In most countries, if a dam was to cause so much destruction to the last habitat of a species, the dam would likely not get permission to be built.
It is true that the dam will only take about 20% of the land in question, directly. It will also split the population in half.
Given that only around 800 Tapanuli Orangutans survive in the wild, the loss of just a handful is bad. A loss of 20% of the remaining population could quite rapidly push the population towards extinction, particularly as it will split the few remaining Orangutans into separate populations which cannot interbreed.
Norway has a huge sovereign fund, into which it pours the countries earnings from fossil fuel extraction. Perhaps recognizing that this has a shelf life which is not far from ending, Norway has made sure that for the most part its sovereign fund is good for the natural world (alongside giving good returns)
Generally rules on financing should have ruled this project out in the past, so it is good that this decision has been eventually made.
Will the dam still get built? We will have to wait and see.
One of the problems with cutting down rainforest, it often what is left is so fragmented that it is useless for conservation. Remaining blocks of forest must allow a viable population of the rarest creatures, in order for the animals not to need to travel outside protected areas.
In Borneo, like in Sumatra, there has been a rapid loss of rainforest over the last few decades. Often it is claimed that enough is left behind in order to conserve the animals that live there.
In Borneo, while there is still a large quantity of wilderness, this is increasingly fragmented.
Generally great apes are animals that live in community. Indeed, one of the reasons that great apes developed such large brains is as a result of their need in social situations. Great apes (along with lesser monkeys, dolphins, bears and wolves, with a few more) require a large brain to remember things about the many individuals that they socialize with, and how each has behaved, who is nice.
It is just 5 years since the Tapanuli orangutan was described. Despite this Orangutan being restricted to an area of Northern Sumatra, it is more closely related to the Bornean Orangutan than the Sumatran one. This might be the clearest indication of how long this species has been separate from its cousins.
The Tapanuli Orangutan split from its Bornean cousins around 670,000 years ago, while chimpanzee and Bonobo were split 1.5-2.2 million years ago. Baffling, the Sumatran Orangutan split from both the Borneon and Tapanuli Orangutan 3.38 million years ago. For context, Humans split from our chimpanzee ancestors 4-6 million years ago (so not much longer) and gorillas split from their chimpanzee ancestors 7-9 million years ago.
All this is to say, that while the Tapanuli Orangutan is relatively closely related to the Bornean Orangutan, it cannot interact with it as it is on another island; and the Sumatran Orangutan is too far removed to be able to interbreed.
It is thought that the Tapanuli Orangutan has faced population decline of 83% in the last few decades (three generations). Further threats are numerous. One of its biggest threats is a hydroelectric dam, which would remove much of the remaining habitat, but a gold mine, loss of habitat and an expansion of croplands are other threats.
Unfortunately little to nothing has improved in the last 6 years, they are probably closer to extinction now than ever. If you have followed this blog over the last 5 years, you will have seen that I have written on this new orangutan species a few times. We will continue to follow this animal on this blog – we must work to raise its profile and not merely chronicle its slide towards extinction.
At first glance, you could look at this headline as good news – in most instances, wild animals do not start looking outside their habitat for places to live, unless there are too many and they are being forced out. However, they also start looking elsewhere when they struggle to find food where they are, or as a result of encroachment.
In this instance it is thought to be as a result of construction of a hydroelectric dam. Perhaps more alarming, these are the Tapanuli Orangutans, which only number 800 and which if this dam is completed, will lose most of their range.
As the 8th great ape, it may also be the first great ape pushed to extinction and in their case as a direct choice of the local authorities.
It seems that so long as the initial cause of the deforestation was not palm oil (or perhaps not the current owners of the palm oil farm?), then even if it is immediately converted into palm oil plantations, it can be counted as sustainable.
This is absurd. It should obviously be the case that if an area is deforested illegally, then it should be reforested, not get the right to permanently become part of the crop areas.
Not really good.
It essentially means that the RSPO affiliation means nothing, as those of us concerned about the destruction of the rainforest and the loss of the biodiversity that it contains cannot trust them at all. I have written in the past, about Newquay zoo getting its signs wrong on avoiding palm oil. What is clear, is that almost none of the palm oil from Indonesia can claim to be avoiding deforestation as you’d expect. Has the RSPO destroyed their authority for ever? Time will tell.
What is clear is that this is not a new thing. Back in 2016 the Huffington post wrote an article “RSPO: Completely Worthless, or Just Mostly Worthless? (UPDATED)” (click the article to read it in another tab) in which it basically outlines many of the points from this latest assessment. This study was more thorough, so can tell us the extent of the problem, but what is clear is that it is not new.
Should the RSPO be given a second chance? I would argue not. If they have not cleaned up shop in 6 years, then there is going to be little rainforest left before they actually get their act together. Can it be done? Ferrero is ranked number 1 out of 173 by WWF on sustainable palm oil sourcing. Clearly it can be done – However, brands that hold onto RSPO may well start being avoided by the eco-concerned. If they are that useless then why even look for their mark
Many of the Indonesian forest reserves, have become paper parks, with much or most of the forestation and other vegetation lost. They clear land in the hope that they will eventually be given the title to the land to make their seizures legal.
Under their new program “conservation partnership”, the settlers acknowledge that they cannot claim the land, and they have to help restore the land to how it was before they damaged it. The are then allowed to remain on the land and cultivate traditional crops and harvest non timber products like rattan and honey – but importantly, not palm oil.
This model has grown, and now 177,000 hectares is under this form of management (about 700 square miles.
It continues to be a hard balance between the protection of the forest, and allowing the people who live in these areas (both native, and those who move from elsewhere), to be able to better their lives through work. If work exists that both benefits them and the ecosystem then this is likely to succeed.
There is a great deal of corruption in many parts of the world. In many places politicians are almost expected to give themselves extra benefits – indeed those who do not, are often quite notable for standing out.
In this case, after arresting the politician his house was raided, when the animals were found.
The Tapanuli Orangutan lives on Sumatra but are thought to be more closely related to Bornean Orangutans. Numbering around 800 members, they had a far wider ranging habitat until recently. They are now restricted to about 1000 square km – about 2.5% of their former range.
What is harder, is that these Orangutans are not naturally mountainous animals, but have been driven there by the hunting that has so decimated their numbers.