As forests disappear, orangutans cling for survival in diminishing peat swamps

A little patch of forest, two hectares in size, looks lonely in the vast expanse of oil palm plantations that surround it. But from a short distance, forestry police spot four new orangutan nests high up in the trees - proof that the critically endangered great apes still live in the Rawa Tripa peat swamp in Indonesia's western province of Aceh. Forests are fragmented here.
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Pedro - a solitary orangutan is wating for meals on the edge of Sekonyer river in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Daniel Murdiyarso/CIFOR

Pedro – a solitary orangutan is wating for meals on the edge of Sekonyer river in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Daniel Murdiyarso/CIFOR

A little patch of forest, two hectares in size, looks lonely in the vast expanse of oil palm plantations that surround it. But from a short distance, forestry police spot four new orangutan nests high up in the trees – proof that the critically endangered great apes still live in the Rawa Tripa peat swamp in Indonesia’s western province of Aceh.

Forests are fragmented here.

This means, when there is an immediate threat, like a fire, the animals have no place to escape, said Indrianto, who lives near Tripa and works to save orangutans there.

They have to cross kilometer-upon-kilometer of open plantation – where they risk being shot by humans, who see them as pests – to reach a bigger forest.

Orangutans, the only great apes in Asia, can only be found on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo.

There are only around 6,600 Pongo abelii (the Sumatran kind with golden-hued hair) estimated to be left, a CIFOR study says. The Borneo species, or Pongo pygmaeus, is also on a decline, with only between 45,000 to 69,000 remaining.

One of the biggest threats they face is conversion of peat swamps using fire, as happened recently in Rawa Tripa, said Sri Suci Utami Atmoko, a primatologist from Indonesia’s National University.

The apes prefer these rich, watery ecosystems because they provide more food than the forests on mineral soil. When there is fire, it’s mostly the bigger and stronger males that survive. The females, who by nature stick close to their home, get burned, said Atmoko.

Because they only give birth five times on average over the course of their lives, the survival of the species rests heavily on them.

“Forest conversion and fire will only speed up their extinction,” Atmoko said.

Environmentalists and experts have called on negotiators to ensure that conservation of biodiversity, including the iconic orangutans, is required as a co-benefit from Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+). The global forest carbon scheme aims to compensate developing countries for keeping trees standing.

A 2009 study from CIFOR found that the conservation impact of payment from reduced emissions from deforestation would be more effective if the payments were extended to all carbon-rich tropical forests, including peat swamps – not just protected areas.

Reduced forest cover offers less food for orangutans, forcing them to venture outside to eat the leafy tips of oil palm trees – where they, again, risk coming into contact with humans.

Another big threat is the market for baby orangutans as pet in both Indonesia and Malaysia. Cute and cuddly when they are small, they fetch around 2 million rupiah (USD210) each, said Indrianto, who conducted a survey in Aceh.

A mother orangutan will protect its baby at all costs, and poachers must beat or shoot the mother to death to take the baby away, said Linda Yuliani, a scientist at CIFOR who is conducting a research on Bornean orangutans around Danau Sentarum wetlands in West Kalimantan. Scientists estimate that between two to eight orangutans are killed for one baby orangutan being traded.

Atmoko called for the government and businesses to work together to raise the chance for orangutans to survive. One option would be for firms to set aside an area in each forest concession to remain unlogged and combine several to make a bigger forest for the primates.

There is much more to learn from orangutans, said Atmoko.

“We are curious to know how they range the forest, adapt with old age, whether they could manage forest encroachment and how.”

“We cannot know any of this if the orangutans are extinct,” she said.

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