Indonesia vows to protect endangered orangutans
By Sugita Katyal
NUSA DUA, Indonesia (Reuters) - Indonesia launched a program on Monday to save its dwindling orangutan population, the last of Asia's great apes, from the brink of extinction by protecting its vast tropical rain forests.
Orangutans once ranged the region, but the shaggy brown primate's population in Indonesia has been decreasing rapidly as its habitat in Borneo and Sumatra has been disrupted by illegal logging, forest fires and the illegal pet trade.
A recent WWF report said climate change would add to the pressure already caused by human-induced activities such as massive conversion of forests into plantations by reducing the orangutans' food stock. Thousands will be driven out of forests into villages and plantations to look for food.
"In the last 35 years about 50,000 orangutans are estimated to have been lost as their habitats shrank. If this continues, this majestic creature will likely face extinction by 2050," President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said at the launch of an orangutan conservation plan at the climate talks in Bali.
"The fate of the orangutan is a subject that goes to the heart of sustainable forests ... To save the orangutan we have to save the forest."
As part of the orangutan conservation plan developed by the forestry ministry and NGOs, Indonesia will aim to stabilize orangutan populations and habitat from now until 2017 and return orangutans housed in rehabilitation centers to the wild by 2015.
A 2004 survey showed there were around 60,000 orangutans left in the jungles of Borneo and Sumatra. Some ecologists say the country has lost 3,000 orangutans a year since the 1970s and the species could eventually become extinct.
"As much as 1 million hectares of orangutan habitat scheduled for conversion to oil palm will be saved through the plan's implementation," Erik Meijaard, a scientist with The Nature Conservancy which will help implement the plan, said in a statement..
"This could lead to 9,800 orangutans being saved and prevent 700 million tons of carbon from being released."
Indonesia is one of few countries that still has swathes of rainforests left, and is pushing a proposal to make emission cuts from protecting forests eligible for carbon trading.
Even though it has lost an estimated 70 percent of its original frontier forest, it still has a total forest area of more than 225 million acres, with a host of exotic plants and animals waiting to be discovered.
Indonesia's forests are a massive natural store of carbon, but environmentalists say rampant cutting and burning of trees to feed the pulp, timber and palm oil sectors has made the country the world's third-largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions.
"If payments for avoided deforestation become an official mechanism in global climate agreements, then carbon buyers will likely compensate Indonesia for its forest protection," said The Nature Conservancy's Meijaard.
"Protecting orangutans will then lead to increased economic development in this country. Such a triple-win situation is not a dream. With some political will, it can soon be reality."
(Editing by Roger Crabb)