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Last Stand of the Orangutan

Former Scenarios Too Optimistic: 30% Increase in Orangutan Habitat Loss


Figure 20: Loss of critical orangutan forest in the Leuser Ecosystem, Sumatra from satellite (Landsat 1989 and ASTE
Scenarios released by UNEP in 2002 suggested that most of the natural rainforest in Indonesia would be degraded by 2032 (UNEP 2002). At the same time, the World Bank estimated that this would include the loss of all Kalimantan’s lowland forest outside protected areas by 2010 (World Bank 2001). These estimates were based on information from the 1980s and 1990s on the rate of deforestation and human impact zones.

Figure 21: Degree of human impact. Green areas in Borneo and Sumatra indicate remaining undesturbed areas, while black-to yellow indicate loss, an estimated 98% by 2022, mainly due to oil palm plantation development and illegal logging in protected areas.
By 2005, much of the easily accessible timber had been exploited, yet illegal logging continued. Many kilometres of logging roads have been constructed within in protected areas (Curran et al. 2004). As the forest product industry has maintained its capacity and even expanded, the demand for both valuable timber and pulp wood for the mills has not declined. The pressures on the remaining forest fragments are therefore even greater than initially predicted by UNEP. In addition, palm plantations have taken up an estimated 12 000 km2 in the last decades and are rapidly growing, and the area may be tripled by 2020; many plantation concessions have been granted but not yet developed (Curran et al. 2004, Rautner et al. 2005). Peat swamp forests, which host high densities of orangutans, are targeted for palm oil production (Caldecott & Miles 2005, Wetlands International 2006). Palm oil plantations are also being developed on logged-over forest land, preventing recovery and further reducing the future timber stock outside protected areas.

There are three primary factors that have changed since the late 1990s, influencing the rate of orangutan habitat loss. First, the rate of deforestation and logging has increased. The deforestation rate in the late 1990s was at least 1.5% or 20 000 km2 annually for Indonesia as a whole, with losses concentrated in Sumatra and lowland Borneo (UNEP 2002; Schroeder-Wildberg and Carius 2003; Rautner et al. 2005); Second, the development of oil palm plantations, often by draining peat swamps, has decreased orangutan habitat further. Plantation development often involves fire, which spreads, further reducing available habitat. Third, the rising scarcity of accessible valuable timber has increased the extent of illegal logging in national parks. 

Scenarios of forest cover loss by WWF, based on Landsat imagery for 2000, and annual forest loss figures, suggest that Kalimantan’s well-drained lowland forest will be lost by 2012 to 2018, even within protected areas (Rautner et al. 2005) (Figure 5). This, in combination with the figures above and the recent 2006 satellite images, suggest that the rate of loss of orangutans and their habitats may be at least 30% higher than projected only a few years back.