*** FILE *** In this photo released by the Miami Metrozoo, Nonja, 52, the oldest orangutan in the United States, opens a holiday gift filled with bananas, raisins, and popcorn at Miami Metrozoo, Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2004, in Miami. Nonja, who was born on the Indonesian island of Sumatra and lived in Miami since 1983, was found dead Saturday morning Dec. 29, 2007, said Ron Magill, spokesman for the Miami Metro Zoo. (AP Photo/Miami Metrozoo, Ron Magill)
Conservationists said Tuesday they were planning a big push to protect Borneo's orangutans, pygmy elephants and other endangered wildlife by purchasing land from palm oil producers to create a forest sanctuary.
The deal is meant to help stave off the demise of orangutans, whose numbers have dwindled amid illegal logging and the rapid spread of palm oil plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia, the only two countries where orangutans are found in the wild.
The Malaysian-based LEAP Conservancy group is in talks to buy 222 acres of tropical jungle land in Malaysia's Sabah state on Borneo island from palm oil operators, said Cynthia Ong, LEAP's executive director.
The territory is needed to link two sections of a wildlife reserve that is home to an estimated 600 orangutans, 150 Borneo pygmy elephants and a vast array of other animals including proboscis monkeys, hornbills and river otters.
The funds are being raised through public and private donations, Ong said. The British-based World Land Trust, which is working with LEAP on the initiative, said on its Web site that 343,000 pounds ($533,000) was needed to acquire the land.
This was the first time that nongovernment activists were trying to acquire land in Malaysian Borneo for environmental protection with the help of government officials, Ong said.
It was not immediately clear when the purchase might be finalized, but Ong said the land has not been cleared for plantations so far because of a lack of access roads.
"There is a desperate need for this purchase," Ong told The Associated Press. "We have no other avenue to avoid a potential conflict between humans and wildlife."
Environmental groups estimate the number of orangutans in Malaysia and Indonesia has fallen by half in the past 20 years to less than 60,000, largely due to human encroachment on forests. Researchers say more than 5,000 of the primates have been lost every year since 2004.
Borneo is also home to some 1,000 pygmy elephants, which are genetically distinct from other subspecies of Asian pachyderms because they have babyish faces, large ears and longer tails. They are also more rotund and less aggressive.
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