September 1, 2005

Sumatran orangutans face extinction as peace comes

By Jeremy Lovell

LONDON (Reuters) - Rebuilding after December's devastating
tsunami and the dawn of peace in Indonesia's Aceh province
could mean annihilation for the region's orangutans.

The area is the last refuge on Sumatra island of the timid
and highly intelligent "people of the forest" which live high
in the trees of dense rainforest and are already on the
endangered list as their habitat shrinks under human onslaught.

"It is a double-edged sword," Ian Singleton, scientific
director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme, said
of the return to normality after a separatist conflict. "As
peace breaks out so the orangutans could be wiped out."

He said a combination of illegal logging for export and
reconstruction after the killer tidal wave plus resumption of
legal logging put on hold by the civil war was to blame.

"Everybody is raring to go. It is full steam ahead and it
doesn't look good for the orangutan," said Singleton, in London
on Thursday for the launch of the first World Atlas of the
Great Apes and their Conservation.

The U.N.-sponsored book charts the dwindling ranges of the
six species of great apes -- western and eastern gorillas,
chimpanzees, bonobos and Bornean and Sumatran orangutans.

Already numbers of Sumatran orangutans have plunged to
around 7,000 from 85,000 in 1900 and Singleton estimates they
could be down to less than 250 within 50 years as their habitat
is literally hacked to pieces for profit.

Indonesia's Ministry of Forestry calculates an area of
orangutan habitat half the size of Switzerland is lost each


"Orangutans are prima donnas. They are very sensitive to
change," Singleton said.

He said the authorities were well aware of the problem and
were talking a good fight. But there was little relation
between plans on paper and what was happening in practice.

"It is corruption. Aceh is a stunning resource. It is a
matter of trying to persuade them to protect it," he told
Reuters. "But there is huge pressure to get rich quick and that
doesn't augur well."

Every night convoys of vehicles carrying timber can be seen
leaving the forests -- taking with them the future of the
enigmatic great ape which only exists in northern Sumatra and
on nearby Borneo.

"The trade is worth millions of dollars, and you need money
to fight it. You can't stop it with a few thousand dollars here
and there," he said.

But Singleton said if logging, hunting and the replacement
of vast tracts of forest by oil palms for Western cosmetic
industries could be halted then orangutan numbers could be
stabilized on Sumatra.