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As Indonesia paints rosy picture for orangutans, scientists ask: Where’s the data?

A baby orangutan in Indonesia's North Sumatra province. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

  • Foreign scientists who were apparently banned for questioning the Indonesian government’s claim that orangutans are widely increasing in number insist none of the available data support the claim.
  • Erik Meijaard, Julie Sherman, Serge Wich, Marc Ancrenaz and Hjalmar Kühl were blocked from carrying out conservation-related research in the country after writing an op-ed that the forestry ministry deemed had “negative indications” that could “discredit” the government.
  • “If the government says that populations are growing I assume they have data that none of us have access to,” Meijaard told Mongabay. The ministry didn’t respond to requests for comment.
  • The banning of the five is the latest in a string of actions by the current government that local and foreign academics have slammed as “repressing science.”

Dutch biologist Erik Meijaard isn’t afraid to ruffle feathers.

In the past 15 years, he’s published some 120 opinion pieces in Indonesian newspapers, many of them critical about the state of conservation in the biodiversity-rich country.

But even Meijaard didn’t expect his latest article, which challenged government claims that orangutans in the Southeast Asian nation have “growing” populations, to generate such fierce blowback.

“I was surprised that they reacted as they did because the article was polite and well balanced, at least so we thought,” Meijaard told Mongabay.

In a Sept. 15 op-ed in The Jakarta Post, Meijaard and four other foreign scientists took issue with assertions from Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry that the country’s critically endangered orangutans were bouncing back after decades of steady decline in a nation that has lost huge swaths of rainforest from industrial-scale land clearing.

Several days later, a letter from the ministry surfaced banning the authors of the op-ed from conducting research in connection with the country’s national parks and conservation agencies.

The letter accused the five scientists of writing with “negative intentions” that could “discredit” the government and ordered regional conservation authorities not only to bar them from operating but to report the activities of any foreign researchers, and of any Indonesian ones with foreign funding, to ministry headquarters.

The letter sparked an outcry from civil society in Indonesia, a young democracy where despite broad press freedom some say the space for dissent is tightening — not least when it comes to criticism of environmental policy in a nation dominated by extractive and agribusiness concerns.

A peat forest cleared to make way for an oil palm plantation in Indonesia, the world’s top producer of palm oil. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Besides spurring a perceived attack on science, the row has drawn attention to government claims that orangutans are increasing in number — a dubious assertion unsupported by any known data, foreign and local scientists say.

‘Unrealistically positive’

The forestry ministry hasn’t always been at odds with scientists over orangutan numbers.

In 2016, a ministry population assessment produced in partnership with scientists from Indonesia and abroad established that an estimated 14,290 Sumatran orangutans (Pongo abelii) and 57,350 Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) remained in the wild. (Tapanuli orangutans, which would previously have been counted as Sumatran orangutans, were identified as a separate species in 2017, with a population of around 800.)

“Wild populations of orangutans are in steady decline,” the assessment said.

In the past half-decade, however, the ministry has repeatedly asserted that orangutans — which once ranged across Southeast Asia, but today are limited almost entirely to Indonesia — are staging a comeback.

In 2018, the ministry claimed orangutan numbers had risen by “more than 10%” nationwide from 2015-2017.

Meijaard and other scientists quickly denounced the figure as inaccurate. In a written rebuttal, the scientists called it a “flawed extrapolation” of data from a limited number of monitoring sites representing a tiny fraction of the overall orangutan population. Some of the sites had been used to release captive orangutans into the wild, further inflating the numbers, they added.

“We believe that the current Indonesian government methods provide an unrealistically positive and biased picture of orangutan population trends,” the scientists wrote.

Despite the skepticism, the ministry has continued to assert that the tree-dwelling primates are “growing,” with the minister, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, making the claim via the ForestHints website, a semi-official news portal for the ministry, in the Augusts of 2020, 2021 and 2022.

Environment and forestry minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar gives a salute at an Indonesian Independence Day event in 2021, two days before the annual International Orangutan Day on Aug. 19. “There is no chance whatsoever of these orangutans going extinct,” she said.

This past September, Meijaard and his colleagues wrote in the Post that “a wide range of scientific studies show that all three orangutan species have declined in the past few decades and that nowhere are populations growing.”

After issuing the letter banning the scientists, the ministry wrote in its own op-ed the Post that its statements had been “intended to build optimism” and that its critics’ analysis was based on “outdated information.”

Ministry officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment from Mongabay.

‘We need to find a way to sit around the table with everyone’

In correspondences with Mongabay, the scientists said the ministry had never shared any valid data to support its assertions that the fate of orangutans had undergone a dramatic turnaround in the years since President Joko Widodo took office in 2014.

“If the government says that populations are growing I assume they have data that none of us have access to,” Meijaard, who has 30 years experience working in Indonesia, wrote in an email.

“Our data and also the [ministry’s 2016 population assessment] show declining habitat and declining densities so overall declines for all species.”

Primatologist Serge Wich, who was also named in the ministry’s letter, said all available data showed orangutans were dwindling.

“If they have data that shows to the best of their knowledge and analysis that [orangutans are] increasing, then why don’t they share it or make it public so other people can analyze it as well?” he said in an interview.

“I would love to see data that actually argues we’re wrong,” he added. “That would be fantastic, that orangutans are doing great.”

Rising numbers in reintroduction or translocation sites should not be taken as indicative of overall population growth, said Julie Sherman, who signed the September op-ed along with Meijaard, Wich and colleagues Marc Ancrenaz and Hjalmar Kühl.

“Naturally monitoring after these releases will look like increases, but actually is representative of losses from the wild orangutan populations within species distribution,” Sherman, who has been leading wildlife and habitat conservation programs since 1995, wrote in an email.

“That has major implications if it is a site used to extrapolate change in species populations.”

A staff at the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation helps an orangutan exercise. The nonprofit operates under a formal agreement with Indonesia’s forestry ministry to conserve and rehabilitate orangutans, some of which get into violent encounters with farmers or poachers and must be nursed back to health in order to be re-released into the wild. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

In 2019, the ministry issued and then revoked a 10-year plan for orangutan conservation, purportedly so that recent forest protection measures by the government could be added. The plan, known as a SRAK, has not been re-issued.

According to an Indonesian activist who didn’t want to be named “due to the anti-criticism attitude of our government that could jeopardize our urgent work in the field,” the ministry revoked the SRAK because it was “considered to have delivered negative voices as it contains the narrative of deforestation as the main threat and that orangutans are critically endangered.”

Read more: Saving Sumatran elephants starts with counting them. Indonesia won’t say how many are left

Wich said the ministry’s approach of banning those who disagreed with it wasn’t productive.

“What I think is important to highlight in general is the impact on science in Indonesia,” he said.

“We need to find a way to sit around the table with everyone, including the government, and work on a system to share data and get our numbers and trend analysis right, whatever the outcome might be.”

‘Repressing science’

Herlambang Wiratraman, a constitutional law professor and advisory board member of the Indonesian Caucus for Academic Freedom, called the backlash against the five scientists “excessive.”

He said it was emblematic of a larger trend in which the suppression of academic freedom in Indonesia was becoming more common — especially in the environmental field.

In 2020, for example, the forestry ministry severed a 25-year partnership with WWF, accusing the global conservation group of overstepping its authority in the archipelagic country.

Also in 2020, French landscape ecologist David Gaveau was deported after he published an estimate of damage from 2019 wildfires that far exceeded the ministry’s own estimate.

A Sumatran orangutan navigates the treetops. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Foreign and local critics of the Batang Toru dam, which is being built in the only known habitat of the Tapanuli orangutan, have faced blowback as well.

The list goes on: Herlambang pointed to “secrecy clauses” in Indonesia’s new climate deal with Norway that academics have condemned as “political censorship.” And he cited a recent restructuring of the Indonesian science sector that resulted in one of the nation’s best-known research bodies losing 70% of its staff — a decision the institute’s former director called “disastrous for a great democratic nation that has so much promise and hope for its future.”

Herlambang, who teaches law at Gadjah Madah University, said attacks on environmental dissent had increased in the past five years. He attributed the trend to the perception that science was “interfering with oligarchs’ profits from mining, palm oil [and] deforestation,” and warned of “threats of future ecological crises when scientific efforts to ascertain them are no longer valued.”

He added: “There is no developed country that advanced by repressing science.”

Richaldo Hariandja contributed reporting.

Banner: A baby orangutan in Indonesia’s North Sumatra province. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

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