Sunday 22 September 2019

Chinese-backed dam risks orangutan habitat, scientists warn

Experts say the project in Sumatra will flood or otherwise alter part of the habitat, making it almost impossible to ensure the rare species survives.

An orangutan in Indonesia (Maxime Aliaga/Australian National University/PA)
An orangutan in Indonesia (Maxime Aliaga/Australian National University/PA)

By Associated Press Reporters

Scientists are calling for the cancellation of a Chinese-backed hydroelectric dam in Indonesia which threatens the habitat of a newly-discovered orangutan species numbering only 800 animals.

In the journal Current Biology, the experts say the 510-megawatt dam in Sumatra will flood or otherwise alter part of the habitat, making it almost impossible to take a crucial step towards ensuring the species survives — reconnecting fragmented forests the primates are spread across.

New species orangutan

China’s state-owned Sinohydro is building the dam, which is reportedly financed by Chinese loans.

Critics of the project say it is part of China’s “Belt & Road” plans to link infrastructure across Asia.

Scientists announced the discovery of the third orangutan species, Pongo tapanuliensis, in November.

They said that without special protection it is in danger of rapid extinction.

“It’s appalling to think that, within our lifetimes, a new great ape species could be both discovered and driven to extinction,” said Serge Wich, a professor at Liverpool John Moores University, who was involved in identifying the new orangutan species.

The scientists also urged that the remaining habitat in the Batang Toru forest of northern Sumatra be given strict conservation protection and that forest corridors be created to link separated populations.

One way to do that, they said, is to close a section of the road between two main forest fragments.

The Batang Toru orangutan was the first great ape species to be proposed by scientists in nearly 90 years.

Previously, science has recognised six great ape species – Sumatran and Bornean orangutans, eastern and western gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature classified Bornean orangutans as critically endangered in 2016 due to a precipitous population decline caused by destruction of their forest habitat for palm oil and pulp wood plantations.

Indonesia China Orangutans

Sumatran orangutans have been classified as critically endangered since 2008.

The scientists writing in Current Biology said orangutan sub-populations need to number at least 200 to have a chance of surviving a century and more than 500 for longer-term survival.

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