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Orang-utans 'on fast track to extinction'

The orang-utan could be the first great ape to become extinct if urgent action is not taken to protect the species from human encroachment in South-east Asia, according to a new study.

Orang-utan numbers in Indonesia and Malaysia have declined sharply since 2004, mostly because of illegal logging and the expansion of palm oil plantations. Serge Wich, a scientist at the Great Ape Trust in Iowa, said yesterday that he and his 15 colleagues had recently found the orang-utan population on the island of Sumatra to have dropped nearly 14 per cent since 2004, to 6,600. In parts of Aceh province, no orang-utans were found at all.

The study – which appears this month in the science journal Oryx – discovered the orang-utan population on Borneo had fallen by 10 per cent, to 49,600 apes. "It's disappointing that there are still declines, [despite] quite a lot of conservation efforts over the past 30 years," said Dr Wich.

The study is the latest of many to predict the demise of orang-utans, which are found only in Indonesia and Malaysia. It described orang-utan losses on Borneo as occurring at an "alarming rate", and said the situation on Sumatra was one of "rapid decline", adding: "Unless extraordinary efforts are made soon, [the orang-utan] could become the first great ape species to go extinct."

In May, the Centre for Orangutan Protection said that just 20,000 of the endangered primates remained in the Central Kalimantan jungle on Borneo, down from 31,300 in 2004. It concluded that orang-utans could be extinct there by 2011.

Michelle Desilets, director of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation UK, said: "The rate of decline is increasing, and unless something is done, the wild orang-utan is on a quick spiral towards extinction."

Indonesia and Malaysia, the world's top palm oil producers, have aggressively pushed to expand plantations amid rising demand for biofuels.

But Dr Wich and his colleagues said there was room for "cautious optimism". Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono announced a major initiative to save the apes at a UN climate conference last year, and the governor of Aceh declared a moratorium on logging. It is also expected that Indonesia will protect millions of acres of forest as part of any UN climate pact that may come into effect from 2012.

In the paper, researchers recommended stronger law enforcement to help reduce the hunting of orang-utans for food and trade.