The Leuser Ecosystem is the only place on earth where tigers, elephants, rhinos, and orangutans can be found living together in the wild. It covers 2.6 million hectares, straddles the border of Aceh and the neighbouring province of North Sumatra, and has been listed as one of the world’s most irreplaceable areas.
The UK-based Sumatran Orangutan Society (SOS) compared the period from the start of 2008 to the end of 2012 with the previous five years and found that forest loss in the Ecosystem had more than doubled. At least 30,830 hectares of forest were lost over the first period, and 80,316 hectares over the second.
Over the entire ten-year period, from the beginning of 2003 to the end of 2012, an area the size of Hong Kong was lost, the society says.
The programme manager for the SOS, David Dellatore, said the charity had analysed open-source data published on Google’s Earth Engine platform.
Photos by Suzi Eszterhas.
The Leuser Ecosystem is currently under a new threat because of a spatial plan for Aceh under which large areas of protected forest are to be opened up to road building, mining, and palm oil and timber concessions.
Director of the SOS, Helen Buckland, said: “These precious forests are vital to the survival of Sumatran orangutans, Sumatran tigers, Sumatran elephants, and Sumatran rhinos – all are critically endangered.
“Large parts of the Leuser Ecosystem are protected under Indonesian law, but the forests are still falling. We are working with colleagues to fight against plans for roads, gold mining, and pulp and paper and oil palm plantations inside the Ecosystem.
“If those plans go ahead, we could see these iconic species wiped out in just a few years, as well as seeing a sharp increase in natural disasters such as flooding and landslides in northern Sumatra.”
The SOS says the number of Sumatran orangutans in the wild is estimated to have fallen by more than 90 per cent since 1900.
Orangutans play a key role in rainforest regeneration and are a fantastic flagship species, Buckland says. “By helping them, we help countless other species.”
The SOS has just launched its annual Ape-ril campaign, which encourages people to “unleash their inner ape” and raise money by growing a beard or dyeing their hair orangutan orange throughout the month of April.
“The campaign aims to raise funds and awareness for the conservation of Sumatran orangutans and their unique habitat,” Buckland said. “The SOS supports frontline conservation, restoration, and education projects in Sumatra, and we are campaigning against the root causes of the destruction of orangutans’ rainforest home. The funds raised during Ape-ril will help us keep fighting to protect orangutans, their forests, and their future.”
The SOS suggests that those with beards could stop trimming, or shave and begin again, or dye their beards orangutan orange. And women and children are encouraged to join in. “No beard? No problem,” said comedian and Ape-ril ambassador, Sara Pascoe. “Ape-ril isn’t just for hairy men. Wear a fake one for a day, a week or the whole month, or dye your hair orangutan orange.”
Now in its third year, the Ape-ril campaign is supported by actors Brian Blessed and Dominic Monaghan, naturalist and broadcaster Bill Oddie, and comedian Marcus Brigstocke.
Dominic Monaghan said: “There are only 6,600 Sumatran orangutans left in the wild. They share 96.4 percent of our DNA, but they stand to be the first great ape to go extinct if we don’t act now to save their forest home.”
Brian Blessed added: “Having had the great privilege of seeing orangutans in the wild, I am steadfast in my belief that we must do all that we can to protect these magnificent creatures. You don’t need to climb a mountain or run a marathon to show your support; get involved with Ape-ril and do something that all male apes can do – grow a beard.”
And Bill Oddie said: “Face the facts – we’re great apes too. It’s unthinkable that we could let one of our closest relatives go extinct. If you’ve already got a facial forest, you could do a bit of topiary or decorate it. It’s not the size of your beard; it’s what you do with it that counts.”
In a much welcomed move last week, the head of Aceh’s forestry department, Husaini Syamaun, formally declared a new 1,455-hectare protected peat area in the Tripa peat forest, which lies within the Leuser Ecosystem.
Tripa is home to one of the highest densities of orangutans in the world, and is also vital for storing carbon.
The ceremony on March 21 marked the successful conclusion of an Aceh government programme to block 18 illegal drainage canals. The peat forest had been drained by the company PT Kallista Alam to make way for oil palm plantations.
The director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme, Ian Singleton, described the blocking of the canals and the declaration of the new protected area as a “monumental occasion” not only for Sumatra, but for Indonesia as a whole.
Tripa first came to the world’s attention in 2012, when massive illegal fires raged throughout the area, destroying the forest, killing everything in their path, and threatening to extinguish the orangutan population.
The peat swamp was burnt to a cinder by several palm oil companies, one of which – PT Kallista Alam – was fined 114.3 billion rupiah (nearly 9.4 million US$) in compensation and 251.7 billion rupiah (close to 20.8 million US$) to restore the affected forest.
In the court ruling in January 2014, Kallista Alam was found guilty of illegally burning about 1,000 hectares of the peat forest.
The court also ordered the confiscation of 5,769 hectares of land managed by Kallista Alam and set a 5 million rupiah (about 423 US$) daily fine for each day the company delayed paying the compensation and restoration costs.
The case was brought by the Indonesian environment ministry. Several other cases filed by the environment ministry against other palm oil companies in Tripa are ongoing.
In the burning of Tripa, peat layers 10 to 15 centimetres deep were destroyed and gases triggered by the burning exceeded the permitted Threshold Limit Value.
Tripa has been devastated by the palm oil operations there, Singleton says. “Back in the early 1990s, Tripa’s forest covered more than 60,000 hectares and probably harboured more than 3,000 orangutans, not to mention tigers and countless other rare and endangered species, many of which depend entirely on swamp forest habitats for their survival.”
Singleton’s estimate is that only 100 to 200 orangutans now remain in Tripa. “If we are to have any hope of any orangutans surviving here, we need to do everything we possibly can to reclaim and restore the damaged forests.”
Photos (left and right) by Craig Jones, and (centre) by Andrew Walmsley.
Top photo of the Leuser Ecosystem by Paul Hilton.