Erik Meijaard is forest director for People and Nature Consulting International in Bali. This editorial originally appeared December 26, 2010 in the Jakarta Globe. It has been posted here with the permission of the author and the Jakarta Globe.
Orangutan in Central Kalimantan. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Indonesia is famed for its wildlife diversity. Straddling the contact zone between Asia and Australia, evolution has created some of the earth’s most remarkable species here. Think babirusa, Komodo dragon, orangutan and birds of paradise, and you get the picture.
Most of us also know that Indonesia has a major problem maintaining this diversity through effective conservation programs. Not a day goes by without Indonesia appearing somewhere in the world’s media with a negative story on how it is managing its wildlife.
Most conservation critiques in this country focus on the rapid loss of forests. As the forests disappear, the argument goes, so does the wildlife.
This is partly, but not always, true. Recent studies have shown that most forest species are a lot more adaptable than we once thought, and that most species survive in well-managed timber concessions.
What animals cannot tolerate, however, is being shot, speared, poisoned or otherwise killed. And this is happening a lot more in Indonesia than generally is acknowledged.
Borneo bearded pig (Sus barbatus) feeding on rambutan fruit in Central Kalimantan. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Globally endangered species such as the wild banteng, pangolins, crocodiles, tigers, elephants and rhinos are threatened less by habitat loss than they are by hunting. Banteng happily graze on grasses in deforested areas, but poaching has decimated populations even in former strongholds such as the Baluran and Alas Purwo national parks in East Java.
The previously very common pangolin has been hunted out from large parts of Sumatra and Kalimantan for the Chinese medicine trade. Crocodiles used to line the banks of major rivers in the millions, but have now all but disappeared. The stories of shot tigers, elephants and rhinos are all too familiar.
It’s not just mammals and reptiles that are overhunted. Indonesia’s love for caged birds has driven many species to the brink of extinction. The song of the famous cucak rowo or straw-headed bulbul is often heard in the streets of Jakarta and other towns, but has disappeared from all but the most remote parts of Kalimantan and Sumatra.
The critically endangered white-shouldered ibis — only a few dozen of which remain in river areas in East Kalimantan and Cambodia — is a large bird that feeds on river banks. If there ever was a sitting duck, this is it.
Indonesia is an interesting case. As opposed to many countries where wildlife poaching has been well documented, Indonesia’s prohibition on private gun possession has possibly fed the suggestion that hunting cannot be much of a problem. But many local hunters make their own guns, or they use snares, spears, blowpipes, poison and other means to kill animals.
Hunting is happening inside and outside protected areas and enforcement of anti-hunting laws is nearly nonexistent. Only the anti-poaching teams for tiger and rhino protection seem to have had some success in catching poachers and getting them prosecuted. The rest of the hunting goes on largely unnoticed, uncontrolled and unpunished.
Indonesia does have laws against killing, trading or otherwise harming protected species, but apart from a handful of cases in which tiger and rhino poachers were jailed, no one has ever been effectively prosecuted for illegally killing protected wildlife in Indonesia.
A recent report by the wildlife trade organization Traffic suggested that more than 1,000 orangutans are killed or captured each year in Kalimantan for the wildlife trade alone. Recent surveys by the Nature Conservancy and the Indonesian Association of Primatologists (Perhappi) suggest that this figure may be an underestimate, and that many more orangutans are killed simply for local consumption.
Obviously, government authorities are not effectively addressing the hunting issue. Admittedly, to effectively control and reduce hunting is difficult. Even relatively well-organized and funded countries such as Britain have major problems controlling the illegal killing of endangered species like golden eagles.
Sumatran freshwater turtle. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
But Indonesia needs to start thinking seriously about reducing the hunting of its endangered wildlife. Most citizens here may not even be aware of hunting prohibitions. And if they are, they may not care because they do not understand the consequences of their hunting, either to themselves (since chances of punishment are negligible) or to wildlife populations. New efforts in law enforcement and nationwide public campaigns would be a good start, and Indonesia could do well to follow the example of its neighbor.
Malaysia has recently drawn up new legislation that means stricter penalties for poachers. The Wildlife Conservation Act 2010, enacted in August, will mean increased fines and jail sentences for illegal wildlife hunting and trade. Penalties will be handed out to makers of products that contain parts of protected species, and those who set up snares would face jail.
Having such laws in Indonesia and enforcing them would be very helpful for wildlife conservation. Such laws should make it impossible, for example, for illegal wildlife products such as bear gall bladders to remain openly for sale in the duty free shopping zone in Jakarta’s international airport (check the various drawers in the shop selling shark fins).
Indonesia also urgently needs to review its list of protected species. When a species is considered endangered by the IUCN-World Conservation Union it means that it is expected to go extinct in the near future unless better managed. But species such as the endangered Javan warty pig remain unprotected by Indonesian law.
In the end, Indonesia will only manage to keep its incredible wildlife resources if it gains the support of its citizens. But that could take decades.
In the meantime, real and immediate action is required to stop some of the most destructive hunting practices. Televised campaigns could send the message that hunting is neither cool nor civilized, and often illegal. If that starts to resonate more widely, many species could be diverted from the road to extinction.
(10/18/2010) As nations from around the world meet at the Convention on Biological Diversity in Nagoya, Japan to discuss ways to stem the loss of biodiversity worldwide, two prominent researchers argue that conservationists need to consider paradigm shifts if biodiversity is to be preserved, especially in developing countries. Writing in the journal Biotropica, Douglas Sheil and Erik Meijaard argue that some of conservationists’ most deeply held beliefs are actually hurting the cause.
(09/23/2010) Selectively logged forests and timber plantations can serve as habitat for orangutans, suggesting that populations of the endangered ape may be more resilient than previously believed, reports research published in the journal PlosONE. The study, conducted by a team of researchers led by Erik Meijaard of Jakarta-based People and Nature Consulting International, found roughly equivalent population densities between natural forest areas and two pulp and paper plantation concessions in East Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo.
(07/29/2010) Many of the environmental issues facing Indonesia are embodied in the plight of the orangutan, the red ape that inhabits the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. Orangutan populations have plummeted over the past century, a result of hunting, habitat loss, the pet trade, and human-ape conflict. Accordingly, governments, charities, and concerned individuals have ploughed tens of millions of dollars into orangutan conservation, but have little to show in terms of slowing or reversing the decline. The same can be said about forest conservation in Indonesia: while massive amounts of money have been put toward protecting and sustainable using forests, the sum is dwarfed by the returns from converting forests into timber, rice, paper, and palm oil. So orangutans—and forests—continue to lose out to economic development, at least as conventionally pursued. Poor governance means that even when well-intentioned measures are in place, they are often undermined by corruption, apathy, or poorly-designed policies. So is there a future for Indonesia’s red apes and their forest home? Erik Meijaard, an ecologist who has worked in Indonesia since 1993 and is considered a world authority on orangutan populations, is cautiously optimistic, although he sees no ‘silver bullet’ solutions.
Recent blog posts by Erik Meijaard
(20th December 2010) I had some really good feedback on a previous blog about a family of Asian small-clawed otters that I had seen in Jakarta.
A Jakarta resident wrote to me that he had observed relatively large numbers of otters for some time near his home in south Jakarta, not far from the area where I live.In fact, the otters were at one time so common that they used to keep him awake at night with their whistling calls. He used to watch groups as large as 16 individuals searching for freshwater crabs, which seems to be their staple food.
(8th December 2010) It never fails to cheer me up to see an unusual species in an unusual place. Among all the doom and gloom in conservation it is nice to see a species beat the trend. For a while I have been fascinated by the Tree Sparrow (see my blog on the Church Bird of Borneo), a species in decline in its native Eurasia, but abundant here in Indonesia where it was introduced. I observe them regularly from behind my desk that looks out over our garden. What makes this species such a success here while in its native lands it is struggling?
(22nd November 2010) Conservation is like guerrilla warfare. But are the similarities flattering for conservationists?
No matter how big, conventional and entwined with power conservation organizations get, they still have the posture of guerrilla groups. While conventional warfare seeks to reduce an opponent’s capability through head-on confrontation, guerrillas seek to undermine the opponents’ strength and their public support. Guerrillas often also have popular backing and are financed through outside supporters. Conservation works similarly through strategically picked battles (our conservation projects). Public and outside support is crucial to conservation’s success. And our “armies” are so much smaller than those employed by “the enemy.”
(13th October 2010) Conservation is traditionally associated with left-wing politics. The distinction between left and right dates back to the days of the French revolution when those supporting radical changes in society where seated on the left side of parliament. Left-wing politics tend to strive for a more egalitarian society, achieved through cooperative, mutually respectful collaboration. Right-wing politics may see social and economic hierarchies as natural or normal. Left-wing economic politics are often characterized by extensive government intervention. On the right side of politics, or at least the center-right, capitalism, private property rights, and the market economy with limited government regulation are more valued.
(27th September 2010) In the discussion about where oil palm and other plantations should go we talk so easily about degraded lands. But the concept is not straightforward.
When the US and Europe cleared their forests a few centuries ago, they did so to “improve” the land. Forests were seen as a source of lumber, best to be cleared and replaced by annual crops with which a lot more money could be made. We have learned since then, and now understand the value of forests for biodiversity, ecosystem goods and services, and also because they are beautiful to us. Many of us now see deforestation as a negative thing, and call what is left “degraded”.