The orangutan’s story began in November 2017, when scientists made a stunning announcement: they had discovered a seventh species of Great Ape, called the Tapanuli Orangutan, in a remote corner of Sumatra, Indonesia.
In an article published in Current Biology today, my colleagues and I show that this ape is perilously close to extinction – and that a Chinese-sponsored megaproject could be the final nail in its coffin.
Ambitious but ‘nightmarishly complicated’
The BRI is an ambitious but nightmarishly complicated venture, and far less organised than many believe. The hundreds of road, port, rail, and energy projects will ultimately span some 70 nations across Asia, Africa, Europe and the Pacific region. It will link those nations economically and often geopolitically to China, while catalysing sweeping expansion of land-use and extractive industries, and will have myriad knock-on effects.
Most big projects – many of which are cross-national – will have a mix of funding from various sources and nations, meaning that no single entity will be in charge or ultimately responsible. An informed colleague in China describes this model as “anarchy”.
The dangerous potential of the BRI becomes apparent when one examines the Tapanuli Orangutan. With fewer than 800 individuals, it is one of the rarest animals on Earth. It survives in just a speck of rainforest, less than a tenth the size of Sydney, that is being eroded by illegal deforestation, logging, and poaching.
All of these threats propagate around roads. When a new road appears, the ape usually disappears, along with many other rare species sharing its habitat, such as Hornbills and the endangered Sumatran Tiger.
The most imminent threat to the ape is a US$1.6 billion hydropower project that Sinohydro (China’s state-owned hydroelectric corporation) intends to build with funding from the Bank of China and other Chinese financiers. If the project proceeds as planned, it will flood the heart of the ape’s habitat and crisscross the remainder with many new roads and powerline clearings.
It’s a recipe for ecological Armageddon for one of our closest living relatives. Other major lenders such as the World Bank and Asian Development Bank aren’t touching the project, but that isn’t slowing down China’s developers.
According to insiders, a heated debate in Beijing right now revolves around eco-safeguards for the BRI. Big corporations (with international ambitions and assets that overseas courts can confiscate) want clear guidelines to minimise their liability. Smaller companies, of which there are many, want the weakest standards possible.
The argument isn’t settled yet, but it’s clear that the Chinese government doesn’t want to exclude its thousands of smaller companies from the potential BRI riches. Most likely, it will do what it has in the past: issue lofty guidelines that a few Chinese companies will attempt to abide by, but that most will ignore.
There are three alarming realities about China, of special relevance to the BRI.
First, China’s explosive economic growth has arisen from giving its overseas corporations and financiers enormous freedom. Opportunism, graft and corruption are embedded, and they are unlikely to yield economically, socially or environmentally equitable development for their host nations. I detailed many of these specifics in an article published by Yale University last year.
Second, China is experiencing a perfect storm of trends that ensures the harsher realities of the BRI are not publicly aired or even understood in China. China has a notoriously closed domestic media – ranked near the bottom in press freedom globally – that is intolerant of government criticism.
Beyond this, the BRI is the signature enterprise of President Xi Jinping, who has become the de-facto ruler of China for life. Thanks to President Xi, the BRI is now formally enshrined in the constitution of China’s Communist Party, making it a crime for any Chinese national to criticise the program. This has had an obvious chilling effect on public discourse. Indeed, I have had Chinese colleagues withdraw as coauthors of scientific papers that were even mildly critical of the BRI.
Third, China is becoming increasingly heavy-handed internationally, willing to overtly bully or covertly pull strings to achieve its objectives. Professor Clive Hamilton of Charles Sturt University has warned that Australia has become a target for Chinese attempts to stifle criticism.
Remember the ape
It is time for a clarion call for greater caution. While led by China, the BRI will also involve large financial commitments from more than 60 nations that are parties to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, including Australia and many other Western nations.
We all have a giant stake in the Belt and Road Initiative. It will bring sizeable economic gains for some, but in nearly 40 years of working internationally, I have never seen a program that raises more red flags.
We have discovered a new species of orangutan – the third known species and the first new great ape to be described since the bonobo almost a century ago.
The new species, called the Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis), has a smaller skull than the existing Bornean and Sumatran orangutans, but has larger canines.
As we and our colleagues report in the journal Current Biology, the new species is represented by an isolated population of fewer than 800 orangutans living at Batang Toru in northern Sumatra, Indonesia.
The existence of a group of orangutans in this region was first reported back in 1939. But the Batang Toru orangutans were not rediscovered until 1997, and then confirmed in 2003. We set about carrying out further research to see whether this isolated group of orangutans was truly a unique species.
On the basis of genetic evidence, we have concluded that they are indeed distinct from both the other two known species of orangutan: Pongo abelii from further north in Sumatra, and Pongo pygmaeus from Borneo.
The Batang Toru orangutans have a curious mix of features. Mature males have cheek flanges similar to those of Bornean orangutans, but their slender build is more akin to Sumatran orangutans.
The hair colour is more cinnamon than the Bornean species, and the Batang Toru population also makes longer calls than other orangutans.
To make completely sure, we needed more accurate comparisons of their body dimensions, or “morphology”. It was not until 2013 that the skeleton of an adult male became available, but since then one of us (Anton) has amassed some 500 skulls of the other two species, collected from 21 institutions, to allow for accurate comparisons.
Analyses have to be conducted at a similar developmental stage on male orangutan skulls, because they continue growing even when adult. Anton found 33 skulls of wild males that were suitable for comparison. Of 39 different measurement characteristics for the Batang Toru skull, 24 of them fall outside of the typical ranges of northern Sumatran and Bornean orangutans.
Overall the Batang Toru male has a smaller skull, but bigger canines. Combining the genetic, vocal, and morphological sources of evidence, we have confidently concluded that Batang Toru orangutan population is a newly discovered species – and one whose future is already under threat.
Despite the heavy exploitation of the surrounding areas (hunting, habitat
alteration and other illegal activities), the communities surrounding the habitat of the Tapanuli orangutan still give us the opportunity to see and census the surviving population. Unfortunately, we believe that the population is fewer than 800 individuals.
Of the habitat itself, no more than 10 square km remains. Future development has been planned for that area, and about 15% of the orangutans’ habitat has non-protected forest status.
The discovery of the third orangutan in the 21st century gives us an understanding that the great apes have more diversity than we know, making it all the more important to conserve these various groups.
Without the strong support of, and participation from, the communities surrounding its habitat, the future of the Tapanuli orangutan will be uncertain. Government, researchers and conservation institutions must make a strong collaborative effort to make sure that this third orangutan will survive long after its discovery.
Conservationists and environmental scientists are used to bad news. So when there’s some really good news, it’s important to hear that as well.
While the battle is far from over, there has been a series of breakthroughs in the long-running battle to protect the imperilled Leuser ecosystem in northern Sumatra, Indonesia – the last place on Earth where tigers, orangutans, rhinoceros and elephants still live alongside one another.
The government of Aceh Province – which controls most of the Leuser ecosystem and has been subjected to withering criticism for its schemes to destroy much of the region’s forests for oil palm, rice and mining expansion while opening it up with a vast road network through the forest – has agreed to a moratorium on new land clearing and mining.
This is huge news, and it’s clear that both the international community and Indonesia’s federal government have played big roles in making this happen. Indonesian President Joko Widodo deserves a great deal of credit for this accomplishment, which he has been pushing for many months, not just in Aceh but elsewhere in Indonesia too.
Moratoria can always be cancelled or weakened, but the chances of that happening seem increasingly remote. In a speech at last month’s signing of the Paris climate agreement in New York, Indonesia’s environment and forestry minister, Siti Nurbaya, underscored her commitment to the Leuser moratorium.
It seems unlikely that she would make this statement at such a high-profile event if there were any significant possibility that the moratorium will collapse.
And the news gets even better. Last week, Aceh’s deputy governor, Muzakir Manaf, declared that he will provide full support for ground-level measures needed to enforce the moratorium.
That is critical, for two reasons. First, it shows that the Aceh government is strongly behind the moratorium. Second, a moratorium is just a piece of paper unless there is real on-the-ground enforcement to ensure that illegal land-clearing, poaching, mining and other activities don’t continue unabated.
Limiting palm oil
A final piece of good news is that Nurbaya has confirmed her intention to halt completely the granting of new permits for oil palm plantations in state-owned forests right across the country.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean that oil palm plantations won’t keep expanding in Indonesia. There are thousands of existing permits encompassing many millions of hectares of native forest. Indeed, Indonesia has previously announced plans to clear a further 14 million hectares of native forest by 2020, mostly for oil palm and wood-pulp production.
But at least it means that the avalanche of new oil palm permits is coming to an end, for which both Widodo and Nurbaya deserve credit.
Not over yet
The fight to conserve Indonesia’s mega-diverse forests is far from over. The nation’s plans for massive road, dam and mining projects – many in forested areas where they can open a Pandora’s box of problems such as illegal poaching, logging and forest burning – is enough to frighten even the most sober of observers.
But for today, at least, we can celebrate a very significant victory for conservation, and give credit to the many people who have worked to raise the profile of Leuser, including the actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who visited recently.
Few have had more impact than Ian Singleton, director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program. In a recent interview, Singleton laid out a remarkably compelling and detailed argument for saving Leuser, and for the surprisingly limited economic benefits its exploitation would generate for the local Sumatran citizens.
The economic and environmental think-tank Greenomics Indonesia also deserves a big round of applause for its efforts to facilitate this groundbreaking achievement.
But while we’re congratulating ourselves and others, we shouldn’t forget to keep a close eye on Leuser to ensure the promised moratorium really does take effect, and that one of the most important wild places in the world still survives.
This is an edited version of a blog post that originally appeared here.
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