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Jakarta Post

If we lose orangutans, we will lose forest too

  • Albertus Tjiu and Joko Tri Haryanto

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Jakarta   /   Thu, August 22, 2019   /   11:19 am
If we lose orangutans, we will lose forest too Freedom: A rescued orangutan begins climbing a tree after being released by the IAR team into the wild. (-/Dasril Roszandi)

That orangutans may face extinction has become a public concern. Aug. 19, World Orangutan Day, is a strong reminder. The government has been intensively campaigning to save orangutans at national and global levels. The intensity of the campaigns has been accelerated by other stakeholders such as academics, civil society organizations, community groups and others.

Indonesia is home to three species of orangutan, namely the Bornean orangutan in Kalimantan, the Sumatran orangutan and the Tapanuli orangutan in Sumatra. Orangutan conservation has been a reality for more than 20 years, especially in Kalimantan. Then, why is it still so important? What role and value does the orangutan have as a unique species in the nature chain?

The fact is that the orangutan population in Indonesia keeps decreasing. Based on the 2017 Population and Habitat Viability Assessment (PHVA), only 800 Tapanuli orangutan individuals are left, with 13,710 Sumatran orangutan individuals and 45,590 Bornean orangutan individuals. Their living space cannot be limited by a country border. Their habitat covers multiple landscapes and is shared across the border between Indonesia and Malaysia.

When we talk about sharing a space, good planning is very important and a prerequisite to implementation. A good example of this comes from the territorial border between Indonesia and Malaysia. The National Park Management Unit of Betung Kerihun in Indonesia and the Management Unit of the Batang Ai National Park — Lanjak Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary (BALE) in Malaysia, have initiated a collaboration to develop a joint document, facilitated by partner organizations. This effort is to ensure that orangutans can be lifted from the critically endangered list for the first time since 2016.

There are four meta-populations at the border area between Indonesia and Malaysia in West Kalimantan. This shows how critical it is to protect the border area and common habitat of the orangutan.

In general, it is predicted that only 38 percent of the current orangutan population in Borneo and Sumatra will be viable in the next 100 to 500 years. Moreover, border conservation is a top priority given that it can save 20 percent of the orangutan population, considering that the other 80 percent is located outside protected areas.

So, why will only 38 percent of orangutans be viable? Why is the prediction that bleak?

There are some clear threats to orangutans. One of them is massive forest fires. In Sumatra and Kalimantan, hot spots first identified in March have been increasing over the last month. Unfortunately, this is a routine occurrence every year, especially around the peak of the dry season. The hot spots are increasing in number and getting closer to orangutan habitats. Thick smoke surrounding the forest can disturb the health and threaten the life of orangutans and other animals.

Other threats include logging, land conversion and habitat fragmentation, especially from palm oil expansion as well as non-road and road infrastructure development. Back at the end of 1990s until 2005, when illegal logging was rampant in the border area between Indonesia and Malaysia, hunting and smuggling of orangutans was common. Law enforcement for forest crimes, especially poaching and protected wildlife trade, was not a priority back then.

In 2004 and 2005, several NGOs collaborated in an effort to save 1 million hectares of border forest from foreign investors that were eying the area for palm oil expansion. This area is very important because in 2011 there were 2,233 orangutan individuals occupying an area of 4,851 square kilometers. The NGOs have won so orangutans were able to live safely in their natural habitat.

While illegal logging has been overcome, now new challenges arise for the habitat of orangutans in the area. The 170-kilometer trans-Kalimantan road and West Kalimantan’s East Roadway Kapuas Hulu heading to East Kalimantan will cut across the area of Betung Kerihun National Park. As we know, Betung Kerihun is a major habitat for a thriving population of orangutans.

The eastern end of the road is not an orangutan habitat, but a karst mountain with important tropical rainforest ecology, as well as a habitat for other important species such as hornbills, Bornean peacock-pheasants and big mammals. The risk of losing precious forest in the lowlands and prime orangutan habitat is a reality, therefore prevention and mitigation action is urgently needed.

Now is the time to intensify cross border orangutan conservation efforts. This includes controlling the threat of forest fires, preventing poaching and wildlife trade, and effectively managing water and land.

This can be achieved through cooperation regarding the illegal wildlife trade in both countries, a joint task force between Indonesia and Malaysia must be reinstated; reactivating development partner institutions in supporting the cross border orangutan conservation through the Heart of Borneo (HoB) Initiative; ensuring a thorough study of maintaining biodiversity as an integral part of the development plan; encouraging funding institutions to get involved in cross-border orangutan conservation.

Without serious conservation efforts from all parties, we may lose orangutans. Indeed orangutans are partners in human life, as their ability to spread the seeds from leftover food supports the regeneration of Kalimantan and Sumatra’s great forests. The forest then supplies oxygen for living things and humans.

Do we still dare to let the orangutans go and their forest habitat disappear?

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Albertus Tjiu is the protected and conserved area program manager of WWF Indonesia. Joko Tri Haryanto is an environmentalist.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.