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| Wednesday,20 February 2008

Singapore Zoo's Most Famous Icon, Orangutan Ah Meng, Dies

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SINGAPORE -- Singapore Zoo's most famous icon, an orangutan who once hobnobbed with Britain's Prince Philip, popstar Michael Jackson and actress Elizabeth Taylor, has died, zoo staff said Saturday.

Ah Meng, a female orangutan from the Indonesian island of Sumatra who had served as a "poster girl" to highlight the plight of the endangered apes, died on Friday, the staffer said.

Local media said the ape was 48 years old, equivalent in human terms to nearly 95 years, and it is believed she died of old age.

"A lot of people, both local and foreigners, have enjoyed her company. I'm sure the patrons of the zoo will miss her," Singapore President S.R. Nathan told the Straits Times.

Taken from a family that had kept her as an illegal pet, the ape found a home in Singapore Zoo in 1971 and soon became a tourism icon for the affluent city-state.

Stardom came in 1982 when the jovial Ah Meng was featured in a program called "Breakfast with an Orangutan" which allowed visitors to be photographed with her in a bid to raise awareness of the species and its fast-disappearing natural habitat.

Orangutans, tree-living apes native to Borneo and Sumatra, are listed as endangered by the Swiss-based World Conservation Union. It says numbers have fallen by "well over" 50 percent in the past 60 years as a result of lost habitat as well as poaching and the pet trade.

Indonesia is currently home to nearly 62,000 of the popular primates.

The United States' development arm USAID, which is providing assistance and funding to Indonesia to protect the species from extinction, has said a 2004 survey found deforestation had led to the deaths of 3,000 orangutans per year since the 1970s.

Ah Meng was featured in more than 30 travel films and 300 write-ups worldwide, Singapore Zoo said on its website.

In 1992, the Singapore Tourism Board made the orangutan a special ambassador, the first non-human recipient of the award.

Zoo staff said a "memorial service" will be held on Sunday to allow the public to view the body before it is buried.

Ah Meng is survived by four children and six grandchildren, the Straits Times said.

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