Basten Gokkon, Jakarta – Protecting all remaining orangutans and their forest habitat in Indonesia will provide a bastion for the survival of Asia's only great ape, wildlife experts say in a new investigative report.
The administration of Indonesian President Joko Widodo must implement full protection for orangutans and their intact forest habitats while beefing up law enforcement against poaching and land burning to save the critically endangered animals, according to the report by the U.K.-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). Also identified as important: expediting recognition of Indigenous forests that comprise orangutan habitat.
"The Government of Indonesia under President Widodo has made some progress on the drivers of orangutan decline in recent years," the EIA said in the report, "Orangutan in Crisis," published Oct. 29. "However, the multitude of threats still facing orangutans daily outlined in this report, and their toll on orangutan populations, demonstrate how much further there is to go."
The EIA's analysis of commercial concessions on forested land in Indonesia showed that orangutan habitat in Sumatra and Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) occurs in millions of hectares of oil palm, pulpwood and logging plots. The recent expiration of a moratorium on new oil palm concessions and the deregulation of environmental protections ushered in by controversial legislation passed last year further exacerbate the risks to orangutan habitat, the report says.
"The confluence of threats facing orangutans is nothing short of a crisis," Taylor Tench, EIA policy analyst, said in a press release.
Indonesia is home to the world's three orangutan species: Sumatran (Pongo abelii), Tapanuli (P. tapanuliensis) and Bornean (P. pygmaeus) orangutans. The Sumatran and Tapanuli orangutans are found nowhere else on Earth, while the Bornean orangutan also occurs in Malaysia and possibly Brunei, which share the island of Borneo with Indonesia. Habitat loss, fires, poaching, and human-wildlife conflict are the main factors that have generally driven these species to the brink of extinction in the wild.
A 2018 study calculated that the island of Borneo lost nearly 150,000 orangutans between 1999 and 2015, largely due to deforestation and killing. A population assessment by the Indonesian government published in 2016 estimated that none of Sumatra's wild orangutan populations would survive beyond the next 500 years unless habitat destruction and poaching were resolved. Meanwhile, the Tapanuli orangutan, the world's rarest great ape species, with a population of less than 800, was only described by scientists in 2017 and is already particularly threatened by a hydroelectric dam being built in its only known habitat.
The EIA said the Indonesian government has systematically failed to protect orangutan habitat, enforce existing wildlife laws, or reverse the decline of these species. "For decades, Indonesia has prioritized industry and profit over environmental health and biodiversity protection, and orangutans have paid the price," Tench said.
Orangutans in Indonesia are ostensibly protected under the country's 1990 Conservation Act, but wildlife experts have criticized a lack of prosecutions and, in the rare instances when cases do go to court, lenient sentences. The country currently has no conservation strategy and action plan in place, either, to guide national and subnational actions to save orangutans.
"The future of Indonesia's orangutans requires immediate action at the presidential level. Anything less will be too late for these iconic species," said EIA president Allan Thornton in the press release.
The group called on the Indonesian government to come up with a comprehensive strategy to save the remaining orangutans, including plans to place their habitat (primary forests, secondary forests, and forest fragments) under formal protection by including them within the permanent forest moratorium area. The EIA also recommended expediting the recognition of customary forest claims for indigenous and local communities living in and adjacent to orangutan habitat; beefing up firefighting efforts; and halting the construction of the Batang Toru dam in the Tapanuli orangutan habitat.
"Indonesia has a pivotal role to play in contributing to global efforts to overcome the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss, and securing the protection of orangutans and their habitat would go a long way toward overcoming both," Tench said.