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We must act now to save orangutan
January 24, 2007, 9:18 am
Filed under: Orangutan stories

orangutan-mother-and-baby.jpg

Erik Meijaard , Jakarta

They are “the people of the forest” and the face of Indonesian conservation. The orangutans of Borneo and Sumatra are uniquely beautiful, undeniably compelling, and incredibly endangered.

These precious creatures should be well protected as a cultural icon and as an endangered species. But not nearly enough is being done to save our orangutans. The time to act is now, or this precious animal will be lost forever.

Protective measures are long overdue. Orangutan conservation was only seriously undertaken in the 1970s, with the focus simply on habitats in Sumatra’s and Kalimantan’s national parks. It soon became clear that wasn’t enough.

Orangutans started to show up in captivity. They were subsequently confiscated, and because there were no proper facilities to house them in, the first rehabilitation centers were established to remove orangutans from illegal captivity and trade. Intended as a temporary solution, it was expected that after a few years, there would be no need for the centers. But reality proved otherwise. In the last 25 years, the few hundred orangutans in captivity are now numbering in the thousands, driven to these centers as the world in which they lived began rapidly disappearing.

As the forests of Indonesia have vanished, so have their precious residents. The Indonesian media estimated that one thousand orangutans were killed last year because of fires and habitat loss. A more long-term look is even more disturbing: In the last 35 years, orangutan habitat in East Kalimantan alone has shrunk to 800,000 hectares from six million hectares and as many as fifty thousand orangutans are estimated to have been lost in that province alone. These numbers show that orangutan conservation has largely failed in Indonesia, and the orangutan is now one of the most threatened species.

What is the reason for such failure? Poor forest management and land use allocation, for starters, in addition to a lack of law enforcement, corrupt practices, and incompetent governance. This has happened both inside and outside the national parks and other protected areas. Clearly, the strategies that have been developed for orangutan conservation have not worked.

It is difficult to believe this could happen to a species that is strictly protected by Indonesian law. Part of the problem is that those laws are not applied consistently. And even though killing orangutans and other protected species is clearly prohibited by laws such as Law No. 5/1990, it appears that more protection is needed.

After checking many forestry laws, and talking to government officials, I have come to the conclusion that there is no law that clearly prohibits the destruction of orangutan habitat. That’s why agro-business can be established in orangutan habitats; as long as the company does not directly kill or harm the orangutan in the process, the clear cutting of those habitats appears legal.

So the question remains: How can we save the orangutan?

Two threats need to be eliminated: The destruction of orangutan habitat — the forests — and the killing of orangutans themselves.

We will need a cooperative effort. Gunung Leuser and Tanjung Puting are proof that not all national parks must lose their tall forests. Those with significant support from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) fare better than those without.

The successes in orangutan conservation also appear to be linked to effective partnerships between local stakeholders with real commitment to forest conservation were built. It doesn’t really seem to matter whether these stakeholders are from the local government, local communities, or the private sector. What matters is whether they care about conservation. And often, a focus on the forest and its economic and ecological value, rather than on orangutans, appears to be a key to success.

The solution to preventing the extinction of orangutans lies in combining all these approaches, with the focus on two important areas:

Firstly, we need new legislation that prohibits the destruction of the habitat of protected species. The use of such forests might be allowed, but the user has the responsibility to ensure that populations do not decline.

Secondly, forests need to be managed so that threats can be abated. Such effective forest management requires real commitment, an investment from a range of stakeholders, and effective control, either by government or an independent organization,

We need to increase collaboration to become a more effective force that ensures these changes will happen. The orangutan conservation community of today is fragmented with inter-personal and inter-organizational competition preventing it from becoming a strong force. If we can unite as a community, we will represent an enormous national and international force and millions of dollars of funding for orangutan conservation. We must put aside our differences and recognize how we can effectively work together.

If we speak with one strong, clear voice, we will influence government and enact sound policy, giving Indonesia’s orangutans a chance to survive. But if we don’t, our “people of the forest” will be forever silenced.

The writer works as senior forest ecologist at The Nature Conservancy. He can be contacted at emeijaard@tnc.org . The views expressed here are his own.

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