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Text: Mammals.
Photo: Orangutan, Pongo pygmaeus.
Orangutan, Pongo pygmaeus
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Where are they found? Asia

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The name of this shaggy red creature means "wild man" in Malay. They are heavy-bodied, thick-necked anthropoid apes, and are native to the swampy coastal forests of Sumatra and Borneo. They have bowed legs and very long arms, sometimes with a span of 2.3 m (7.5 ft.). Their huge bellies and sparse coat make them particularly distinctive. Orangutans are about two-thirds the size of gorillas and very powerful.

They travel through trees by swinging from branch to branch when young, and by climbing and branch walking as they become larger. On the ground they walk on all fours, but not easily, because their short legs are weak and they lack a heel bone.

They are 1.25 to 1.5 m (4 to 6 ft.) tall. Males can weigh up to 90 kg (200 lb.) and females up to 50 kg (110 lb.). Captive animals become fatter than those in the wild.

Orangutans are herbivorous, primarily eating fruit. They are also peaceful and intelligent. They spend most of their time in the treetops, constructing sleeping platforms of leaves and branches, much like a gorilla does.

Today the greatest threat to this species is habitat destruction and disruption. Rain forest is logged and cleared for agricultural development and mining, leaving only patches of suitable habitat. The orangutan's sensitivity to human intrusion has adversely affected their already low rate of reproduction.

As of 2000, wild populations of this are now found only in northern Sumatra and Borneo. The world population now numbers about 20 000 in the wild and about 900 in zoos. Judging from fossils found in southern China and northern Vietnam, it seems that in prehistoric times the orangutan was more widely distributed throughout the tropical lowland forests of southeast Asia.

The major cause for the recent decline in population is the continuing destruction of the forests, and, to a lesser extent, the illegal killing of adult females to obtain juveniles for the animal trade. The species is now fully protected by law throughout its range, but enforcement is difficult in remote areas. Existing reserves in Sumatra and Borneo are important in the orangutan's survival. Additional reserves, forest management, and stricter control of international trade are also essential. To have any hope of saving this species, it is imperative that we preserve their remaining habitat and carefully manage existing reserves.

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