- The Washington Times - Monday, April 13, 2009

JAKARTA, Indonesia | Conservationists have discovered a new population of orangutans in a remote, mountainous corner of Indonesia - perhaps as many as 2,000 - giving a rare boost to one of the world's most endangered great apes.

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 at the U.S.-based 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.

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 U.S. and Europe. Rain forests, where the solitary animals spend almost all of their time, have been clear-cut and burned at alarming rates to make way for lucrative palm oil plantations.

The steep topography, poor soil and general inaccessibility of the rugged limestone mountains appear to have shielded the area from development, at least for now, said Mr. Meijaard. Its trees include those highly sought after for commercial timber.

Birute Mary Galdikas, a Canadian scientist who has spent nearly four decades studying orangutans in the wild, said most of the remaining populations are small and scattered, which make them especially vulnerable to extinction.

“So yes, finding a population that science did not know about is significant, especially one of this size,” she said, noting that those found on the eastern part of the island represent a rare subspecies, the black Borneon orangutan, or Pongo pygmaeus morio.

The 700-square-mile jungle escaped the massive fires that devastated almost all of the surrounding forests in the late 1990s. The blazes were set by plantation owners and small-scale farmers and were exacerbated by the El Nino droughts.

Nardiyono, who like many Indonesians uses one name, said “it could be the density is very high because after the fires, the orangutans all flocked to one small area.”

Mr. Nardiyono headed the Nature Conservancy's weeklong survey in December.

He said it was unusual to come face-to-face with even one of the elusive creatures in the wild, and to encounter three was extraordinary, adding that before this expedition, he had seen just five in as many years.

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