SE Asian forests disappearing fast

Posted: 12 February 2007

The tropical forests of South East Asia, important for local livelihoods and the last home of the orang-utan, are disappearing far faster than experts have previously supposed according to a new Rapid Response report from the UN Environment Programme.

The report says that natural rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo are being cleared so rapidly that up to 98 per cent may be destroyed by 2022 without urgent action. The rate of loss, which has accelerated in the past five years, outstrips a previous UNEP report released in 2002 at the World Summit for Sustainable Development (WSSD). Then, experts estimated that most of the suitable orang-utan habitat would be lost by 2032.

Orang-utan rescued from the palm oil plantations, Borneo. Photo credit: © Nick Lyon/Films4Conservation

The illegal logging, driven by global demands, accounts for tens of millions of cubic metres annually and an estimated more than 73 per cent of all logging in Indonesia. Approximately 20 per cent of the logs are smuggled directly out of Indonesia, the remaining is used to support an extensive international and local wood industry, and then exported to the international markets by well-organized, but elusive commercial networks.

New satellite imagery reveals that the illegal logging is now entering a new critical phase: As the demands grow, the industry and internationalmarket are running out of cheap illegal timber and are now entering the national parks where the only remaining timber available in commercial amounts is found.

Last stand of the orang-utan

Satellite images confirm, together with data from the Indonesian Government, that illegal logging is now taking place in 37 out of 41 national parks, and likely growing. "At current rates of intrusions, it is likely that some parks may become severely degraded in as little as three to five years, that is by 2012", says the new study The last stand of the orang-utan: State of emergency.

Overall the report is concluding that loss of orang-utan habitat is happening at a rate up to 30 per cent higher than previously thought.

Loss of Great Ape habitat
Loss of Great Ape habitat
Loss of Great Ape habitat 2002-2032 (Borneo and Sumatra). Graphic credit Hugo Ahlenius, UNEP/GRID-Arendal.

Indonesia is active in fighting illegal logging and has worked with a series of international programmes and initiatives to reduce the logging.However, says the report, while many of these initiatives are valuable, they require the assistance of the international community to stop the demands for illegal timber, and they are also mainly long-term in effect.

In response, the Indonesian government has on several occasions in recent years directly used support from the Navy and Army to arrest, confiscate timber and drive companies out of the parks. Recently, the government began training specially equipped ranger units (SPORC) to protect the parks.

Protecting the national parks

Speaking at UNEP's 24th Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum in Nairobi, where the repoort was launched, Achim Steiner, UNEP Executive Director, said: "Globalization is generating unprecedented wealth and lifting millions out of poverty. But in this case, the illegal logging is destroying the livelihoods of many local people dependent upon the forests while it is also draining the natural wealth of Indonesian forest resources by unsustainable practices. The logging at these scales is not done by individual impoverished people, but by well-organized elusive commercial networks."

Orang-utan, Sumatra
Orang-utan, Sumatra
Orang-utan, Sumatra. Photo © Nick Lyon/Films4Conservation
"National Parks form a cornerstone in the 2010 target to reduce the rate of biodiversity loss and are also so valuable for eco-tourism and in generating new livelihoods. Their protection is vital to these international goals and to the entire concept of protected areas."

He called on governments and the international community to assist the Indonesian authorities with the equipment, training and particularly funding needed to enforce and patrol their national parks from illegal loggers.

Rachmat Witoelar, Indonesia's environment minister, said the challenge of policing and enforcing Indonesia's vast parks is immense and rangers have currently little access to ground vehicles, boats, arms, communications or aerial surveillance such as planes or helicopters. "In 35 of our national parks we have over 2000 rangers but they have to patrol an area of over 100,000 km2."

The scale of illegal logging, including into national parks is likely to increase not only in Indonesia, but also in other parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America, according to the Rapid Response report.

"The situation is now acute", says Christian Nellemann, leader of the Response team. "The recent Indonesian initiatives on law enforcement will require the necessary scale, financial and logistical support in order to stop the extent of this illegal logging. If successful, the Indonesian experiences gained in the coming years may substantially improve our ability to protect national parks and fight illegal logging in other parts of the World."

The report 'Last stand of the orangutan: State of emergency' was prepared by GRASP, the Great Ape Survival Partnership led by UNEP and UNESCO in collaboration with a wide range of NGOs. It can be downloaded at www.grida.no.

Recent estimates suggest there are between 45,000 and 69,000 Bornean and no more than 7,300 Sumatran orang-utans left in the wild. All are regarded as Endangered or Critically Endangered. The orang-utans share their habitat with a wild range of other threatened and ecologically important species including the Sumatran tiger, Sumatran rhinoceros and Asian elephant. UNEP and UNESCO have launched the Great Apes Survival Project (GRASP) in response to growing concern over the plight of the orang-utan, chimpanzee, bonobo and gorilla.