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Orangutans Losing Battle for Survival

Headlines screaming "ethnic cleansing," "massacre," and "head hunting" make it easy to overlook the impact civil unrest is having on animal populations in Indonesia.

The ongoing fighting and political instability provide a textbook case of human activities leading directly to the extinction of a species, warns a study released by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which appears in the current issue of the journal Oryx.


A wild male orangutan on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

Photograph courtesy of Perry van Duynhoven/WCS

Orangutans will be extinct in the wild in less than ten years unless conditions are reversed immediately, says the study's lead author Carel van Schaik, a professor of primate ecology at Duke University and research associate with the New York-based WCS.

"At present, all remaining forests that are accessible by road or river are subject to a seemingly unstoppable pandemic of illegal logging," says van Schaik, "regardless of their protection status."

Orangutans—Great Apes of Asia

Of the four great ape species most closely related to man—gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans—only orangutans hail from Asia. The world's largest arboreal mammal, orangutans nest and travel in treetops, rarely coming to the ground, living on the fruits, leaves, seeds, bark, and insects of the rain forests.

Once ranging throughout southeast Asia, the species now occupies only small pockets of habitat on the Indonesian islands of Borneo and Sumatra.

The species' largest population can be found in the Leuser ecosystem of northern Sumatra. Much of the ecosystem is protected under Indonesian law, yet the orangutan population fell from around 12,000 in 1993 to less than half that number today, victims of rampant logging, poaching, and loss of habitat to agriculture.

Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to Hide

When former President Suharto fell from power in May 1998 after more than three decades of iron-fisted rule, Indonesia, the fourth most populous country in the world, was in the throes of an economic and social collapse.

"Suddenly everyone was out to get whatever they could," says Willie Smits, head of the Balikpapan Orangutan Rescue mission located in Borneo. "And that meant taking from the forest."

"In the ensuing period of near-anarchy, illegal logging and conversion to industrial agricultural estates increased dramatically," explains the report.

Logging, Poaching, and Plantations

Much of the Leuser ecosystem, which covers 9,600 square miles (25,000 square kilometers) of coastal swamp, mountain valleys and forests in northern Sumatra, is designated as protected. The status is meaningless in the face of political disarray, argue the study's authors.

Timber companies have been granted logging concessions throughout the ecosystem to conduct "selective logging," which is supposed to be followed by 30 to 40 years of forest regeneration.

Even selective logging is bad for the orangutans. Van Schaik's work shows that orangutan populations drop by 60 percent after a single round of selective logging, which tends to leave fragmented islands of trees. Orangutans stay in their now-degraded home territory, making them susceptible to starvation and disease.

More disastrously for the primate, logging rarely stops after the first round. Instead, it is continued until virtually all timber-grade, commercially valuable, trees are taken out. Studies show that orangutan population densities drop by 90 percent at this point.

In addition to the loss of tree canopy and reduced food supplies, government programs to relocate people from densely populated islands to Borneo and Sumatra place the new immigrants on some of this cleared land. The immigrants compete with orangutans for food, and their presence frequently provides the work force to continue logging—legally or illegally.

Cleared land is also being converted to vast agricultural plantations at an increasingly accelerated pace. Orangutans venturing out of the forests in search of food and caught raiding crops are either captured and placed in captivity or, more likely, killed.

Conservation Efforts

In large measure, the fate of the orangutans lies in the hands of the Indonesian and Malay peoples, says van Schaik. Still, there is a role for the international community of governments and conservation organizations.

The United States has allocated $1.5 million for orangutan conservation efforts in Indonesia this year. But WCS agrees that will not be enough.

WCS is calling for a moratorium on logging in old-growth forests until the political situation has stabilized and improved enforcement to prevent illegal logging. The organization hopes to work with both the government and local communities and governments to stop illegal logging.

"The documented long-term decline in orangutan numbers is both depressing and a call to action," says Josh Ginsberg, WCS director for Asia programs. "Tough changes in natural resource management and protection of remaining habitat are critical to ensuring a future for the orangutan."

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