Hard times for 'people of the forest'

Indonesia's economic crisis puts new pressure on orangutans, other

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The park ranger slams a rock on the wooden platform four times, the "thunks" echoing through the rain forest as a light mist falls on a dozen tourists. They have made their way to the jungles of northern Sumatra to see orangutans - "people of the forest" in Malay. Heads turn as a tree on a ridge behind them starts to shake.

"Johnny! Johnny!" the ranger shouts. After 15 minutes of swinging on vines from tree to tree, a creature with burnt orange fur moves slowly down to the feeding platform and gobbles down his meal of milk and bananas.

Johnny is one of 17 semi-wild apes at the Orangutan Rehabilitation Center in the Gunung Leuser National Park, the last stronghold of the quickly vanishing mammals in Sumatra.

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As a baby, Johnny was taken from his mother and sold as a pet. Since it is illegal here to keep orangutans in captivity, Johnny was confiscated from his owner by police, brought to the center in 1996, and later released into the forest nearby.

He is one of the fortunate ones. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are warning that the economic crisis that began in 1997 is putting increased pressure on the nation's endangered species.

"The [trafficking and poaching] situation of wildlife was already bad before the crisis," says Mohamad Indrawan, a species trafficking officer for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). "Now people are finding a chance to disregard the law completely, with so much civil unrest."

Since former President Suharto stepped down last year, political uncertainty leading up to next Monday's election has spawned sporadic violence across the archipelago nation.

In Pasar Pramuka, Jakarta's largest bird market, wild birds are sold openly alongside other animals such as monkeys, lizards, and bats. As thousands of birds sing, vendors bring a small zoo's worth of poached wildlife for anyone showing an interest. An endangered siamang, a breed of black gibbon, can be bought for about $340.

Protected species for sale

A request for a legendary cenderawasih, also known as the bird of paradise, calls for less open transactions. To see one of the protected species native to Irian Jaya province, 2,500 miles west of Jakarta, buyers are brought to a private residence.

"If you have a tiger or an orangutan, then the police will arrest you," the seller says. "Anything else is no problem."

The cenderawasih's colorful plumage, fashionable in clothing of the colonial era, nearly drove the 40 varieties of the birds to extinction in the first half of the century.

"It's a protected species," Mr. Indrawan says. "If you take it from the wild, there's a possible fine of 100 million rupiah ($125) and three years in jail. Owning one feather is against the law."

Yusup Cihadan, a project officer with Birdlife International, says if police do confiscate birds being sold illegally, "They have to keep it, feed it. Then they have to find a way to take it back [to the forest]." For birds of paradise, that's a long trip. Repatriating birds is a low priority for the cash-strapped government, Mr. Cihadan points out.

Loss of habitat

According to a report released this spring by the group Friends of the Earth, economic crisis has led to lax environmental policies, including increased logging in such countries as Brazil, Russia, and Indonesia. To boost its flagging economy, the Indonesian government has increased exports from logging, taking a bigger bite out of habitats for endangered species, the report says.

While poaching of baby orangutans continues, habitat loss is the No. 1 danger for one of mankind's closest relatives, says Agus Krisna, chief of the rehabilitation center. "I don't think the orangutan will disappear completely.... Now most people know that it is illegal to keep them as pets," he says. "As long as they stay inside the park, we can guarantee their safety."

But if the apes wander outside the park, then they're at the mercy of outside forces. Dr. Krisna's program, which has rehabilitated 217 orangutans since 1973, has also suffered during the economic crisis. Visitor fees of about 40 cents per day keep the center operating, but tourist numbers are falling.

The drive from Medan to the park illustrates how little space is left for the long list of endangered species in Indonesia. The road is lined with rubber tree and palm-oil plantations.

Orangutans, found only in Sumatra and Borneo, have lost 50 percent of their natural habitat in the past 10 years, according to a 1998 report by the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency. Their numbers could be as low as 15,000, the report says.

Challenges to coexistence

Devastating forest fires on the two islands since 1997 also destroyed orang habitats, and drove the apes to villages where they were easy prey for poachers or villagers who wanted to keep them away from crops.

Slow breeding rates make orangutans especially vulnerable to environmental threats. "A continued loss of habitat, captures, and kills could result in the virtual extinction of the species within the next 20 years," the report warns.

About three dozen wildlife NGOs in Indonesia are trying to save the nation's diverse ecosystems. Chairul Salem, WWF senior project officer, says ideally a solution can be found to accommodate both humans and wildlife. "The wildlife trade pressure is growing. It's a race against time. Whether we can reach safe levels for wildlife again, I don't know."

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