A pongo tapanuliensis in the Batang Toru Forest Complex, North Tapanuli District, North Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo credit: Tim Laman For Wikimedia Commons

Indonesia can save the pongo tapanuliensis if it does what it did to conserve the Komodo dragon.

LAST October, I was enjoying a scrumptious dinner in Crete with some biologists when they casually said they’d discovered a new species of great ape over the Sfakian pie and raki. They downplayed the whole thing in the usual way that scientists shrug off the most momentous discoveries. But I made them go into great detail – off the record of course – and was left stunned as I stumbled, admittedly a little drunk, back to my hotel. That night I dreamt of orang utans.

In November the world’s Eighth Great Ape went public. Found in a small area of Sumatra, the Tapanuli orang utan, or Pongo tapanuliensis, is also the most endangered great ape alive. Only 800 or so remain. To add insult to injury, the Indonesian government is allowing a Chinese state-run dam project to go ahead despite the fact that it will split the population and send the new great ape on a clear path to extinction.

Jutna Supriatna, a conservation bioloigst at the Indonesia of University, put it succinctly: “If it proceeds, the dam will flood crucial parts of the ape’s habitat, while chopping up its remaining habitat with new roads and powerlines.”

Small populations rarely survive such onslaughts.

The Tapanuli orang utan isn’t your grandfather’s orang utan: it’s got a flatter face, broader canines and frizzier hair. Its diet is totally different too. For instance, a significant amount of its meals are made up of conifer cones – a really odd behaviour. It also loves caterpillars when in season. And that’s just what we know so far.

DNA evidence shows that this great ape split from its orang utan relatives — the Sumatran and Bornean orangutans — 3.38 million years ago. This makes it more genetically distinct than the Borneo and Sumatran orang utans are from each other.

Yet more than six months after the discovery was announced, the Indonesian government has done nothing to protect the species. Clearing forest as I write, the Chinese dam will directly impact 10-20 per cent of the 800 surviving orang utans and will permanently sever the largest population left. New roads will allow increased access to the orang utan’s habitat leading to greater deforestation and orang utan-human conflict — which never ends well for the orang utan. Conservationists say the dam will likely be the beginning of the end for the just discovered great ape.

Dams, such as these, are often touted as green energy sources. They are not. By disrupting rivers, dams have massive impacts on freshwater species and can even lead to local extinctions. They are also not climate friendly. Due to rotting vegetation in the dam’s reservoirs, they emit huge amounts of methane — a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon in the short term. In some cases, dams may be as bad for the climate as burning coal.

So here’s our choice: the slow extinction of the world’s eighth great ape — the first extinction of a great ape in thousands of years — or another destructive dam. It’s a no-brainer.

The Indonesian government must cancel the dam project. It should work with local people to declare the range of the Tapanuli orang utans — around 1,100 square kilometres — a new national park. Such a park would likely be a quick contender for Unesco World Heritage status. Instead of building a dam, it should look into building a research station for scientists and students — who could contribute to the local economy as well — and mull low footprint tourism potential for the area with local people as partners. If Indonesia proves it’s serious about protecting the new ape, conservation funds would likely pour in.

Such a plan is hardly novel, it’s essentially how Indonesia successfully conserved another large species with a similarly restricted range: the Komodo dragon. Today, the Komodo dragon is one of Indonesia’s best conservation success stories.

I fully understand Indonesia’s desire to pursue economic and energy development, but such development need not be blind. In our future world, we will seek out Indonesia for its two greatest assets: a wildly diverse culture and a nation ridiculously rich in wildlife, including the newest member of the great ape family — assuming Indonesia has the wisdom today to protect them.

Jeremy Hance is a freelance journalist and blogs at The Guardian Blog: Radical Conservation

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