The link below is to an article that takes a look at the threat to the Tapanuli Orangutan from a proposed Indonesian Dam.
Many people on a tropical island getaway might take a jungle hike, or learn about the local wildlife. My colleagues and I went one better: we tracked down the world’s biggest bee species, which hadn’t been spotted for decades, while on holiday in Indonesia’s North Molucca islands.
Wallace’s giant bee, Megachile pluto, is fascinating for many reasons. It’s the largest of all known living bees, with a body length about that of a human thumb and a wingspan of more than 6cm. What’s more, its last confirmed sighting in the field was in 1981. After numerous efforts to rediscover it, it was unclear whether the species still remained in the wild.
The bee also has a special place in scientific history. It was first collected by the British naturalist and explorer Alfred Russel Wallace in 1859, as part of his work in the Malay Archipelago. He described the female bee as “a large black wasp-like insect, with immense jaws like a stag-beetle”.
Wallace not only independently derived the theory of natural selection as an explanation for evolution alongside Charles Darwin, but his detailed studies of the distribution of animals gave rise to the famous Wallace Line, a boundary that splits Australia and Asia and helps to explain the distribution patterns of many plants and animals.
Wallacea: a living laboratory of evolution
How did four biologists from across the globe, two from Australia (myself and Glen Chilton) and two from the United States (Eli Wyman and Clay Bolt), end up on this journey?
My involvement started at the prompting of Glen, who although specialising in ornithology and writing was interested in both Wallace and the rediscovery of potentially extinct species. He became aware of the existence of the world’s largest bee, and after two years of cajoling I agreed that searching for the bee would represent an excellent holiday.
During the planning for our trip, we became aware that Eli and Clay were also, independently, planning to travel to the Moluccas to search for M. pluto. After a brief Skype call we decided it made sense to join forces and collaborate. So despite our two duos never having met in person, we were a team heading out into the field.
And what a great team it was: Eli’s expertise in all things bee-related; Clay’s fantastic photographic skills; Glen’s enthusiasm and knowledge of Wallace; and my own fascination with the evolution of insect behaviour.
On the ground
We converged on the island of Ternate and began our search across the North Molucca islands for termite mounds containing bee-sized holes, helped by two excellent local guides, Ekawati Ka’aba and Iswan Maujad.
M. pluto is a solitary bee species that forms communal nests inside termite mounds, using its mandibles to collect and apply tree resin to the inner walls of its nest. So we knew what to look out for.
After five fruitless days of searching termite mounds, we were about to call it quits and head for a late lunch when we spotted another mound near the edge of a path.
Inspection with a torch and binoculars revealed a hole that looked promising. Clay scaled the tree and reported that the hole looked to be lined with resin – very exciting. Our guides constructed a platform from branches, we inspected the hole in more detail, and there she was. Cue intense excitement and cries of jubilation as we all rushed to peer inside and catch a glimpse.
Now that we had the bee, we had to be able to prove it, so we put away our iPhone cameras in favour of better-quality (but riskier: the bee might escape!) footage with more professional photographic and video equipment. We gently coaxed her out of her nest and into a small flight chamber, and then eventually Clay got the magic shot, where we released the bee back onto her nest and photographed her at the entrance to her home. Mission accomplished.
Confirming that the world’s largest bee species is still alive is an enticing development for ecologists. We can learn a lot about the ecology, behaviour and ecological significance of this giant. Amid a global decline in many insects, it’s wonderful to discover this special species is still surviving.
We also hope our discovery will galvanise conservation movements in Indonesia, and we were inspired by the reception our journey met with many people in the conservation and forestry fields of the North Molucca islands.
We would love more work to be done to assess the bee’s current conservation status. Plans to produce a documentary about Wallace and the rediscovery of this bee are underway, and we hope that its rediscovery provides further impetus to conservation efforts generally.
Not a bad outcome for a holiday!
The plan to build a massive hydropower dam in Sumatra as part of China’s immense Belt and Road Initiative threatens the habitat of the rarest ape in the world, which has only 800 remaining members.
This is merely the beginning of an avalanche of environmental crises and broader social and economic risks that will be provoked by the BRI scheme.
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.
Up to 2015, the hundreds of BRI projects were reviewed by the powerful National Development and Reform Commission, which is directly under China’s State Council. Many observers have assumed that the NDRC will help coordinate the projects, but the only real leverage they have is over projects funded by the big Chinese policy banks – the China Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China – which they directly control.
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.
What environmental safeguards?
China has produced a small flood of documents describing sustainable lending principles for its banks and broad environmental and social safeguards for the BRI, but I believe many of these documents are mere paper tigers or “greenwashing” designed to quell anxieties.
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.