New threat to orangutan

New threat to orangutan

27 October 2008

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Indonesia — In the rush to feed the world’s growing appetite for climate-friendly fuel and cooking oil, the Bornean orangutan could get plowed under.

Several plantation owners are eyeing Tanjung Puting National Park, a sanctuary for 6,000 of the endangered animals. It is the world’s second-largest population of a primate that experts warn could be extinct in less than two decades if a massive assault on its forest habitat is not stopped.

The orangutans’ biggest enemy, theUnited Nations says, is no longer poachers or illegal loggers. It’s the palm oil industry.

On the receding borders of this approximately 1,600-square-mile reserve, a road paved with good intentions runs into a swamp of alleged corruption and government bungling. It’s one of the mounting costs few bargained for in the global craze to “go green.”

The park clings perilously to the southern tip of the island of Borneo, which is shared by Indonesia and Malaysia, the last two of the world’s top producers of palm oil. Exporters market the product as an ecological alternative to crude oil and a replacement for oils containing trans fats.

“That’s only a slogan, you know,” said Ichlas al-Zaqie, local project manager for theLos Angeles-based Orangutan Foundation International. “They change the forest and say it’s for energy sustainability, but they’re killing other creatures.”

Indonesia is losing lowland forest faster than any other major forested country. At the rate its trees are being felled to plant oil palms, poach high-grade timber and clear land for farming, 98 percent of Indonesia’s forest might be lost by 2022, according to the UN Environment Program.

“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,” UNEP concluded in a 2007 report. “The rate and extent of illegal logging in national parks may, if unchallenged, endanger the entire concept of protected areas worldwide.”

In July, loggers finished buzz-sawing and bulldozing a 40,000-acre swath in a northeastern corner of the park, where at least 561 orangutans lived, to clear ground for oil palm plants, Zaqie said.

The government isn’t much help, say environmental activists, who accuse corrupt officials, military officers and police of siding with timber poachers, illegal miners and others threatening the forests.

As palm oil companies deny they are encroaching on protected land, environmentalists bemoan a territorial dispute between local officials and provincial and national governments.

“The problem now is even the central government can’t really say where the exact border of the national park is,” said Yeppie Kustiwae, of the World Wide Fund for Nature in Indonesia.

Zaqie says palm oil companies are determined to take as much as 5 million acres of orangutan forest habitat in Tanjung Puting and the larger Sebangau National Park, where Borneo’s biggest population of orangutans lives. He says he first saw bulldozers knocking down the park’s trees five years ago.

Mounting pressures on the forest are easiest to see in the money that palm oil plantations make. In 1990, Indonesia earned $204 million from palm oil exports; by 2007, the value had exploded to more than $7.8 billion annually, the most recent official figures available.

Palm oil exports grew sharply five years ago after theEuropean Union declared a mandatory quota to replace gasoline and diesel from crude oil with biofuels. In 2007, it raised the biofuel target to 10 percent of transportation fuels by 2020, driving the price of palm oil higher and ratcheting up the threat to rain forests.

The EU has maintained the policy even though a report in April 2008 by scientists at the European Environment Agency called the mandate an “overambitious” experiment “whose unintended effects are difficult to predict and difficult to control.”

Instead of cutting greenhouse-gas emissions, production of palm oil on peat swamp forests actually might boost the amount of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere.

Leveling the jungle not only destroys trees that absorb carbon dioxide but releases millions of tons of carbon dioxide stored in Borneo’s peat for thousands of years. Fires set to clear trees and stumps add to the problem.

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