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Orangutans face 'emergency,' U.N. reports

Rampant illegal logging is destroying the tropical forests of Southeast Asia far quicker than had been feared, with dire impact on endangered orangutans and other wildlife, the United Nations said on Tuesday.
Villagers cut timbers after burning them to clear lands in Tulung Selapan, in south Sumatra province
While logging is cited as a major threat to orangutans, other threats include farmers who burn and remove forests for farming — as in this case on south Sumatra, Indonesia, last Oct. 16.Crack Palinggi / Reuters file
/ Source: Reuters

Rampant illegal logging is destroying the tropical forests of Southeast Asia far quicker than had been feared, with dire impact on endangered orangutans and other wildlife, the United Nations said on Tuesday.

Without urgent action, 98 percent of remaining forests on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo could be gone by 2022, with serious consequences for local people and wildlife including rhinos, tigers and elephants, the U.N. report said.

"The situation is now acute for the orangutans," whose habitat has been reduced to areas in Sumatra and Borneo, said the report by U.N. Environment Program experts.

"The rapid rate of removal of food trees, killing of orangutans displaced by logging and plantation development, and fragmentation of remaining intact forest, constitutes a conservation emergency."

The world body blamed a shadowy network of multinational firms for increasingly targeting Indonesian national parks as one of the few remaining sources of commercial timber supplies.

'Do not buy uncertified wood'
Indonesia made a plea for Western consumers to reject smuggled timber.

"We are appealing today to the conscience of the whole world: do not buy uncertified wood," Rachmat Witoelar, Indonesia's environment minister, said on the fringes of a major U.N. environment meeting in Kenya.

An Orangutan stands by a river at the is
An Orangutan stands by a river at the island where they learn how to survive in the wild, in Nyaru Menteng, Central Kalimantan, 23 November 2006. About 62,000 orangutans are estimated to live in Indonesia, 7,500 of them in Sumatra, Forestry Minister Malam Sambat Kaban said, but experts said populations are fast declining due to deforestation and illegal animal trafficking. AFP PHOTO/Bay ISMOYO (Photo credit should read BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images)Bay Ismoyo / AFP

He said illegal logging was ravaging 37 of his country's 41 national parks, and now accounted for more than 73 percent of all logging in Indonesia.

"It is not being done by individual impoverished people, but by well-organized elusive commercial networks," said Achim Steiner, head of the UNEP.

Indonesia's government has deployed the military on at least three occasions in recent years to confiscate timber and chase loggers out of its parks — and has begun training quick response ranger teams to police protected areas.

But experts say the new units remain crippled by a lack of funds, vehicles, weapons and equipment, and face a huge threat from ruthless loggers, who are often protected by heavily armed militia commanded by foreign mercenaries.

Fires, farmers also a problem
Combined with forest fires, encroachment by farmers on their dwindling habitat and poaching, illegal logging is having a devastating impact on orangutans, which once numbered in the hundreds of thousands across Southeast Asia.

The U.N. report, which was compiled using new satellite images and Indonesian government data, said orangutan habitat was being lost 30 percent quicker than was previously feared.

It was estimated in 2002 that there were about 60,000 of the shaggy ginger primates left in the jungles of Borneo and Sumatra. Some ecologists say the number has now been halved and others say the species could be extinct in 20 years.

A month ago, the European Union and Indonesia agreed to negotiate a pact aimed at ending illegal logging by providing guarantees forest products imported to the EU are verified as legal. The EU is the third largest market for Indonesian timber after China and the United States.

Washington and Indonesia signed a similar pact last year.

But experts say the amount of investment in the logging companies from the industrialized world vastly outstrips donor efforts to help Jakarta combat the illegal practice.