Indonesia: World’s newest great ape threatened by Chinese dam

The discovery of the Tapanuli orangutan has not stopped a Chinese state-run company from clearing forest for a planned dam. Conservationists fear this will be the beginning of the end for a species only known for six months
Jeremy Hance The Guardian 23 Apr 18;

Last November scientists made a jaw-dropping announcement: they’d discovered a new great ape hiding in plain sight, only the eighth inhabiting our planet.

The Tapanuli orangutan survives in northern Sumatra and it is already the most endangered great ape in the world; researchers estimate less than 800 individuals survive. But the discovery hasn’t stopped a Chinese state-run company, Sinohydro, from moving ahead with clearing forest for a large dam project smack in the middle of the orangutan population. According to several orangutan experts, Sinohyrdo’s dam represents an immediate and existential threat to the Tapanuli orangutan.

“Building the dam means chopping the orangutan population in half,” Erik Meijaard, the director of Borneo Futures and one of the experts to describe Pongo tapanuliensis, said. “You end up with two smaller populations, and these will have much reduced chances of survival, because a small population is more likely to go extinct than a large one.”

Meijaard added, “with only 800 individuals of this species remaining, the hydrodam will significantly increase the likelihood of extinction.”

Planned for the lowlands of the Batang Toru ecosystem in the North Sumatra province, the dam will hit the highest density of Tapanuli orangutans left. Researchers say the 510 megawatt dam will directly impact around 10-20% of the population, but perhaps even worse it will sever the eastern and western population, making it impossible for them to reconnect.

“The impact will not just be the destruction of the habitat where they want to build the dam and roads, tunnel, electricity lines, but it will cause the extinction of two of the three sub-populations, and in addition create access and destroy the most important habitat of the only viable population left,” said Gabriella Fredriksson, a scientist with the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme and another co-author on the paper describing the new species.

Greater access to the orangutans – due to new roads and cleared habitat – will likely lead to a spike in hunting orangutans and orangutans perishing in human-wildlife conflict. With only 800 left, any loss of animals is gravely problematic.

According to the conservationists, Sinohydro’s environmental management plan makes no reference to the orangutans (though the environmental impact assessment does). Despite this fact, the Indonesian government approved Sinohydro’s Batang Toru dam.

“The Indonesian government needs to respect its own laws,” Meijaard said. “Orangutans are protected species. The Indonesian law clearly prohibits any actions that harm a protected species or its nests. It is obvious that the hydrodam is harming a protected species, so why does the government allow this?”

In November – when the announcement of the new species hit newsstands across the world – the government signaled it would make the new ape a priority.

Wiratno, director general of Natural Resources and Conservation in the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, told the media that a government team would be sent to the region to make sure the orangutans were protected.

“We will conduct further examination concerning the crisis of the Tapanuli orangutans. I am sure that they will be conserved,” Wiratno said last year.

In the meantime, however, forest clearing is going on.

Wiratno and other government officials did not respond to requests to comment on the dam.

The dam project has also proven controversial with some local people, a protest last year ended violently. Requests for comment from Sinohydro have gone unanswered.

“Companies that are seeking to be leaders in this industry must uphold high environmental, ecological and social standards. It is irresponsible and reckless to undertake a project that would destroy the habitat of a critically endangered species,” Stephanie Jensen-Cormier, China program director at International Rivers, said.

Serge Wich, another co-author and a professor at Liverpool John Moores University, said the government should drop the hydropower plant and instead focus on a massive geothermal project north of the vulnerable orangutan population. The plant has the potential to be expanded to reach one gigawatt.

Fredriksson says Northern Sumatra “has a surplus of energy now.”

Of course, stopping the dam won’t ensure the survival of the Tapanuli orangutans. The species remains gravely imperiled by hunting, conflict with locals and habitat loss. However, if the dam goes ahead the species is almost sure to be slowly strangled.

“First of all, we need to ensure that the eastern and western populations in Batang Toru remain fully protected, that is zero habitat loss and zero killing,” said Fredriksson. “We also need to ensure that the eastern and western block remain connected. Once the Batang Toru populations are save and secure, reintroduction of the species into its historic range can be considered.”

Conservationists believe the last 800 Tapanuli orangutans are likely the last stand of a species that once spanned all of southern Sumatra – and may have even inhabited Java. This opens up the possibility that the species could be reintroduced to well-protected forests in the south – but first it has to be safeguarded from obliteration.

“The discovery [of the Tapanuli orangutan] showed that there is still a lot not known about the differences between populations in our nearest relatives and that studying such differences can even lead to a new species being described. In this case it was the first newly described great ape species since 1929,” said Wich, referencing the discovery of the bonobo in Africa.

It would be the first extinction of a great ape in millennia. One has to ask: is that worth 510 megawatts?
Sumatra’s megafauna is undergoing a wholesale collapse due to the usual suspects of hunting, snaring, poaching and habitat loss – especially as the palm oil and pulp and paper industries have steamrolled over the island leading to one of the highest deforestation records on the planet. The Sumatran rhino is nearly extinct with some 30-100 individuals left. The Sumatran tiger, the Sumatran elephant and the other orangutan species on the island – the Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) – are all today listed as critically endangered.

These critically endangered “Sumatran Five” – rhinos, elephants, tigers and two orangutans – represent a failure of the global and local community to balance conservation with development. And to value life on planet Earth.

“If Pongo tapanuliensis disappears it wipes out a significant chunk of unique Indonesian evolutionary history, like the extinction of Java and Bali tiger,” Meijaard said.

It would also be the first extinction of a great ape – our closest relatives – in millennia. One has to ask: is that worth 510 megawatts?

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