Orangutans Flee Illegal Loggers in Indonesian Parks

JAKARTA, Indonesia, June 19, 2007 (ENS) - Indonesia's efforts to crack down on illegal logging are holding out some hope for endangered oranguntans, the red-haired apes that inhabit the Indonesian rainforest, the UN Environment Programme says. But hundreds of orangutans have fled their homes and ended up in "refugee" camps as illegal logging rapidly destroys the last remaining rainforests of Southeast Asia.

UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner says, "Indonesia cannot and should not have to deal with this issue alone."

International support and regional cooperation, especially from timber importing countries, is essential to preserve the remaining orangutans, the rainforests of Southeast Asia, and the people whose livelihoods rely on these ecosystems, he says.

Illegally felled logs from an Indonesian forest are hauled to market. Photo by Alain Compost © WWF / Canon
In recent weeks, Indonesian authorities have stepped up action against the illegal timber trade, arresting six people and seizing 30,000 cubic meters of processed wood in Nunukan, East Kalimantan province on the island of Borneo.

Another 40,000 cubic meters of processed wood was confiscated in Kutai, East Kalimantan and several more arrests were made.

The seizure of 70,000 cubic meters of illegal wood represents around 3,000 truck loads of timber, but Steiner points out that by some estimates illegal logging is clearing 2.1 million hectares of forest in Indonesia worth an estimated $4 billion every year.

"This may equate to several hundred thousand truckloads - corresponding to a continuous line of trucks from Paris to Bangkok," said Steiner, speaking at the conference of Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES, that concluded Friday in The Netherlands.

More wardens on the ground as well as improved policing and customs operations are needed, he said.

Investigations by the UN's Great Apes Survival Project, GRASP, its network of nongovernmental partner organizations, and CITES have found that hundreds of orangutans are being rescued and kept in "rescue" or "rehabilitation" camps as the forest is cut or burned, straining the resources of many NGOs.

A confused baby orangutan is abandoned in the Indonesian rainforest. Photo courtesy Borneo Orang-utan Survival Foundation
A UNEP Rapid Response report released in February, "The Last Stand of the Orangutan" presents evidence that logging companies, employing heavy machinery and armed personnel, are operating in Indonesia's national parks in defiance of the law.

While the Indonesian government has stopped illegal logging in some parks by the use of police and military force, the companies, prompted by the growing demand from importing countries, continue their illegal operations in others.

Satellite images, together with data from the Indonesian government, indicates that illegal logging is now taking place in 37 out of 41 national parks and that suitable orangutan forest habitat may be gone in a little as a decade.

The rate of loss of these forests outstrips a previous UNEP report released in 2002 at the World Summit for Sustainable Development.

Experts then estimated that most of the suitable orangutan habitat would be lost by 2032. New satellite imagery reveals that the illegal logging is now entering a new critical phase with the rainforests of south East Asia disappearing 30 percent faster than previously thought.

The burning and clearing of rainforests for palm oil plantations to produce biofuels is a new source of pressure on orangutan habitat.

The greenhouse gas emissions generated from the damage to forests may entirely off-set the gains in emission reductions when the biodiesel produced from palms planted there is substituted for petroleum as a transport fuel, UNEP warns.

Melanie Virtue, who leads the GRASP project at UNEP, said, "We are observing illegal trade in live orangutans as a bi-product of the illegal logging. When the forests are burnt or cut down, mothers are often killed, while the juveniles are caught to be used as pets, or sold on to zoos or safari parks."

Mother and infant orangutans at a rescue shelter. Photo courtesy GRASP Australian Orangutan Project
Female orangutans only give birth every six to eight years. Often, their mothers are shot and juvenile apes then captured, said Virtue. In some cases, orangutans are sold for as little as $100 and locally even cheaper. As the forest is cut down, more orangutans move into farmlands in search for food and are then either shot or captured.

CITES Secretary General Willem Wijnstekers said, "It is very clear from what is jointly conducted by CITES and GRASP, that there is a highly organized structure of illegal trade in orangutans. Consequently, there needs to be much higher law enforcement priority allocated to combating this destructive criminality."

"Such priority needs to come not only from Indonesia, but from the countries importing illegal timber and orangutans," Wijnstekers said.

The number of orangutans sold and exported is unknown but is believed to be in the hundreds. Rescue or rehabilitation centers in Borneo contain around 1,000 orangutans and one has over 400 individuals.

Recently, illegally obtained young Bornean orangutans have been found in zoos in Thailand and Cambodia.

Christian Nellemann, a lead author on the UNEP Rapid Response report, said, "The rate of decline of the forests is the most alarming we have seen yet anywhere in the World. The real blame lies on the countries buying the timber and wood products from illegal sources."

"The stepping up of law enforcement in Indonesia is a very encouraging step indeed," said Nellemann, "but governments in importing countries bear a direct responsibility for the crisis."

UNEP says consumers can help by choosing wood products that are certified and labeled as being sustainably harvested.

Orangutans are intelligent and have the ability to reason and think. They closely related to humans, sharing 97 percent of the same DNA. The orangutan is the only strictly arboreal ape and is the largest tree living mammal in the world.

Indigenous peoples of Indonesia and Malaysia call these ape Orang Hutan, or "People of the Forest." In the past, they would not kill orangutans, which they viewed as persons hiding in the trees, trying to avoid having to go to work or become slaves.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.