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Last Updated: Monday, 5 June 2006, 22:19 GMT 23:19 UK
Orangutan 'rescued' in Phnom Penh
The rescued animal being held by wildlife activist Nick Marx
Some 700 orangutans are smuggled every year in south-east Asia
Wildlife activists in Phnom Penh have rescued an ailing orangutan from a government official who was taking it across the Cambodian capital in a taxi.

Conservationists backed by Cambodian military police stopped the car after being tipped off it contained an ape.

But the official insisted the animal was a gift which he intended to keep in his private zoo.

Orangutan smuggling is widespread in Asia where people keep them as pets or use them for entertainment in zoos.

The great ape was taken into custody by the US conservation group WildAid until officials can determine his ownership.

Endangered species

WildAid activist Nick Marx confirmed the ape was "extremely sick" and said the group conducted the raid because orangutans are an endangered species.

They arrested my orangutan
Nhim Vanda, government official and alleged owner

But Nhim Vanda, alleged owner of the ape and director of Cambodia's National Disaster Committee, threatened to file a complaint against the group if his pet was not returned.

"They arrested my orangutan. If they don't give the animal back to me at my request, I will strongly attack the group," he told AFP news agency.

Orangutan are a highly endangered species found only in the jungles of Indonesia and parts of Malaysia.

According to The World Atlas of Great Apes and their Conservation, published by the UN's environment and biodiversity agencies, they number just 50,000.

Orangutan in a tree (Jamil Sinyor KOCP)
Deforestation has had a huge impact on orangutan numbers

The species has declined dramatically in the last 200 years as a result of deforestation and trafficking.

Officials believe up to 700 orangutans are smuggled annually in south-east Asia, AFP reported.

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