poignant since the animal is a protected species.

"It's dry," says Satrio, a caretaker in Indonesia's East Kalimantan province in Borneo. "The wild orangutans come out of the forests to escape the fires. They go to the villages to find food and water. That's when they're hunted."

vxtreme CNN's Maria Ressa reports

Orangutans beaten, sold

East Kalimantan is the site of a rehabilitation center in which orangutans raised as pets are reacclimated before being set free in the protected Sungai Wein jungle.

Ade M. Rachmat, head of the conservation office in East Kalimantan province, said some of the fleeing orangutans were captured by locals while at least two others were beaten and wounded because villagers suspected the apes of damaging their crops.

The newspaper "Suara Pembaruan" quoted Rachmat as saying some of the captured orangutans were sold to customers in big cities for between 250,000 and 350,000 rupiah, or $73 to $100. The apes are still kept as pets illegally and baby orangutans fetch the highest prices on the black market.

Forest Fire

Habitat destroyed

Even before the fires, environmentalists said the animals' habitat had been threatened by development.

Indonesian officials earlier in the year had estimated that only 300 orangutans remain in East Kalimantan and warned that the number was falling because of forest exploitation.

Soeparno, head of the Samarinda Forestry Research Center, said in March the diminishing area of their habitat would reduce their changes of survival.

"The felling of forests in favor of timber and other plantations, mining concessions, farm land, residential areas as well as slash-and-burn cultivation practices were responsible in the shrinking of the orangutans habitat," Soeparno said.

CNN Correspondent Maria Ressa, Reuters and Deutsche Presse-Agentur contributed to this report.


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