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Jakarta Post

The challenge to protect orangutan

  • Agus Djoko Ismanto


Jakarta   /   Fri, August 23, 2019   /   12:32 pm
The challenge to protect orangutan Nadiya, an 18-month-old orang utan, is given special treatment by Prigen Zoological Park in Pasuruan, East Java, on Monday, after she was rejected by her mother. Nadiya is one of 26 orang utans at the zoo while 36,000 are reported to remain in the wild in Kalimantan. (The Jakarta Post/Aman Rochman)

Ahead of International Orangutan Day on Aug. 19, the Indonesian government warned that only 23 percent of the world’s orangutan population would remain in the next 100 to 500 years.

Indonesia is home to 60,060 orangutans, most of the approximately 71,820 orangutans in the world, and has a unique responsibility to protect and rebuild the orangutan population and the habitats that sustain them.

The alert was raised to coincide with the release of the government’s 2019-2029 Orangutan Conservation Strategy and Action Plan (SRAK 2019-2029), based on Environment and Forestry Ministerial Decree No. 308/2019. The plan is a reference for all parties concerned about the plight of orangutans.

Orangutans live in 51 subpopulations in the wild, of which 10 are located in Sumatra, 29 in Kalimantan and 12 in Malaysia. Sadly, if current trends in land use and orangutan mortality continue, the Seruyan-Sampit subpopulation in Kalimantan is predicted to become extinct in the next 10 years.

While poaching and the illegal wildlife trade are serious threats to the three orangutan species, habitat loss continues to present the single greatest risk to the continued survival of orangutans in our country.

Based on current trends, the environment ministry’s 10-year projection on habitat loss for the three species and three subspecies of orangutan: 12.50 to 17.24 percent of habitat loss for the Southern Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeous wurmbii), 7.87 to 16.50 percent for the Western Bornean orangutan (P. p. pygmaeous), 6.06 to 11.37 percent for the Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii), 4.33 to 9.17 percent for the Northeast Bornean orangutan (P. p. morio) and around 1.25 to 2.25 percent of habitat loss for the most recently discovered orangutan species, the Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis).

Using habitat loss as metric for population viability, the ministry has determined that Pongo tapanuliensis has the highest probability of survival (98.6 percent) until 2028, while P. p. morio has the lowest probability of survival (82.3 percent). The projection excludes probability of direct population loss due to natural death, extraction, natural disasters and other causes. If deforestation is not slowed down, the projection indicates a 6 to 10 percent decline in orangutan numbers by 2029.

To face the threat, the government has established orangutan population and habitat targets per region: 13,710 orangutans and 205,327 square kilometers of protected orangutan habitat in Sumatra, and 45,590 orangutans and 134,823 sq km of protected orangutan habitat in Kalimantan.

One of the most interesting scientific discoveries concerning the orangutan came in 2017, with the discovery that orangutans in Sumatra comprised not one, but two species of orangutans: the Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) and the newly designated Pongo tapanuliensis, or Tapanuli orangutan.

The meta-population of Tapanuli orangutan comprises 5 subpopulations in the Batang Toru ecosystem, which have a combined population of approximately 577 to 760 individuals that occupy approximately 105,132 hectares across three regencies: North Tapanuli, Central Tapanuli and South Tapanuli. The Tapanuli orangutan habitat is fragmented by the Trans-Sumatra highway and other public roads, as well as human settlements and the Batang Toru River.

The five subpopulations are located in separate habitats: the West Batang Toru Block habitat, which supports 400 to 600 individual orangutans, the East Batang Toru Block supporting 150 to 160 individuals, and the three small protected reserves of Dolok Sipirok, Sibualbuali and Lubuk Raya that support a combined population of about 50 individuals.

Despite the relatively low level of deforestation in the habitat of the Tapanuli orangutan when compared to other Indonesian orangutans, the small number of this meta-population, habitat fragmentation and increasing pressures from land conversion mean this is no time for complacency. Besides enforcing the law to prevent deforestation and poaching, steps to reconnect the fragmented habitats need prioritization. The central government, stakeholders of the Batang Toru ecosystem and local communities need to support local government initiatives that are underway to build viable corridors that reconnect the blocks of orangutan habitat.

Deforestation, climate change and human population growth threaten not only the orangutan, but also countless known and as yet undiscovered interdependent species that together contribute to maintain the ecosystems that are critical to local economies and our quality of life.

All too often, society fails to appreciate this fact. Therefore, development projects that involve extensive tracts of land should not be promoted without a solid grasp of the trade-off and effective measures at biodiversity offsetting and ecological restoration are implemented.

To conclude, allow me to quote Surabaya Mayor Risma Harini: “I witnessed that the more environmental services we provide, the more efficient economic development becomes.” This is a powerful reminder that properly protecting, managing and restoring the ecosystems that support the orangutan will benefit not only this remarkable species but also Indonesian society as a whole.

Maintaining a healthy and thriving population of orangutans would be a great achievement for Indonesia, but allowing their extinction would be a national disgrace. Let’s all do our part to ensure that this year’s International Orangutan Day marks a happy turning point for our forest relatives and the ecosystems they live in.


The writer is a board of representatives member of the Forum Orangutan Indonesia (FORINA), which is working actively to protect the Batang Toru orangutans. He is also a senior advisor of PT North Sumatra Hydro Energy. The views expressed are his own.

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