Activists, businesses work to save the orangutan

The Jakarta Post: Adianto P. Simamora: 12/07/2010 

Why should we protect the orangutan? It is a frequently asked question when lay-people, including businesspeople, discuss the need to protect orangutans, Asia’s only great ape, which is greatly endangered.

People have also often raised the question that foreign countries could bar exports of palm oil products from Indonesia due to the loss of the orangutan. Conservationist Meirini Sucahyo from the Indonesian Orangutan Forum said the presence of orangutans reflected the health of a rainforest.

“Orangutans play a crucial role in stabilizing forests,” she said. “They are effective seed dispersers; they open the forest canopy to let sunlight get to soil.”

“Humans need forests. Forests need orangutans, so we need orangutans.”

She said saving orangutans meant a myriad of other species living in rainforest could also be saved.

“I dream that the orangutan can be used as symbol to combat global warming in Indonesia,” she said.

The international community has acknowledged the role of forests in tackling climate change due to its ability to absorb huge amounts of greenhouse gas emissions.

Orangutan expert Suci Atmoko from the biology department of National University spoke of the similarity between humans and apes.

“The DNA between humans and apes is 97 percent similar,” she said.

“For example, if you have influenza and you come in contact with orangutans, your disease will transmit to the orangutan,” she said. “The orangutan also suffers diarrhea or malaria just like humans but [orangutans] heal themselves by eating certain plants,” Suci said.

She said orangutans then spread the plants in forests, which are used as medicine for humans.

About 90 percent of orangutans live in Indonesia, both in Sumatra and Borneo islands. The estimated number of 6,667 orangutans was distributed in Sumatra, mostly in the Leuser ecosystem, with 54,567 in the island of Kalimantan (the Indonesian part of Borneo).

The remaining 10 percent were found in Sabah and Sarawak, Malaysia.

Orangutan activists and business players from plantation and mining sectors who should clear forests for its operations will hold an international meeting in Bali to seek ways to save the animals species.

The first international multi-stakeholder conference will be held from July 15-16 with expected participants of 200 people, including government officials from Indonesia and Malaysia. The conference, organized by the Forestry Ministry and the orangutan forum, will issue a road map on orangutan conservation.

“We can’t make the oil palm plantation an enemy if we want to save orangutans. Otherwise, we will never know how many orangutans they killed to open forests for plantation or industrial forest concessions [HTI],” Jamartin Sihite, deputy chief of party at the Orangutan Conservation Service Program said.

He said a number of oil palm plantations, and pulp and paper and mining companies operating in Sumatra and Kalimantan had confirmed their attendance at the conference. “We will use the momentum to ask a commitment from the private companies and government in protecting orangutans,” he said.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono launched Indonesian orangutan conservation strategies and an action plan until 2017 at the 2007 Bali climate change conference.

The action plan says the government will set up new orangutan protected areas in cultivated areas in forms of local reserves and rehabilitation habitats inside and out of existing orangutan conservation areas.

An estimated 1,000 orangutans were killed in 2006 due to huge forest fires and habitat loss. The government said in the last 35 years, about 50,000 orangutans were estimated to have been lost as their habitat shrunk due to high deforestation. Indonesia, the third largest forest nation with 120 million hectares, has lost more than 1 million hectares per year due to illegal logging, forest fires and illicit land clearing.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) put the orangutan on the red list, with species in Kalimantan classified as endangered. Orangutan in Sumatra are known as critically endangered.

Orangutans in Sumatra and Kalimantan have also been listed in appendix I of the Convention on International Trade Endangered Species (CITES), meaning the species were threatened with extinction and its trade was permitted only in special circumstances.


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