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`Jungle Men'

Borneo's orangutans (`men of the forest' in the Malay language) are being helped at a rehabilitation center

HIS flowing reddish hair resembling a full mandarin coat, Bullet struts about his expansive cage like a Chinese scholar.

Twenty-one years old and more than 300 pounds, the orangutan is the grand old man of a wildlife rehabilitation center that teaches captured apes to return to the wild.

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Yet, unlike most of the 20 orangutans playfully swinging through the undergrowth of this 1,700-acre forest sanctuary 10 miles outside Kuching, the capital of the Malaysian state of Sarawak, Bullet will never again roam freely.

Twenty years ago, he became a victim of the booming trade in Southeast Asia's endangered wildlife.

Then an infant, the orangutan was shot and wounded by hunters who killed his mother. Rescued and raised by a human family, Bullet, who was named for the pellet taken from his head, has lived at the Semengoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Center since he was five years old.

Having failed in one attempt to return to the forest, Bullet now is too heavy to climb trees. He spends his retirement eating, sleeping, and surveying visitors, his long arms folded across his reddish shag.

In more than two decades of trying to preserve the gentle, playful orangutan, one of Asia's most threatened mammals, wildlife officials in Malaysia's Sarawak and Sabah states on the island of Borneo have scored some successes in retraining and releasing apes in the forest.

"Returning them depends on how fast they can relearn to climb," says Thulu Ayu, who has been working at the Sarawak wildlife facility since its opening in 1975.

Rehabilitating orphaned orangutans is part of a growing effort to rein in illegal trafficking in wildlife in Southeast Asia. In Thailand, the United Nations-backed Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora lifted a year-long international ban on wildlife trade with Bangkok in April.

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The convention is an international mechanism to regulate wildlife dealing and prevent illegal trade. Most Asian nations have signed the agreement, although trafficking has continued in countries such as Thailand and Indonesia under the protection of official corruption.

Lifting the international sanction came after Thailand cracked down on dealing in rare animals, which are often shipped out of the region via Bangkok, and drafted new laws to combat the trade last year.

The government took action after a Swiss conservation group, the World Wide Fund for Nature International, condemned Thailand as "probably the worst country in the world for the illegal trade in endangered wildlife," warned that elephants, tigers, and rare birds are in danger, and called for tourists to boycott the country.

In Malaysia, a law was passed in 1988 imposing a maximum jail sentence of five years and a fine of $1,800 on those who keep or hunt orangutans and other wildlife.

A government effort to educate people about orangutans has dampened hunting of the mothers and the practice of keeping these young, friendly apes with human-like faces as pets.

Recently, the World Wide Fund for Nature estimated that as many as 90,000 orangutans may exist compared with previous estimates of fewer than 5,000.

The orangutan is Asia's only member of the great ape family, which also includes chimpanzees and gorillas indigenous to Africa.

Loss of habitat remains a concern, wildlife experts in Malaysia say. Logging and agriculture continue to drive orangutans into small islands of forest or leave them struggling to survive in denuded areas. "Some are still sold for big money and some are used for food," says Mr. Thulu, the official at the wildlife research center.

Success in rehabilitating orangutans also has been mixed, officials say. In addition to learning to climb and swing again, orangutans must rediscover foraging for food, building nests, and making friends in the forest.

In neighboring Sabah, where wildlife officials have been returning orangutans to the wild since 1964, more than 100 apes have been released in the forest. Officials have no way of tracking how they are faring.

In Sarawak, where the orangutan population is estimated at about 2,000, officials released three orangutans 10 years ago only to bring two of them back after the third died. One of the returnees, Bullet, hasn't left since.

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