Indonesian orang-utans and tigers threatened by new logging scheme

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Indonesian orang-utans and tigers threatened by new logging scheme

June 10, 2009
Leo Lewis In Tokyo

Elephants, Sumatran tigers and some of Asia’s rarest orang-utans will be plunged into a “dire and immediate” fight for their lives this summer as plans are finalised for a massive logging operation in Indonesia aimed at keeping the world supplied with cheap photocopying paper.

The project, which may source paper to office suppliers across the UK, could also unravel years of research spent solving the complex problem of how to reintroduce apes from captivity into the wild. Many of the subjects in a long-running experiment in Sumatra may be accidentally killed as the forest collapses around them.

The granting of the logging licence has provoked anger internationally among a coalition of conservation groups, who allege that it will enhance Indonesia’s position as the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Deforestation led by the unquenchable thirst of the paper and palm-oil industries is seen as the principal culprit. The destruction of Indonesian rainforests accounts for about 4 per cent of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions.

The extensive new logging scheme, in which 124,000 acres (50,000 hectares) of forest will be felled on the island of Sumatra, is to be led by Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) — a group calculated to be the biggest of its type in the world when measured by the amount of forest destroyed. The logging will threaten the last remaining patch of untouched forest near the Bukit Tigapuluh National Park and a critically endangered species of great ape living wild in that area.

As the stakes are raised in the confrontation between conservationists and APP, there are 100 orang-utans under threat from the logging that were reintroduced there from captivity as recently as 2002, after painstaking scientific work. It is the only scheme of its sort that has ever worked with the species.

“It took scientists decades to discover how to successfully reintroduce critically endangered orang-utans from captivity into the wild,” Peter Pratje of the Frankfurt Zoological Society told reporters. “It could take APP just months to destroy an important part of their new habitat.”

Conservation groups in Asia and Europe have condemned the plan and the local government’s granting of a logging licence, highlighting the threat to at least two indigenous tribes whose lives depend on the forest. Zoologists have also warned that deforestation could cause more attacks on humans by Sumatran tigers. Nine people have been savaged to death by tigers in the region so far this year and the number, say experts, could soar as the trees start to come down. The threatened forest is home to about a quarter of the world’s remaining 400 wild Sumatran tigers.

The local elephants may also be under threat of extinction. A report last year by the WWF showed that between 1982 and 2007, deforestation in APP’s main logging centre of Riau province stripped the region of nearly two thirds of its natural forest and may have killed as many as 1,400 Sumatran elephants and 450 Sumatran tigers — respectively 84 per cent and 70 per cent of the populations.

APP and its partner company Sinar Mas Group reject the accusations of conservation groups, saying that the forest was not protected and that the presence of their loggers would prevent illegal logging.

“Well-managed pulpwood plantations act as buffer zones,” said a spokesperson for APP. “That ensures protected areas remain protected.”

APP and conservation groups have for many years been locked in a war of words over the company’s treatment of Indonesian forest and its alleged attempts to “greenwash” activities with claims of sustainability. In 2007 the company made a public commitment to sourcing all its pulp from acacia plantations, though environmental consultants told The Times that the company remained heavily reliant on wood from natural forests.

The move also comes amid renewed concern throughout Asia over another phase of potential instability in commodity markets: the Indonesian forest cleared in the logging may soon make way for sprawling palm-oil plantations that in turn play a critical role as cars and stomachs compete for the world’s natural resources.

Subsidies for biofuels have skewed historical demand patterns for corn, soya and other edible-oil crops. As grains have found their way into fuel tanks, demand for palm oil has soared and with it the threat of more deforestation. “One worry is the impact of rising commodity prices,” said Andy Tait at Greenpeace.

“Historically, higher potential profits have resulted very quickly in an increased rate of deforestation, with enormous impacts on biodiversity and huge releases of greenhouse gases.”

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