Orangutan Habitat May Be Gone in 15 Years, UN Report Says

John Roach
for National Geographic News
February 7, 2007
Orangutans may lose nearly all their tropical forest habitat
within 15 years unless urgent action is taken now to end rampant illegal
logging, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) warned in a
report yesterday.

About 60,000 orangutans—which are native to the Southeast Asian islands of Sumatra and Borneo—remain in the wild, conservationists believe (Indonesia map).

The great apes share their habitat with the Sumatran tiger, Sumatran rhinoceros, Asian elephant, and other threatened species. (Related photo: "Rare Rhinoceros Spotted in Borneo Jungle" [September 12, 2006].)

But 98 percent of natural rain forests on the islands could be gone by 2022, the UNEP report warns, and lowland areas and national parks may be destroyed much sooner.

"The rapid rate of removal of food trees, killing of orangutans displaced by logging and plantation development, and fragmentation of remaining intact forest constitutes a conservation emergency," the report reads.

If the immediate crisis goes unresolved, UNEP experts add, within decades very few of the great apes known for their long arms and reddish-brown hair will remain.

"This is a very important report that shows the alarming acceleration of habitat destruction in Indonesia," Cheryl Knott, an anthropologist at Harvard University, said by email.

"The international community needs to support the Indonesian government in their efforts to combat this problem," she added. "We can help through providing funding for orangutan conservation and habitat protection programs in Indonesia."

Knott directs an orangutan research and conservation project at Gunung Palung National Park on Borneo that receives funding from the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. (National Geographic News is part of the National Geographic Society.)

Organized Logging

The UNEP report, "The Last Stand of the Orangutan," said the destruction of the rain forests is driven mainly by well-organized but shadowy timber-supply networks that feed the ever growing international market.

To meet the demand for wood, pulp, and paper, timber companies force and bribe their way into national parks, which hold the only remaining commercially viable timber fields on Borneo and Sumatra.

Park rangers lack the staff, training, and equipment to cope with the incursions, the report reads.

"The logging at these scales is not done by individual impoverished people but by well-organized elusive commercial networks," Achim Steiner, executive director of UNEP, said in a statement.

The report estimates that tens of millions of cubic meters of timber is illegally logged each year—more than 70 percent of all logging in Indonesia.

Approximately 20 percent of the timber is smuggled out as raw logs. The rest is processed in sawmills, pulp mills, and paper mills and then exported. The mills were built to process two to five times more timber than is legally available, according to the report.

Satellite imagery collected in 2006, together with data from the Indonesian government, confirms that illegal logging is now taking place in 37 out of the country's 41 national parks.

The overall logging rate is about 30 percent higher than estimated in a similar report the UN released in 2002. Experts then believed orangutan habitat would be lost by 2032.

"At current rates of intrusion into national parks, it is likely that many protected areas will already be severely degraded in three to five years—that is, by 2012," the new report reads.

In addition to logging, the orangutans' habitat is burned to clear land for palm oil plantations and agricultural fields, the report warns.

Call to Arms

The report praises recent efforts by the Indonesian government to combat the illegal logging with its navy, its army, and specially equipped rangers.

But the report also says the international community must join the battle.

Over the medium to long term, a timber-certification process now in place will help consumers choose sustainably produced wood and palm oil products from Indonesia, UNEP says.

The more immediate need is for funding for trained personnel and equipment to patrol and protect the national parks from illegal logging, UNEP says.

According to the report, only 2,000 field rangers currently patrol 35 of Indonesia's national parks, which cover an area of 41,700 square miles (108,000 square kilometers).

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