Indonesia is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, second only to Brazil. However it is home to some of the world’s most threatened animals. The Indonesian government has been praised in the past for its conservation policies; their official reports state that populations of species such as the Javan Rhino and Tapanuli Orangutan are increasing. However, Research done by various NGOs and scientists, both local and international, shows that these counts include many individuals known to be deceased or missing and are therefore inaccurate.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to asses the situation, as the government has clamped down on many of these scientists, denying their claims and even banning many of them from the country. This lack of transparency is likely to lead to the extinction of these animals, and has caused much consternation among the Indonesian locals.
The Tapanuli Orangutan was only discovered to be a separate species in 2017, but was almost immediately thereafter declared to be the most endangered great ape species on the planet. Deforestation caused by logging, agriculture and mining has severely diminished its habitat. The deforestation hit a record high in 2022 due to land being cleared for illegal palm oil plantations in a protected area known as ‘The Orangutan Capital of the World’. These plantations were found to be suppliers to major brands such as Nestlé, Unilever and PepsiCo.
In the Batang Toru forest in northern Sumatra, villagers have reported an increase in orangutan sightings on their properties. This is because the orangutans are being driven out of their habitat by the construction of a Chinese-backed hydropower plant and dam which has been ongoing since 2015. The project cuts across the forests where the orangutans live, separating their scattered populations, which amount to less than 800 individuals, and preventing them from moving between different areas of the forest. This prevents breeding between the populations which is needed to maintain genetic variability and thus healthier populations.
Preservation of the orangutans is necessary to the villagers as they play an important roll in the dispersal of seeds for the fruit trees that the farmers depend on. Attempts by the locals to oppose the dam project, as they are concerned for their homes and livelihoods, have been silenced. There are some conservation efforts that offer hope to the critically endangered Tapanuli Orangutan but a more coordinated effort by all of them together is needed to insure its survival.
The critically endangered Javan Rhino is found only in Ujung Kulon National Park in Java. A recent report shows that the population is declining at a rate that could lead to their extinction within the next decade. The report shows an increase in reported poaching in the park. It also highlights inaccuracies in the government’s population count which shows a population increase but includes Rhinos which haven’t been spotted in years and even some which are known to be dead.
After the Indonesian government banned 5 international scientists that brought to light the inaccuracies in the government’s conservation and environmental narrative, Indonesian scientists are campaigning for their academic freedom, and declaring the government’s actions anti-science policy. Foreign scientists and conservationists in Indonesia have been targeted in this way for many years and the current president’s administration has excessively restricted all Indonesian research agencies. In 2019 they ended a 25 year partnership with the World Wildlife Fund, causing hundreds of employees to lose their jobs. This was after the WWF had criticized the manner in which they had addressed multiple forest fire incidents earlier in the year. The government has also hidden other information regarding the decline of animal populations, such as the Sumatran elephant which studies suggested had declined by 75% since 2001, instead making false claims of growth in these populations. NGOs are also required to have their research findings approved by the government before being published, and their social media is monitored.
All of these controlling policies, restrictions and bans have caused growing concern in the science community, which has lead to the collaboration of both Indonesian and international human rights and environmental NGOs to plan to take legal action against the president’s administration and the Ministry of Environment And Forestry. Their goal is to reverse this worrying trend of government interference in the undertaking of independent science, so that the real state of the country’s precious wildlife can be effectively analysed.