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birth of endangered great ape

15 December 2005

Auckland Zoo welcomes birth of endangered great ape

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Melur and Madju taken by Auckland Zoo's photographer, Graham Meadows


Auckland Zoo's Bornean orang utan Melur is being the perfect mum to her new-born son Madju, whom she delivered with ease earlier last month.

Confident, but cautious, and one hundred percent attentive, she looks at him adoringly like any proud and doting mother. The mother-baby bond is breathtakingly human-like from this great ape, whose genetic make-up is 97 per cent similar to humans.

The birth boosts the zoo's orang utan population to nine for this endangered species, which, arguably the world's slowest-breeding land mammal, produces offspring only about once every eight years.

"Madju's (Indonesian for 'to make progress') birth is really something to celebrate. It's very positive. But the fact that almost 90 per cent of both Bornean and Sumatran orang utan habitat has been decimated by illegal logging and the growth of palm oil plantations, is anything but," says Auckland Zoo Curator, Maria Finnigan.

Orangutans are only found in Borneo (Malaysia) and Sumatra (Indonesia) - also the world's largest producers and exporters of palm oil. Found in everything from margarines to beauty products, palm oil is forecast to become the world's most produced and internationally traded edible oil by 2012.

Orangutan numbers in the wild are dropping rapidly, and if this current growth of palm oil plantations continues, orang utan could become extinct in the wild in less than 20 years. The illegal pet trade of infant orang utans is also impacting on numbers. The World Conservation Union (IUCN) currently classifies Bornean orang utans (population 12,000 - 20,000) as 'Endangered', and Sumatran orang utans, (population just 7,000), as 'Critically Endangered'.

"It's an appalling and unnecessary situation, and I believe that with the right intentions and actions, we do not have to see this magnificent species become extinct in our lifetime," says Maria Finnigan, who has worked extensively in Africa with other great ape species.

"As 'The Oil for Ape Scandal', (a collaborative report by a number of NGOs including Friends of the Earth) states, forest conversion is not necessary for the future growth of the oil-palm sector. This report also urges the Indonesian and Malaysian governments to ban forest conversion, and advises that greater productive efficiency and the redirection of plantation development on the millions of hectares of abandoned and heavily degraded land, would greatly reduce the destruction of forests. These are the kind of actions that need to happen," says Ms Finnigan.

Through its Conservation Fund, Auckland Zoo continues to support the work of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP), and advocate for this species. Founded in 1999, SOCP has 120,000 ha of protected lowland forest and a purpose-built medical quarantine facility in northern Sumatra. Its roles encompass rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing 'ex-pet' animals, public education, research and monitoring, and habitat protection. Among fundraising events the Conservation Fund will run over summer, will be a special screening of the classic 'King Kong' at the zoo on 26 January.

At present, Zoo visitors may see Melur and Madju in their outdoor enclosure where they are spending short periods, or in the orang utan playroom. But as the weeks go by their time outside will increase, and chances of a good view of mum and baby will be more likely. Footage of Melur and her baby can also be viewed at the zoo's Paddlepop Kidzone area.


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