Saving the endangered orangutan must be a national priority
By Jonathan Wootliff Tue, 08/05/2008 Jakarta Post
Will the first great ape species to become extinct happen in Indonesia? We are learning that the number of the magnificent Sumatran orangutan is now in such serious decline that it is going to take extraordinary efforts to save the species from total annihilation.
A new study published in a leading international conservation journal called Oryx, which analyzes the loss of natural forest, shows that only about 6,500 orangutans now remain on the island. It also cites similar problems facing the species in neighboring Borneo.
Up-to-date information on populations is vital for drawing up a strategy to ensure their survival.
Although the situation is extremely serious, the report does highlight some reasons for cautious optimism.
Ironically, the report finds that the relatively small population of the Sumatran orangutan is stable, due to human conflict in the Aceh region which has resulted in less forest loss. But overall, the future of this impressive mammal is bleak.
Indonesians should be proud of this amazing creature. Orangutans are the only great apes found in Asia and today they are only to be found in Sumatra and Borneo, with those on each island regarded as unique species.
They are particularly vulnerable to extinction due to the long interval of about seven years between offspring. Furthermore, orangutans are increasingly restricted to smaller forest fragments.
The minimum size for a viable population is considered to be 250 and the report highlights that there are now just six remaining groups of this number or more in Sumatra. In Borneo the news is slightly better with 32 separate groups found to contain at least this amount.
Another fact highlighted by the current data is that 75 percent of all orangutans live outside national parks where forests have been suffering from illegal logging, mining, encroachment by palm oil plantations and fires.
In many cases the report states that the appropriate authorities are either unable or reluctant to implement conservation management effectively. However there is evidence that improved management of the areas can save the orangutan.
Recent examples from parts of Kalimantan show that illegal logging in protected areas can be effectively reduced. Key reasons for these successes are attributed to political and financial support and increased media attention thanks to the efforts by environmental activists.
In spite of an historic lack of political will for conservation management, there have been some signs that the approach of the Indonesian government is changing.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono made some encouraging statements at last year's Bali climate summit where he launched a so-called Orangutan Action Plan.
"In the last 35 years about 50,000 orangutans are estimated to have been lost as their habitats shrank. If this continues, this majestic creature will likely face extinction by 2050," he said.
"The fate of the orangutan is a subject that goes to the heart of sustainable forests. To save the orangutan we have to save the forest."
Anti-logging measures have included the eviction of illegal settlers, the closure of transport routes and the insertion of legally endorsed metal spikes in commercial timber trees. There have also been cases where the implementation of community based forest protection units have been effective in protecting orangutan habitat and combating illegal hunting or trade of the species.
In Sumatra, most orangutans live in Aceh, both inside and outside of national parks. There has recently been a temporary moratorium on logging in the region, which was put in place by the first democratically elected Aceh Governor, Irwandi Yusuf.
Known as the "green governor", he has been praised as a major force in putting forest conservation in Sumatra firmly on the political agenda.
The world market for carbon trading will produce large sums of money to be invested in preventing deforestation. The international conservation group Fauna and Flora International and the Australian company Carbon Conservation have brokered a deal that could generate up to Rp 200 trillion a year to support projects that avoid deforestation in Sumatra.
Although limited timber extraction can help orangutan conservation, complete conversion of forests does not.
Arguably the biggest threat to the forests comes from the expanding palm oil plantations that are being developed by unscrupulous operators who disregard the need for sustainable management.
On the other hand, responsible oil palm producers, like Wilmar International, assess areas for their conservation values and only develop plantations where there is no risk to important species.
Orangutans are one of humankind's closest relatives in the animal kingdom sharing almost 95 percent of the same DNA.
Hopefully this gives us a sense of moral obligation to ensure their survival. But more importantly they are a keystone species and a symbol for the threatened rain forests that are their home.
If the orangutan can be protected, then by default, millions of insects, hundreds of thousands of trees and many birds and mammal species will also be saved. But ultimately these forests are vital for humans too.
For the sake of us all, every possible effort must be made by local people, companies and government to save the orangutan.
The Oryx report makes seven clear recommendations to help orangutan populations. 1. Effective law enforcement and prosecution to stop hunting of orangutans for food and trade. 2. Mechanisms developed to mitigate and reduce human-orangutan conflict in agricultural areas including large scale plantations. 3.
Audits needed to assess the compliance of forestry concessions to their legal obligation to ensure orangutans are not hunted in concession areas. 4. Increased environmental awareness is needed at a local level. Several NGO's are now promoting local awareness of the need for conservation with some success. 5. Mechanisms for monitoring orangutan populations and forest cover need to be further developed. 6. Surveys in less explored areas such as Sarawak need to be continued. 7. Improved survey methodology for nest rate decay needs to be determined.
Jonathan Wootliff is an independent sustainable development consultant specializing in the building of productive relationships between companies and NGOs. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org