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Orangutan habitat shrinking faster, U.N. warns

A young orphaned orangutan plays with other orphans, and their human "babysitters," on Nov. 5, at an orangutan rehabilitation center in Palangkaraya, Indonesia.Ed Wray / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Indonesia's tropical rain forests are disappearing 30 percent faster than previously estimated as illegal loggers raid large national parks, threatening the long-term survival of orangutans, according to a U.N. report released Monday.

Indonesian authorities recently intercepted shipments totaling 2,470,000 feet — about 3,000 truck loads — of illegal timber and arrested several people, but loggers were clearing an estimated 5.2 million acres of forest a year for timber worth $4 billion, said the report by the U.N. Environment Program.

Only about 7,000 Sumatran orangutans and about 50,000 Borneo orangutans now exist in the wild. "The populations are crashing dramatically," said Melanie Virtue of UNEP's Great Apes Survival Project, which carried out the study.

91 percent crash in Sumatra
The number of Sumatran orangutans has fallen 91 percent in the last century, the report said, based on studies of the number of apes in today's dense forests, said Ian Redmond.

Orangutans fleeing overlogged areas have ended up in "refugee camps" run by the great apes project. Indonesian rescue centers now have about 1,000 orangutans, and the illegal trade in young orangutans for private zoos and safari parks has increased to "significant numbers," the report said, without specifying further.

Earlier forecasts said Indonesia's natural rain forest would be seriously degraded by 2032. But projections based on new satellite surveillance suggested that 98 percent of lowland forest will be destroyed by 2022, and many protected areas will be gone within the next five years, said the report, called "The Last Stand of the Orangutan."

Orangutans breed only once in seven years, meaning their numbers struggle to recover even without the destruction of their habitat.

Sign of hope
But it said orangutans have shown they can survive selective logging. Evidence from Ketgambe and Gunung Leuser in Sumatra showed their numbers declined after large trees were extracted from the forest, but rebounded as the forest regenerated.

The report was released at the triennial meeting of the 171-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES.

The 1975 CITES treaty prohibits all trade in orangutans except by special permit.

The report said illegal loggers were operating in 37 out of 41 Indonesian national parks. Further habitat pressure is coming from plantation owners clearing forests for palm oil trees to meet the growing appetite for biofuels.

"We are urging consumer nations to do more to ensure the timber they import is legal," said Virtue. The report estimates that up to 88 percent of all Indonesian timber was logged illegally, usually shipped abroad after being processed into lumber in saw mills or used as pulp.