Sunday, 12 July 2009

All Talk, No Action As the Orangutans’ Demise Continues

Your Letters: July 13 The Jakarta Globe

All Talk, No Action As the Orangutans’ Demise Continues

It was absolutely right and not a minute too soon for Walter North to add his voice to the many who have gone before him in highlighting the truly desperate plight of the orangutan (“The Orangutan Can Be Saved With Swift and Serious Action,” July 4). Better late than never, some would say to USAID/Orangutan Conservation Services Program adding their considerable weight to the relentless public calls to save the orangutan.

Whatever USAID/OCSP may do to help save orangutans is to be welcomed. However, for an organization whose budget for protecting orangutans from 2004 to 2008 was an awesome $11.5 million, in my view they have little to show for their efforts. In 2008, a seemingly ever-generous US government dumped a further $2.8 million on USAID/OCSP to help with habitat protection.

North highlights one example: OCSP’s conservation “activities” close to Kutai National Park. What he fails to mention is Kutai National Park has been overrun and all but destroyed by commercial activities in recent years without, as far as I am aware, a word of public condemnation from OCSP, which clearly operates in this same area. In May of this year the Center for Orangutan Protection reported that the number of orangutans in the park had fallen from 600 individuals in 2004 to between 30 and 60 at present — the same period of time in which OCSP has been operating.

In June 2008, orangutan researcher Serge Wich and no less than 14 esteemed colleagues reported that the population of Sumatran orangutans had dropped 14 percent since 2004 to 6,600 individuals. OCSP began its work in 2004. The same researchers also reported that the Borneo orangutan population dropped by 10 percent to 49,600 in this same period.

By any standards the loss of a national park and an overall decline in the orangutan population by an average 12 percent on their watch, in return for an outlay of $14 million, has to be considered an abysmal failure by USAID/OCSP. They can put whatever spin they want on their work, and they do, but it is my opinion that they have failed US taxpayers and, worse still, that they have failed the orangutans. Where has all the money been spent? We can see that it has not saved a single orangutan, the purpose for which the money was largely intended.

It comes as no surprise then to learn that the same OCSP advised President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to announce to the world in December 2007 two goals of the much heralded Orangutan Action Plan. One goal states that a core target of the plan is to stabilize orangutan populations and habitat from now until 2017. As we can see, this is already failing with every day that passes.

Other goals of the plan are to return orangutans currently housed in rehabilitation centers to the wild by 2015. Anyone with an ounce of practical experience managing an orangutan rescue center knew this to be completely unrealistic. Where does OCSP expect to find suitable forest and, anyway, what does OCSP know about orangutan rehabilitation? On a daily basis they ignore all captive orangutans, however much they are suffering.

The reality in Indonesia is first and foremost that the government only pays lip service to orangutan conservation. It will tell whoever wants to donate money exactly what they need to hear. The Australian government gave $500,000 to orangutan conservation in December 2007; where did it go and what did it achieve? The European Union continues to pour money into fancy-looking forest protection and law enforcement projects that, as we can see, are not working in Kalimantan and never will unless Yudhoyono keeps his promises and exerts some influence over forest protection. Most people I talk to in Indonesia believe the government does have a policy concerning orangutans: It is to eliminate the species. And as we can see, with a consistent annual decline of 3,000 of these magnificent animals, the government is on course to succeed before too long.

Sean Whyte
Chief executive,
Nature Alert


The letter/article my letter above was in response to.

July 03, 2009 The Jakarta Globe

Walter North

The Orangutan Can Be Saved With Swift and Serious Action

The orangutan is among the most recognizable and charismatic animal species in the world. Tragically, it is being rushed to extinction by the destruction and conversion of forests in the two regions of Indonesia where it still survives: Kalimantan and Sumatra.

There are thought to fewer than 6,500 orangutans in Sumatra — a number so low the International Union for the Conservation of Nature rates them as a critically endangered species. The orangutan population in Kalimantan is also endangered, with 40,000-50,000 of the great apes thought to survive on Borneo Island. Scientists predict that without a series of coordinated conservation interventions, orangutans could disappear from the wild by 2050.

These magnificent great apes need Indonesia’s forests to survive. Reports that orangutans can be sustained in oil palm plantations are simply wrong. These and other types of plantations are the orangutan’s greatest threats. Hunting them as food, pets and for animal trade also seriously impacts their chance for survival. The Sumatra population of orangutans has been severely impacted by the loss of 25 percent of the island’s forest cover since 1990. Much of this destruction is the result of the establishment of huge plantations developed without any attention to sustainable conservation.

In response to US Congressional interest in conserving orangutan habitat, the United States Agency for International Development initiated the Orangutan Conservation Services Program, for the long-term protection of critically endangered wild orangutans and their habitat. OCSP works with government and nongovernment partners to abate or eliminate threats to orangutans by focusing on major drivers behind those threats, including forest conversion, illegal and unsustainable logging, and wildlife trafficking.

OCSP focuses on areas receiving insufficient attention instead of just replicating existing conservation interventions, and in just two years of operation has made clear and significant contributions to orangutan conservation. In concert, program activities have resulted in improved management of 615,474 hectares of priority orangutan habitat.

OCSP has facilitated the production of an Indonesian Conservation Action Plan at both the national and regional levels and helped Indonesia’s national parks revise their conservation management zones. In northern Sumatra, OCSP partners developed support systems and protocols to assist seven districts in revising their spatial plans.

The program helped local communities directly to create management practices to conserve orangutans. These activities included establishing 12 model conservation villages in Sumatra, developing relevant alternative livelihood strategies, and training of local enforcement units to prevent wildlife crimes.

In several provinces, OCSP facilitated development of community enforcement networks and pioneered a system allowing community members to report forest crimes directly to an SMS hot line number. Successful community policing has led to jail sentences for two illegal traffickers, a first for Indonesia.

Furthermore, OCSP has improved relationships with business, and now works more closely with the private sector to obtain best management practices for orangutan populations in the oil palm, timber, plantation and mining sectors. For example, OCSP has coordinated conservation activities with forest and mining companies such as PT. Kaltim Prima Coal and other responsible concessionaires located in close proximity to Kutai National Park. It has provided advice and recommendations on orangutan conservation to the paper-and-pulp plantation company, Surya Hutani Jaya and the forestry company Sumalindo. These two companies have accepted OCSP recommendations and agreed to bolster buffer zones bordering the National Park. They will also rehabilitate river- and stream-bed areas within their plantation boundaries through mixed species “enrichment” planting.

Finally, OCSP-sponsored surveys recently discovered a new population of orangutans in Pakpak Bharat, North Sumatra, and another in East Kalimantan. The discovery of these new populations indicates there is still a good chance to save this animal if its habitat can be protected. Much work remains, however, before we can say that these wonderful animals are safely out of the dark.

Walter North is the USAID director at the US Embassy in Jakarta.