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Jakarta Post

How extractive industry impacts orangutan conservation

  • Ahmad Yanuar

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Sun, August 16, 2015   /  06:01 am

The orangutan is an Asian great ape species that is only found in the rainforests of Sumatra (Pongo abelii) and Kalimantan (Pongo pygmaeus). It is the largest arboreal mammal species and plays an important role as a natural engineer that can nourish and balance the conditions of the forest ecosystem.

As a fruit-eating animal, orangutans help spread seeds while roaming, thus facilitating forest regeneration.

Unfortunately, the orangutan population in Indonesia has been decreasing so sharply that it has caught worldwide attention. Manmade threats have led the only mammals that share 97 percent of human DNA to extinction.

The Indonesian government has classified the orangutan as a highly protected species by the laws and regulations on protection and conservation of fauna and flora. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates the population of orangutans in Kalimantan at about 54,000 and therefore considers the species endangered, while the Sumatran orangutan with a remaining population of 6,600 individuals is deemed a critically endangered species.

The development of land-based extractive industries has, however, threatened the existence of the orangutan habitat, causing the species to increasingly suffer. The biggest challenge is coming from oil palm plantations, the belle of economic development in Indonesia. The rising demand for palm oil in the international market means the industry has received favorable support from the government, at national and regional level, to covert more forests. Thick rainforest with hundreds of plant species has been changed to monoculture plantations. With only one plant species available it is difficult for orangutans to find food to eat and high canopy in which to nest.

Development of pulp and paper plantations that use vast amounts of land also threatens the habitat of orangutans, in which all plants of the forest, including the orangutan'€™s food trees, become industrial crops, such as acacia for pulp and paper-making needs. Where should orangutans find shelter after the remnants of their habitats are surrounded by extractive-industry development?

The development of the mining industry, especially coal mines, also poses a direct threat to orangutan conservation. As the largest coal producer in Indonesia, Kalimantan generates billions of dollars for the economy. Though the island still has extensive forest cover mainly in Central and East Kalimantan, it is feared there will be diminishing returns in the future due to the rapid expansion of mining. Forest clearing and digging reduce the size of rainforests while the tailing from mining activities harms orangutan and the ecosystem as a whole.

Another threat comes from logging companies. Though not as destructive as the other industries, unsustainable practices can reduce the availability of food trees for orangutans, as the mammal'€™s diet includes at least 400 species of trees. Wider-spaced canopy created by logging activities also make it difficult for arboreal locomotion while traveling, and logging roads make it easier for poachers to access remote parts of the forests to hunt and kill orangutans.

These threats are not new but the excesses of the extractive industry have almost taken their toll on the biodiversity in Kalimantan and Sumatra, especially to the orangutan population. In East Kalimantan alone the number of Pongo pygmaeus morio has decreased to an estimated 4,800. The extent of their habitat is shrinking and this situation is made worse by the fact that 78 percent of orangutan habitats in this province are located outside conservation areas.

The government needs to be more progressive in improving policies on forest-related industries and apply sustainable management with a vision to protecting the ecosystem for future generations. National and local governments should commit to orangutan conservation and put biodiversity first before granting or renewing permits to the extractive industry.

The best management practices should be applied, strengthened and replicated. For example small-size forest areas inside oil palm plantations should be managed and connected one to another to accommodate the space needs of orangutans. Management practices like this should be standardized and endorsed by the government.

The government also needs to strengthen law enforcement against poaching, catching and circulating of orangutans if it is committed to orangutan conservation.

Another important thing is to know the location of orangutan habitats and make them part of the information to be considered in the management of that area, including land-allocation policy. To get mining licenses, companies should assess impacts on the environment, not just water, soil and air, but also the biodiversity, including orangutans.

To cope with the presence of orangutans in non-protected locations the government can push voluntary as well as mandatory schemes based on the analysis of high conservation value areas for oil palm plantations and biodiversity offsets for mining.

The writer is orangutan program manager at The Nature Conservancy in Indonesia.

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