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Orangutan colony discovered

CONSERVATIONISTS have discovered a new population of orangutans in a remote, mountainous corner of Indonesia - perhaps as many as 2,000 - giving a boost to the endangered great ape.

A team surveying forests nestled between jagged, limestone cliffs on the eastern edge of Borneo island counted 219 orangutan nests, indicating a "substantial" number of the animals, said Erik Meijaard, a senior ecologist with The Nature Conservancy.

"We can't say for sure how many," he said, but even the most cautious estimate would indicate "several hundred at least, maybe 1,000 or 2,000 even."

The team also encountered an adult male, which angrily threw branches as they tried to take photos, and a mother and child.

There are an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 orangutans left in the wild, 90 percent of them in Indonesia and the rest in neighboring Malaysia.

Rainforests, the orangutan's natural habitat, have been clear-cut and burned at alarming rates to make way for lucrative palm oil plantations. The countries are the world's top producers of palm oil, used in food, cosmetics and to meet growing demands for "clean-burning" fuels in the United States and Europe.

The steep topography, poor soil and general inaccessibility of the rugged limestone mountains appear to have shielded the area from development, said Meijaard, but the trees are highly sought after for commercial timber.

The 2,500-square kilometer jungle escaped the massive fires set by plantation owners and small-scale farmers that devastated almost all of the surrounding forests in the late 1990s.

A previously undiscovered population of several hundred also was found recently on Sumatra island, home to about 7,000.


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