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.
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.
An orangutan mother will not give birth again until she’s finished providing milk to her previous offspring. Nursing can take a long time and vary across seasons, as we found in research published today in Science Advances.
Primate mothers, including humans, raise only a few slow-growing offspring during their reproductive years.
Differences in infant development have a profound effect on how many children a female can have over the course of her life – the key marker of success from an evolutionary vantage point.
Great apes have a high-stakes strategy. Chimpanzee mothers nurse their offspring for five years on average, twice as long as humans in traditional small-scaled societies.
Orangutans have been suspected of having even longer periods of infant dependency, although determining just how long has been a particular challenge for field biologists.
Living high up in dwindling Southeast Asian forests, these apes are adept at evading observers. Their nursing behaviour is often concealed, particularly while juveniles cling to their mother or rest together in night nests.
Teeth tell the story
I have spent the past few decades studying how orangutans and other primates form their teeth. Amazingly, every day of childhood is captured during tooth formation, a record that begins before birth and lasts for millions of years.
Teeth also contain detailed dietary, health and behavioural histories, allowing biological anthropologists an unprecedented window into the human past.
I’ve also teamed up with researchers Manish Arora and Christine Austin, at Icahn School of Medicine at Mt Sinai in New York, who have pioneered methods to map the fine-scaled elemental composition of teeth, as well as primate lactation expert Katie Hinde at Arizona State University.
We have shown in a previous study that tiny amounts of the element barium are an accurate marker of mother’s milk consumption. Like calcium, barium is sourced from the mother’s skeleton, concentrated in milk, and ultimately written into the bones and teeth of her offspring.
Once animals start nursing after birth, their teeth show increases in barium values, which begin to decrease when solid food is added to the diet. These values drop further to pre-birth levels when primates stop nursing and are weaned.
We’ve recently used this approach to explore the nursing histories of wild orangutans in collaboration with orangutan expert Erin Vogel at Rutgers University. In order to do so, I borrowed teeth housed in natural history museums from individuals that had been shot many years ago during collection expeditions.
Orangutan teeth show a gradual increase in barium values from birth through their first year of life, a time of increasing consumption of their mother’s milk. After 12-18 months, values decrease as infants begin eating solid foods consistently.
But surprisingly, barium levels then begin to fluctuate on an approximately annual basis. We suspect that this is due to seasonal changes in food availability. When fruit is in short supply, infants appear to rely more on their mother’s milk to meet their nutritional needs.
Another surprising finding is that nursing may continue for more than eight years, longer than any other wild animal.
This information is the first of its kind for wild Sumatran orangutans, as they have been especially difficult to study in their native habitat. Previous estimates from two wild Bornean orangutans suggested that juveniles nurse until about six to eight years of age.
Rather than spending so much time and energy breastfeeding their children, human mothers in traditional societies transition their infants onto soft weaning foods around six months of age, tapering them off milk a few years later.
Humans also benefit from having help such as older siblings and grandparents who lend a hand with childcare and enable women to energetically prepare for having their next child.
Orangutan mothers have it hard by comparison. They live alone in unpredictable environments with limited nutritional resources. In order to survive they use less energy than other great apes, raising their young more slowly.
Female orangutans begin reproducing around age 15 and can live until 50 years old in the most favourable of circumstances. They bear new offspring every six to nine years, producing no more than six or seven descendents over their lifetime.
Having a long nursing period and slow maturation makes orangutan populations especially vulnerable to environmental perturbations.
Recent work has also implicated poor habitat quality and the pet trade as additional factors in their rapidly declining numbers, which is underscored by their critically endangered status.
Research on collections housed in natural history museums provides timely evidence of how remarkable orangutans are, how much information we can retrieve from their teeth, and why conservation efforts informed by evolutionary biology are critical.