Orangutans under threat in Indonesia

Illegal loggers who raid large national Indonesian parks threaten the long-term survival of orangutans. They make tropical rain forests disappear 30% faster than previously estimated.

Indonesian authorities recently intercepted shipments totaling 70,000 cubic meters - about 3,000 truck loads - of illegal timber and arrested several people, but loggers were clearing an estimated 2.1 million hectares (5.2 million acres) of forest a year for timber worth US$4 billion (EUR3 billion), said the report by the U.N. Environment Program, UNEP.

Only about 5,000 Sumatran orangutans and about 50,000 Borneo orangutans now exist in the wild. "The populations are crashing dramatically," said Melanie Virtue of UNEP's Great Apes Survival Project, which carried out the study.

The number of Sumatran orangutans has fallen 91 percent in the last century, the report said.

Orangutans fleeing overlogged areas have ended up in "refugee camps" run by the great apes project. Indonesian rescue centers now have about 1,000 orangutans, and the illegal trade in young orangutans for private zoos and safari parks has increased to "significant numbers," the report said, without specifying further.

Earlier forecasts said Indonesia's natural rain forest would be seriously degraded by 2032. But projections based on new satellite surveillance suggested that 98 percent of lowland forest will be destroyed by 2022, and many protected areas will be gone within the next five years, said the report, called "The Last Stand of the Orangutan."

Orangutans breed only once in seven years, meaning their numbers struggle to recover even without the destruction of their habitat.

But it said orangutans have shown they can survive selective logging. Evidence from Ketgambe and Gunung Leuser in Sumatra showed their numbers declined after large trees were extracted from the forest, but rebounded as the forest regenerated.

The report was released at the triennial meeting of the 171-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES.

The 1975 CITES treaty prohibits all trade in orangutans except by special permit.

The report said illegal loggers were operating in 37 out of 41 Indonesian national parks. Further habitat pressure is coming from plantation owners clearing forests for palm oil trees to meet the growing appetite for biofuels.

"We are urging consumer nations to do more to ensure the timber they import is legal," said Virtue. The report estimates that up to 88 percent of all Indonesian timber was logged illegally, usually shipped abroad after being processed into lumber in saw mills or used as pulp.