Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Endangered orangutans in peril




Endangered orangutans in peril

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
A Tapanuli orangutan hangs on the trees in the Batang Toru rainforest, its only known habitat, on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. nanang sujana/aFP

Endangered orangutans in peril

A billion dollar hydroelectric dam development in Indonesia that threatens the habitat of the world’s rarest great ape has sparked fresh concerns about the impact of China’s globe-spanning infrastructure drive.

The site of the dam in the Batang Toru rainforest on Sumatra island is the only known habitat of the Tapanuli orangutan, a newly discovered species that numbers about 800 individuals in total.

The $1.6 billion project, which is expected to be operational by 2022, will cut through the heart of the critically endangered animal’s habitat, which is also home to agile gibbons, siamangs and Sumatran tigers.

Indonesian firm PT North Sumatra Hydro Energy is building the power plant with backing from Sinosure, a Chinese state-owned enterprise (SOE) that insures overseas investment projects, and the Bank of China, company documents show.

Chinese SOE Sinohydro, which built the mammoth Three Gorges Dam, has been awarded the design and construction contract for the project.

The development is one of dozens being pushed by the government to improve electricity supply throughout the sprawling archipelago, parts of which are regularly plagued by blackouts.

But the Chinese-backed project has sparked fierce resistance from conservationists, who say the potential environmental risk has already seen the World Bank Group shy away from involvement.

‘Death knell’

Until recently, scientists thought there were only two genetically distinct types of orangutan, Bornean and Sumatran.

But in 1997 biological anthropologist Erik Meijaard observed an isolated population of the great apes in Batang Toru, south of the known habitat for Sumatran orangutans, and scientists began to investigate if it was a unique species.

Researchers studied the DNA, skulls and teeth of 33 orangutans killed in human-animal conflict before concluding that they had indeed discovered a new species, giving it the scientific name Pongo tapanuliensis or Tapanuli orangutan.

The 510-megawatt dam, which will supply peak-load electricity to North Sumatra province, will flood part of the ape’s habitat and include a network of roads and high-voltage transmission lines.

Critics say it will fragment the three existing populations, who are living in a tract of forest less than one-fifth the size of the greater Jakarta region, and lead to inbreeding.

Meijaard said the dam would be the “death knell” for the animal.

“Roads bring in hunters [and] settlers – it’s the start, generally, of things falling apart,” he said.

But the plight of the cinnamon-furred ape seems to have been given little attention in the environmental impact assessment by PT North Sumatra Hydro Energy, according to conservationists and scientists who have seen the document.

In August, the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) filed a legal challenge against the environmental permit approved by the North Sumatra government, saying it failed to address the dam’s impact on wildlife, communities living downstream, or the risk of damage from earthquakes in the seismically active region.

PT North Sumatra Hydro Energy and Indonesia’s environment ministry declined to respond to requests for comment.

Bank of China said in a statement it did not comment on specific projects, but added it takes “all relevant factors into consideration when formulating policies and making decisions”.

The World Bank, through its sister organisation the International Finance Corporation, declined to comment on any aspect of its initial ties to the project – outlined in World Bank documents dated March 2017 – or environmentalists’ claims it pulled out due to habitat concerns.

MOST VIEWED

  • Seven positive for Covid-19, Hun Sen confirms local transmission

    Prime Minister Hun Sen announced that there has been local community transmission of Covid-19. However, he urged the people not to panic even though the Ministry of Health announced the discovery of seven new cases on Sunday. Among the victims are Chhem Savuth, the director-general

  • Cambodia at ‘most critical moment’, Hun Sen warns

    Prime Minister Hun Sen said the first community transmission of Covid-19 in Cambodia has led the country to the “most critical moment” that warranted urgent, large-scale operations to contain the pandemic. Hun Sen, who confirmed the first local transmission on November 28, said the source of

  • PM confirms community transmission, calls for unity

    Prime Minister Hun Sen has called on the public to stay calm, unite and follow the Ministry of Health guidelines after the wife of a senior official tested positive for Covid-19 in the Kingdom’s first case of community transmission. The case has drawn criticism

  • Over 110 garment factories close

    A government official said on November 22 that at least 110 garment factories had closed in the first nine months of the year and left more than 55,000 workers without jobs – but union leaders worry those numbers could be much higher. Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training undersecretary

  • Singapore group seeks $14M in damages from PPSP over ‘breach of contract’

    Singapore-based Asiatic Group (Holdings) Ltd is seeking a minimum of $14.4 million relief from Cambodia Securities Exchange (CSX)-listed Phnom Penh Special Economic Zone Plc (PPSP) for allegedly breaching a power plant joint venture (JV) agreement. Asiatic Group’s wholly-owned Colben System Pte Ltd and 95 per

  • PM vows to protect Hun family

    Prime Minister Hun Sen has vowed to continue his fight against opposition politicians who he said intend to smash the Hun family. Without naming the politicians but apparently referring to former leaders of the Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), Hun Sen said there