An orangutan. (Photo Courtesy of Nardiyono)

What’s Good for People Is Good for Orangutans


JANUARY 12, 2015

(JG Graphics/Josep Tri Ronggo)

As if life isn’t hard enough already for the orangutans of Borneo and Sumatra. Hammered by loss of their forest habitat and outright killing, they now face an additional man-made threat.

New research published in the journal Global Change Biology and in a report by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) has mapped areas of Borneo that could be affected by climate or land-cover changes this century, finding that up to 74 percent of present-day orangutan habitat could become unsuitable for this endangered species.

The study, led by scientists at the University of Kent and the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Germany, discovered that from an estimated 260,000 square kilometers of Bornean orangutan habitat in 2010, 63 percent could become climatically unsuitable by 2080, but when also considering the effects of deforestation, up to 74 percent of habitat could be lost.

I assume that this news will not generate much interest. People will just consider it another bit of negative environmental information in a world that is already facing enough problems. Why worry about it?

But how different would it have been if the study had focused on people instead of orangutans and shown that 63 percent of Borneo would no longer be able to support human populations in the foreseeable future? Surely someone would have noticed (or at least screamed that the scientists were totally wrong). What I wonder though is whether this study of Bornean orangutans isn’t just as relevant to the people of the island.

The findings of the study all look pretty bad, but the research team thinks that it is possible to prevent the worst-case scenario. Continued efforts to halt deforestation could mediate some orangutan habitat loss. In particular the study highlights the importance of conserving Borneo’s peat swamps, which hold large number of orangutans and gigantic carbon resources, and are vital for climate change mitigation.

As reported though on Dec. 31 in the Jakarta Post, it seems obvious that improved peat protection is not going to happen any time soon. A new law by the Environment and Forestry Ministry for better management of deep peatlands drew severe condemnation from the industrial plantation lobby, which heavily criticized the rule for being “unaccommodating to commercial interests.” The Government subsequently agreed to revise the new law. Oh well, so far for better peat land management.

It seems that short-term business interests once again manage to push the political agenda. And in the case of peat lands this is as worrying for orangutans as it is for people. Various studies on Borneo clearly indicate that developed (i.e., drained) coastal peatlands will be inundated in the foreseeable future because these drying peats decompose, subside, and ultimately disappear below sea level.

An orangutan. (Photo Courtesy of Nardiyono)

So the businesses will get their profits from a few decades of plantation development, and then the peat areas become frequently flooded and unproductive leaving an environmental and social mess. In fact, a quick estimate indicates that Indonesia could lose up to 10 percent of its productive land area through such flooding of coastal lowlands.

Imagine the outcry if Indonesia’s government decided selling 10 percent of its land to another country to raise some funds for economic development. As far as I can see, what is happening in reality isn’t all that different though.

Anyway, apart from improved management of coastal swamps there are some other ways to reduce climate and land use impact on orangutans. And again, the rural people of Borneo could benefit.

The research team identified up to 42,000 square kilometers of land, especially in Borneo’s foothills, that could serve as potential orangutan refuges on the island and could be relatively safe for the species to reside.

To facilitate natural migration of orangutans and other species to climate refuges, a fundamentally different approach to land-use planning would be needed. Rather than converting any lowland forest areas that look vaguely suitable for plantation development, governments should maintain natural forest corridors that allow wildlife populations to migrate and at the same time provide forest ecosystem services to surrounding people.

This is already required by law, which, for example, prescribes protection of all forests on riverbanks, but these laws are almost entirely ignored.

As a result of ignorance of basic ecological principles as well as short-term greed, poor land-use regulations, planning and implementation are causing large negative economic and societal impacts. And these will get worse in the future. Yes, development is needed, but does the government really understand the long-term costs of development?

For example, our studies show that by not protecting watershed and riverine forests, floods are increasing both in frequency and severity in much of Borneo. Up to 1.5 million people in Kalimantan were affected by floods between 2010 and 2013, or more than 10 percent of the total population. That is in line with Malaysian government records that estimate that 4.82 million people (22 percent of the total country’s population) are affected by flooding annually, causing some $250 million in damage every year.

I know people get bored reading about the fate of species like orangutans. What is becoming increasingly clear to me though is that conservation is as much about the welfare of people as it is about the survival of species.

Solutions aren’t easy, of course. The knowledge to use land more optimally for social, economic and environmental benefits is there. But the will to use this knowledge seems to be lacking, at least among those people that call the shots.

What we are trying to do in Borneo Futures is simple. We put the facts on the table for everyone to see, and then look for the enlightened souls in government who do want use those facts and get things right. Anyone interested?

Erik Meijaard is a Jakarta-based conservation scientist coordinating the Borneo Futures program.