On the 26th of March 2012, a huge fire raged across the Tripa peat swamp forests in Aceh, Indonesia, started by the company PT Kallista Alam to make way for a palm oil plantation. Palm oil is a key ingredient in soap and common foods but its cultivation is considered one of the biggest threats to the world’s dwindling rainforests.
Tripa has long been recognised as a UNEP/UNESCO Great Ape Survival Partnership Priority Site for Great Ape Conservation, and during the 1990s it was estimated that these forests contained around 3,000 Sumatran orang-utans (Pongo abelii), holding the highest density of the species in the world. Now Sumatran orang-utans are listed as one of the top 25 most endangered primates (IUCN, 2010) mainly due to legal logging and land conversion to palm oil estates, exacerbated by illegal activity in the background.
After the Aceh civil conflict in 2005, political stability returned and many new applications to open up logging concessions and palm oil estates in orangutan habitat were pushed forward. Logging permits for large tracts of forest in Aceh were issued, and there was concern over the establishment of the Ladia Galaska highway in the Leuser Ecosystem, which would permanently separate two of the largest remaining orangutan populations, as they cannot cross roads.
In 2011, then-Governor of Aceh, Irwardi Yusuf, issued a permit to PT Kallista Alam to cut-and-burn Tripa forest, which undermined the Governor’s commitment to protecting the forests, and it is very likely that forest clearance began long before the permit was granted. In addition, the area that the company was given permission to clear was clearly shown as off-limits to development in a map defining areas protected by the Indonesian President’s moratorium on deforestation.
Between March 19 and 25, NASA satellite monitoring recorded a total of 92 fire hotspots in three different palm oil concessions. On the 28th of march, Graham Usher of the Foundation for a Sustainable Ecosystem presented images to a press audience which showed that just over 12,000 hectares of the original 60,000 hectares of forest remains as a result of this development.
Dr Ian Singleton of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme says that unless immediate action is taken this exploitation could doom this population of orangutans to local extinction ‘by the end of the year’.
The local people of Tripa and other conservation organisations (including Greenpeace Indonesia and WALHI/ Friends of the Earth Indonesia) launched court proceedings to have the permits revoked. The Banda Aceh court announced on the 3rd of April that it dismissed the case and refused to make a ruling, arguing the parties involved should have first sought a settlement out of court.
There has been massive public outrage in response to this: thousands of people all around the world have emailed the President of Indonesia and key stakeholders calling for the law to be enforced and upheld in Tripa. However, lawyers say an appeal is likely, and the good news is that in the meantime, public pressure has influenced the Chairman of the REDD+ Taskforce to send a team of lawyers to collect evidence against PT Kallista Alam in Tripa.
It is possible that just one more uncontrolled fire could wipe out the remaining orang-utans, as well as all the other species that live in these forests. Only 6,600 Sumatran orang-utans are left in just ten fragmented habitat units across the world. The orang-utan is the only Great Ape in Asia and genetic studies have identified the Sumatran orang-utan as having the most ancient lineage, which means that if it becomes extinct in the wild there is no chance of any similar creature evolving in Asia ever again. This is exactly why the EDGE Programme exists: to protect uniquely ancient and endangered lineages in the Tree of Life.
Find out more information on the different organisations working together to prevent the extinction of species like the Sumatran orang-utan:
The video below is a short story by Carlos Quiles, documenting the current problems facing the Leuser Ecosystem.