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Borneo orangutan release in jeopardy over fate of coal mining concession

A plan to release orangutans in a 250,000-hectare (618,000-acre) tract of forest in the Heart of Borneo has been disrupted by uncertainty around BHP Billiton’s decision to pull out of a coal mining project in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo, reports the Independent and conservation groups familiar with the situation.

BHP Billiton had provided funds to help establish the forest reserve in Central Kalimantan and offered conservationists mapping support and use of helicopters to deposit orangutans into otherwise inaccessible areas. The two-year program would have reintroduced scores of orangutans but the first scheduled airlift of 48 orangutans for July 20 was canceled after BHP warned it could no longer guarantee the safety of reintroduced orangutans. Last month BHP said it would pull out of the area for unspecified “strategic reasons”, leaving the fate of its concessions in the hands of the Indonesian government. BHP fears that the concessions could go to companies that would take fewer environmental precautions, thereby imperiling the orangutans.

Kalimantan, 2006

“BHP said it can’t be part of a release if it can’t be sure the orangutans will be safe,” said a source who requested anonymity. The source noted that BHP may reinstate the airlift once it gets assurances about the security of orangutan reintroduction sites — possibly as soon as August. BHP helped the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation release 36 orangutans in 2007 and 25 in 2008 in secure sites.

A working group has been created to help address the concerns. The group hopes to encourage new regulations in the Heart of Borneo whereby mining concessions handed back to the central government would be removed from the mining registry and made available for sustainable uses that benefit or protect biodiversity. The BHP concession area serves as the most important watershed in all of Borneo, feeding three major river systems, as well as providing a potential refuge for endangered orangutans.

Kalimantan, 2009

In recent years, expansion of oil palm plantations across Borneo and Sumatra has replaced logging and the wildlife trade as the biggest threat to remaining populations. Rehabilitation facilities rescue orangutans as they are displaced by development in hopes of eventually reintroducing them into the wild. But conservationists report difficulty in locating secure sites for reintroduction.

The Heart of Borneo initiative may help. The initiative, which has some support from Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, the governments that share Borneo, aims to protect 220,000 square kilometers of ecosystems across central Borneo, including key orangutan habitat. Still the plan faces strong opposition from development interests, including mining, logging, and plantation companies.

Precedent for BHP’s warming

BHP Billiton’s warning for the well-being of wildlife after it pulls out of its Borneo concessions is grounded in experience. Its departure from a remote forest area in Bakhuis Mountains of Suriname last year was followed by large-scale poaching for commercial bushmeat markets. The carnage destroyed the one of the world’s most prolific camera-trapping projects for monitoring wildlife. A biologist working in the area called it a tragedy.

“This was the most tragic loss of a pristine habitat and wildlife I have ever witnessed,” said the scientist, who asked not to be named. “I will forever remember the Bakhuis as the Lost Eden.”

BHP Billiton and WWF, a conservation group that has worked with the governments of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei to develop the Heart of Borneo initiative, were not willing to comment on this report.

With the clearing of forests,
baby orangutans are marooned
[Yale e360]

(06/25/2009) The orangutans at the Nyaru Menteng center, run by the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOS), are mainly “oil palm orphans” whose forest habitats were destroyed — and parents killed — by the swiftly spreading oil palm industry in Indonesia. BOS hopes to eventually release all of these orangutans back into their natural habitat — the majestic rainforests and swampy peat lands of central Kalimantan. But for many, this is a fate that may never be realized, and instead they may be relegated to a life in captivity. The reason? Suitable habitat in Borneo and Sumatra — the two islands that are home to the world’s entire population of wild orangutans — is being deforested so rapidly that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find locations for reintroduction.

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