Fidelis E. Satriastanti
The last remaining orangutans in the Tripa peat forest in Aceh could be wiped out in a matter of months if the slash-and-burn destruction of their habitat continues unabated, activists warn.
“We’re no longer talking about a matter of years but of months ahead when there will be no more orangutans there if this continues,” said Ian Singleton, conservation director at the Swiss-based PanEco Foundation, a partner of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program.
He was referring to roughly 200 Sumatran orangutans left in the Tripa peat forest in Nagan Raya district, which have found themselves increasingly hemmed in by at least five palm oil concessionaires managing 60,000 hectares of land in the ostensibly protected area.
Singleton said a survey in 2004 showed there were around 280 orangutans in Tripa.
“We haven’t released the latest study yet, but it will probably show around 200 individuals left,” he said. “It could be even less than that.”
Activists in the area, he said, have seized at least 15 orangutans being held by villagers in the past few years, but more are still being illegally kept as pets, including by local officials and military personnel.
Wildlife activists contend that the Tripa population is indicative of the fate of all Sumatran orangutans, which are listed as critically endangered — just one step away from extinct — because the area is part of the Leuser ecosystem, which hosts the highest concentration of wild orangutans anywhere.
“The Sumatran orangutan is found mostly in the provinces of North Sumatra and Aceh, which are considered part of the Leuser ecosystem,” Singleton said.
“It’s the only [viable] place for them in the world. You can find up to eight individual orangutans per square kilometer in Tripa, whereas in highland areas you only get three to four individuals per square kilometer. In Kalimantan, you find much fewer than that.”
Graham Usher, the landscape protection specialist for the Foundation for a Sustainable Ecosystem (YEL), warned that palm oil companies posed a grave threat to the Tripa area.
Between June 2009 and December 2011, 5,080 hectares of forest there were cleared.
“The area is in critical condition and has to compete with oil palm concessions,” he said.
“There’s now less than 1,000 hectares, and that’s not suitable for biodiversity, for orangutans to live.”
He also said that from March 19-24, at least 102 forest fire hot spots had been detected in concession areas, indicating the companies were carrying out slash-and-burn activities to clear the peat forest.
Usher said that in addition to posing a clear threat to wildlife, the slash-and-burn activities were also responsible for releasing huge amounts of carbon dioxide stored in the thick peat layer.
He warned that up to 200,340 tons of carbon dioxide could be released per hectare, which if left intact could prove a lucrative source of local revenue from carbon trading schemes.
“If you assume that each ton of CO2 emissions is worth $10, then you’d be losing $2 million a hectare,” Usher said.
“If this keeps on going, then you won’t have any forests left in a matter of months.”
Singleton said the best solution for the Tripa peat forest to recover was to leave it untouched, as rehabilitation projects were expensive and unnecessary.
“When I came here in 1999, it had all been destroyed by massive clear-cutting,” he said. “Then I returned in 2005, after the political chaos, and the trees had grown back on their own.
“If you just leave the forest the way it is, it will eventually recover by itself.”
The Tripa case is also being closely watched by forest and climate activists after the area was dropped from the government’s revised forestry moratorium map last November, having initially been included for protection in the first edition of the map just months earlier in May.
A coalition of civil society groups, including YEL, the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), Greenpeace Indonesia and Sawit Watch, have filed suit against Aceh governor and former environmental crusader Irwandi Yusuf for issuing a permit to a palm oil company in August, before the area’s protected status had been officially rescinded.
A ruling in the case is expected early next month.