Up in the Trees, the Boss Hangs on for a Miracle
Unperturbed, the baleful brown eyes of this dominant male orang-utan stare down. It is our Indonesian illegal logger guides who appear awestruck - "besar [big]", they whisper, "he the boss".
One of more than 500 endangered orang-utans in a newly discovered population in Indonesian Borneo, West Kalimantan, the boss is blissfully unaware of plans to clear this tropical peat forest for a palm oil plantation. He's unaware that his territory sits at the centre of a pivotal global debate at next week's climate change conference in Bali.
Global warming might just save the boss and his ecosystem. Not only are environmentalists outraged by their possible destruction, but these trees spring from carbon-rich, metres-deep peat - potentially worth millions of dollars under a proposed post-Kyoto Protocol deal to fund the preservation of forests.
Clearing peat forests has made Indonesia the world's third-largest greenhouse gas emitter, sending more than 3000-million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere a year. It is driven by greed, with palm oil and timber barons lining the pockets of officials from Kalimantan to Jakarta - even the Forestry Minister has blocked prosecution of illegal loggers.
Already the boss's Sungai Putri forest has been shrunk by logging and burn-offs for farming. Now the district administration has issued initial permits to plant oil palm across more than two-thirds of its 57,000 hectares, despite a presidential decree banning the clearing of such peatlands.
It amounts to a death sentence for the forest's 500 to 800 orang-utans, says Frank Momberg, Asia director of Fauna and Flora International, which has just documented the area. "They would be wiped out, the remaining forest would be too small to maintain a viable population," he said.
Plantations would sever a peat corridor to the nearby Gunung Palung National Park, where the orang-utan population is also under threat from encroachments by illegal logging. Robbed of their natural food, the apes have begun raiding villagers' vegetable gardens. Many have been shot, especially the mothers, and babies sold.
These vulnerable peat and lowland forests are the front line in the orang-utans' battle for survival, Mr Momberg says.
Travelling along Sungai Putri's tiny paths and streams, Fauna and Flora's research team found many large, two-metre wide orang-utan nests woven of vines and leaves in the canopy. Each day the apes forage for food, then build a new nest to spend the next night.
"This is high-conservation value forest, not just because of the endangered species, but this peat is like a giant sponge, holding fresh water and storing masses of carbon," Mr Momberg said. "It's providing an active environmental service to the world."
Mr Momberg believes the boss and his brethren can be saved, with the final stage of issuing plantation permits pending.
He is trying to convince the provincial regent to accept European and private funds to protect the forest, in a forerunner of post-Kyoto programs to be unveiled in Bali this month.
A forest warden scheme in the national park, employing loggers, has drastically reduced exploitation, Mr Momberg said. "Local government and local people involved in illegal logging have to benefit or you won't reduce deforestation. But it's not too late."
Copyright © 2007. The Sydney Morning Herald.