Last Stand of the Orangutan


Orangutans are native to Indonesia and Malaysia. Their survival is seriously endangered by illegal logging, forest fires including those associated with the rapid spread of oil palm plantations, illegal hunting and trade. In the last few years, timber companies have increasingly entered the last strongholds of orangutans in Indonesia: the national parks. Official Indonesian data reveal that illegal logging has recently taken place in 37 of 41 surveyed national parks in Indonesia, some also seriously affected by mining and oil palm plantation development. Satellite imagery from 2006 document beyond any doubt that protected areas important for orangutans are being deforested. The use of bribery or armed force by logging companies is commonly reported, and park rangers have insufficient numbers, arms, equipment and training to cope.

If current logging trends continue, most of Indonesia’s national parks are likely to be severely damaged within the next decade, because they are amongst the last areas to hold valuable timber in commercially viable amounts. The situation is now acute for both the Bornean orangutan and Sumatran orangutan. These species are classed as Endangered and Critically Endangered respectively by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), and are listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The rapid rate of removal of food trees, killing of orangutans displaced by logging and plantation development, and fragmentation of remaining intact forest constitutes a conservation emergency. More than one thousand orangutans are living in rescue centres in Borneo alone, with uncertain chances of ever returning to the wild.

A series of international and national initiatives have been developed to address illegal logging. However, it is evident that Asian, European and North American markets are still major recipients of illegally logged wood products, which often change ownership and recorded country-of-origin multiple times during transport. An estimated 73–88% of all timber logged in Indonesia is illegal. Less than 20% is smuggled out as logs, and the remaining wood is processed in saw, paper or pulp mills and later exported. These mills have a capacity of two to five times greater than the legal supply of timber.

This assessment, based on a series of independent studies, shows that the disastrous situation in Indonesia’s forests is driven mainly by international markets and well-organised timber supply networks. This pattern is also seen in other tropical areas including Latin America and Africa. If the immediate crisis in securing the future survival of the orangutan and the protection of national parks is not resolved, very few wild orangutans will be left within two decades. A scenario released by UNEP in 2002 suggested that most natural rainforest in Indonesia would be degraded by 2032. Given the rate of deforestation in the past five years, and recent widespread investment in oil palm plantations and biodiesel refineries, this may have been optimistic. New estimates suggest that 98% of the forest may be destroyed by 2022, the lowland forest much sooner. Since mature forest is being lost from large areas, the supply of timber will decline further. This means that the incentive to log protected areas will grow. The rate and extent of illegal logging in national parks may, if unchallenged, endanger the entire concept of protected areas world wide. At current rates of intrusion into national parks, it is likely that many protected areas will already be severely degraded in three to five years, that is by 2012.

Indonesia has worked extensively with other countries to reduce illegal logging, but this objective requires the substantial support of the international community, including recipients of illegally logged timber. Efforts to introduce timber certification, and other work to reduce levels of illegal trade are critical, but most likely to have impacts over the long-term. The recent Indonesian initiative of better training and equipment of park rangers, including the development of Ranger Quick Response Units (SPORC – Satuan Khusus Polisi Kehutanan Reaksi Cepat) is therefore the most promising countermeasure, but requires substantial strengthening to deal with the scale of the immediate problem. Currently, 35 national parks have 2 155 ordinary field rangers to patrol an area of 108 000 km2.

These rangers have little access to ground vehicles, helicopters, aeroplanes, communication, necessary arms or paramilitary long-range patrol training that would enable them to intercept and stop illegal intrusions at these scales. The training, sufficient arming and equipping of these rangers and SPORC units to locate, intercept, arrest and repel companies from protected areas appear to be among the most promising critical emergency responses. If such programmes are strengthened to become fully operational in the most threatened parks, they may serve as global role-models for the continued protection of national parks for biodiversity conservation.