I’ve been in Sumatra for two months now, and I am still pondering the question, “why?” Why am I here? Why do I care? Why is this important to anyone, to the world? I would like to answer that no species deserves to be driven to extinction. Orangutans are wonderfully fascinating animals and the world and my life are better with them in it. But I know that this answer is not enough. It is readily refuted by those with a human-centric world view. In reality I am not wholly satisfied with that answer either. In searching for the “why” it is helpful to first understand the issues surrounding species and habitat conservation in Sumatra. There are a plethora of problems, causes and exacerbations. In (very) simplified terms I will sketch out the chief problems, why they are happening and what actions are needed. It is my hope that more people will start questioning the world and the issues that matter to them. Our innate inquisitiveness may help to connect problems and solutions.
My work at the Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) in Sumatra often centers on their efforts to resurrect a population of critically endangered Sumatran orangutans. Habitat loss and fragmentation has driven these great apes to this critical state. No species will survive if you rob them of the ability to find food, water and shelter, not even us. They will also perish if you chop their habitat up into smaller and smaller disconnected bits, making it difficult to find reproductive mates. The conservation problems facing orangutans are the same problems facing every species engaged in obtaining sustenance from the forest. We humans are among the animals dependent on these forests, perhaps more than we realize.
Why is it problematic for us as well as wild creatures when forests are dismantled?
To begin with the tropical forests of Sumatra are replete with renewable natural resources. Uncountable numbers of species from bacterium to tigers call these forests home, many of which are yet unknown to science. The FZS has chosen to work here in part because the region is recognized as a global hot spot of biodiversity. This intricate web of life supports thousands of species that are economically, socially and culturally valuable to many indigenous human inhabitants of the region. Intact forests also provide many essential ecosystem services that humans in all corners of the globe to some degree benefit from. Trees regulate climate and encourage rain. Their roots help to retain soil and filter water. The animals that the forest supports also contribute to the continued health of the system. Orangutans, gibbons, monkeys, birds, bats and other fructivores disperse seeds. Bees, butterflies and birds are a few of the pollinators who sustain the life cycles of so many flowering plant species. Fungi, bacteria, worms and their kin build and maintain healthy soil. Herbivores, such as the many species of forest deer, keep fast growing undergrowth species in check so that slower growing trees can become giants. These in turn provide homes for snakes, frogs, orangutans and epiphytes (to name but a scarce few) in a living tapestry of life. Predators, like tigers and snakes, ensure that the herbivores don’t go too overboard with their pruning. As you can tell this web is tremendously tangled. When it begins to fall apart the consequences can be locally felt in food or resource shortages. Regionally they are felt with droughts, landslides, river siltation and flooding. Even globally we feel the loss of tropical forests in the tightening grip of climate change. Large tropical landscapes which traditionally supported vast carbon storing forests are being lost at alarming rates. This trend both exacerbates climate change and literally chops down one of our best defenses against it.
It is critically important that we understand that as we continue to dismantle the intricate web of life on Sumatra we reduce our ability to get it back. Should orangutans, tigers or elephants become extinct the forests will be irreparably changed. These are the lovable poster children for this cause, but as I write this we are losing hundreds of species to extinction. Perhaps we have lost an insect or a fungi or an amoeba who’s roles in the web will never again be equally filled. No amount of human ingenuity will ever rebuild an ecosystem who’s inhabitants we don’t entirely know or understand. No amount of technology will bring them back from extinction (at least not in their natural state).
Given it’s clear importance, why is the Sumatran forest being lost? As I write the forest is under assault on several fronts. Logging, palm oil and rubber plantations, mining and human encroachment for agriculture and settlement are the heavy hitters. These activities all open up forest, add new roads and bring humans and wildlife into closer contact and increasingly conflict. Human wildlife conflict most often ends badly for the animals. There is also financial incentive to poach rare species for illegal trade as pets or parts, or simply for meat. We humans are indeed very good at undermining our future in the name of the lucrative present. Indonesia is the fourth most populous country on earth, with over 240 million people. Sumatra has historically been less densely populated. Government support for resettlement, particularly from the painfully overcrowded island of Java, and the promise of affordable land with abundant resources has led to a steady flow of immigrants. There is also multi-level government support for the economic stimulus associated with natural resource extraction and export. Add to that the multi-national companies keen to take advantage of the low cost of extraction and the high value of minerals, timber, palm oil and rubber in foreign markets. While money is the motivator for most Indonesians to pillage their forests it is not abject poverty that drives them. Villagers still living sustainably, utilizing forest resources in moderation, while not rich, are certainly not starving. This is after all a lush tropical country. Three crops a year can be harvested here, the markets abound with varied edible delights. Instead it is a natural desire to catch up to the rest of the world that seems to be spurring the extraction boom. Western chains like KFC, A&W, and Starbucks, are popping up. Smart phones are the new norm. Shopping is an increasingly popular pass time. These activities and desires all raise the cost of living bar. Rightly or wrongly, working in the palm oil industry, for example, provides a generous income to citizens with very few equally lucrative alternatives. History is replete with tales of boom and bust in resource based economies, the gold rushes of the North American west and north or the crash of the cod fishery in Atlantic Canada. Rather than learning from history, we seem to be accelerating the repetition of familiar mistakes. This trend cannot continue.
In the case of Sumatra what can be done? First and foremost further deforestation must be stopped. It is not really possible to talk of saving a species if you continue to allow it’s habitat to be parceled out and destroyed. At present the FZS is working hard to secure the majority of the concession lands surrounding Bukit Tigapuluh National Park. To accomplish this they must raise the substantial funds needed to pay the 100 year lease, although this is not the big challenge. The major hurdle is convincing various levels of government to chose their bid over those of the logging, plantation and mining companies who are prepared to pay and are offering tempting short term economic gains for the region. The FZS is trying to make the case that in the long run developing a strong eco-tourism industry, which requires large, well managed conservation programs will provide more sustained economic benefits to the local communities. Already in November the FZS trained an additional 21 forest rangers to patrol these lands. This is but one example of positive job creation that relies on healthy ecosystems and unites locals with their land. Countries like Costa Rica, Peru, and Thailand know the major benefits of eco-tourism. The problem is that it will take time to get that industry fired up, whereas a plantation company could start clear cutting tomorrow, make some money on the timber and then set up shop growing oil palm for export. Of course once this mono-crop has depleted the soil the land will be useless to both people and animals for a long time to come. Selling the conservation option to local people will require education. Thus this must be step two, vast community education about the benefits of intact forest and their potential livelihoods. I firmly believe that no person wants to rape and plunder their local environment, but they will if they don’t see any better options.
Finally, we in the developed world have a say in this as well. Every time you buy processed food containing palm oil or don’t investigate where your wood, paper or mineral products originate you are tacitly approving the status quo of resource extraction. Fair trade coffee, organic vegetables, conflict free diamonds are all examples of consumers demanding ethical products. We must extend this thinking to everything that we buy. It is possible to produce palm oil, rubber, timber and minerals in Sumatra in a more ecologically sound and sustainable fashion. It is probably not possible to produce them at the present runaway rates and super low prices, but in the long run there will be something left for future generations. We must all remember that when we open our wallets we are voting for the type of world that we want to live in. The planet and all of its living inhabitants cannot afford our ignorance any longer.