The Ape Alliance has designated today (Thursday) as an international day of action to save the Tapanuli orangutan. Protests are taking place around the world against plans for a hydroelectric dam that would permanently fragment the orangutans’ habitat and could lead to their extinction.
The Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis) was only identified as a new species in November 2017, but it has already been described as one of the most endangered great ape species in the world.
Fewer than eight hundred Tapanuli orangutans remain and the Batang Toru dam would be constructed in the area where their population density is the highest.
Demonstrators were originally going to target the Bank of China, but the Ape Alliance has received official news that, in light of concerns about the plight of the Tapanuli orangutans, the bank is now seriously reconsidering its decision to fund the dam and has agreed to meet concerned NGOs.
Today’s protests will now focus on putting pressure on the multinational corporation Jardine Matheson, which owns the Mandarin Oriental hotel chain. The Ape Alliance says the conglomerate is complicit in the destruction of critical Tapanuli habitat.
“Because Jardines also owns one of Indonesia’s largest companies they have the influence needed to help stop the dam,” the alliance said.
Jardines owns the Martabe gold mine on the island of Sumatra via its mining company United Tractors and United Tractors’ subsidiary PT Danusa Tambang Nusantara. A huge amount of electricity is used to operate the mine’s smelters.
The main demonstrations today in the United States will be in New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago. In Canada they will be in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver and the main protest in Britain will be in London.
In New York and London, the demonstrations will be at the Mandarin Oriental hotels. Supporters of the campaign to save the Tapanuli orangutan who are unable to attend these protests are being asked to meet at a coffee shop in their town or city and write tweets and Facebook posts, tagging Mandarin Oriental.
A petition organised by the US-based NGO Mighty Earth and addressed to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel and Jardine Matheson has meanwhile garnered more than 37,000 signatures.
The petition calls on Jardines to help stop the dam project. It states that forest has already been destroyed to make room for the dam and support roads.
“This dam would permanently fragment the Tapanuli orangutan’s habitat, breaking the forest into areas that are too small for them to survive over the long term. With a population of eight hundred, the Tapanuli has no room for error in the fight for its existence,” the petition states.
The 510-megawatt dam would flood part of the orangutans’ habitat and the project includes a network of roads and high-voltage transmission lines. Other endangered species would also be severely impacted.
Mighty Earth points out that there is a massive geothermal energy plant just a few kilometres away from the Martabe gold mine. It could be further expanded to provide more clean electricity than the dam ever would, the petition states.
The NGO’s petition to the Bank of China and Sinohydro has garnered more than 132,000 signatures.
Sinohydro, which built the mammoth Three Gorges Dam, has been awarded the design and construction contract for the Batang Toru dam project, whose cost is estimated at $US 1.6 billion.
A petition organised by Dana Tarigan from The Indonesian Forum for the Environment, WALHI, calling on the Bank of China to stop financing the Batang Toru dam, currently has more than 95,000 signatures.
More than 282,000 people have meanwhile signed a petition organised by Rainforest Rescue that is addressed to the Chinese and Indonesian presidents and the CEOs of Sinohydro and Indonesia’s state-owned electricity company PT PLN.
The Tapanuli orangutans live in the Batang Toru forest on the island of Sumatra. They are surviving in 1,100 square kilometres of remaining habitat, which is divided into three blocks of forest, separated by roads and agricultural land.
There are two main blocks of forest (east and west), plus an area in the Sibuali-Buali Nature Reserve, located next to the west block, where there is a third, smaller population.
One of the 37 co-authors of a paper about the new species, conservation scientist Erik Meijaard, has said the dam would be the “death knell” for the Tapanuli orangutan. Constructing roads through their habitat would bring in settlers and hunters, he says.
Another of the co-authors, Matthew Nowak, said after the Tapanuli orangutan was identified that, despite only just being described, with so few individuals left, it was already the most endangered great ape species in the world.
Co-author Serge Wich from the IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group’s section on great apes said: “If more than 1 percent of the population is lost annually this will spiral them to extinction.”
Meijaard says he discovered the population of orangutans south of Lake Toba in 1997, but it took twenty years to compile the data that shows that the Tapanuli orangutan is a distinct species.
The scientists’ genome analyses revealed that the deepest split in the evolutionary history of extant orangutans – between the Batang Toru population and those living to the north of Lake Toba – occurred about three million years ago.
The Bornean and Sumatran orangutan species separated much later – about 674,000 years ago.
The discovery of the Tapanuli orangutan, which is named after the area in which it lives, was the first time since 1929 that a new member of the great ape family had been identified.
The Batang Toru hydroelectric power plant is being built by the Indonesian firm PT North Sumatra Hydro Energy (PT NSHE) with backing from Sinosure, a Chinese state-owned enterprise that insures overseas investment projects, and the Bank of China.
The dam is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative to build roads, railways, bridges, ports, power plants, and energy pipelines, and boost telecommunication links.
WALHI has so far failed in its legal challenge against PT NSHE. A court in North Sumatra ruled on March 4 that the Batang Toru dam could go ahead. WALHI is appealing against the decision.
The NGO said that PT NSHE’s environmental impact assessment failed to consider endangered species or communities downstream and the potential for ecological disasters.
PT NSHE says the power plant will cover 122 hectares of the Batang Toru ecosystem and argues that the area is not the orangutans’ primary habitat.
In August last year the Alliance of Leading Environmental Researchers and Thinkers (ALERT) sent a letter to Indonesia’s president, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo about the dam project.
ALERT listed what it says are important misinterpretations or distortions of information about the project by PT NSHE and its corporate affiliates – “assertions that have wide-ranging financial, environmental, economic, and socio-political implications”.
It added: “We emphasise that, on the strength of this and other evidence, we believe that this project should not have been approved initially by the North Sumatra provincial government.”
ALERT said that the area in which the dam would be built is prime Tapanuli habitat where the orangutans occur in their highest abundances.
“These habitats are rainforests on rich alluvial soils, which may well be functioning as a crucial ‘population source’ (an area with a high number of breeding animals), which is vital for sustaining the overall population,” ALERT wrote.
ALERT points to the Tapanuli orangutan’s low reproduction rate and its intense vulnerability to mortality.
Tapanuli females have their first offspring when they are about 15 years old, and the interbirth interval is then about 8 to 9 years.
“Moreover, the species is strictly arboreal, living only in trees and never coming down to ground. Even a small forest clearing, such as a road without overhead canopy connections, could disrupt and isolate its population,” ALERT wrote.
“In Indonesia, an almost universal consequence of such infrastructure projects is to open a Pandora’s box of secondary impacts caused by poaching and illegal logging, mining, farming, and forest burning. These secondary effects typically magnify the spatial scale and intensity of environmental impacts of the original project by many times over.”
ALERT says the dam project would destroy the major river that runs through the heart of the Tapanuli orangutans’ habitat. Only a trickle of the river’s original flow would be maintained – between one and two cubic metres of water per second, compared to the natural flows of 40 to 400 cubic metres per second.
“This river destruction will kill the fish and aquatic life that rely on the river and sustain local fisheries. It would also allow the river itself to become a ‘corridor of death’ – by permitting poachers and encroachers to hike into the heart of the orangutan’s habitat along the dry riverbed,” ALERT wrote.
As a “peaker” system, the dam will store water for 18 hours and then release it for just six hours.
The resulting drastic daily fluctuations in river levels would affect several thousand people who depend on the river for fisheries, transportation, irrigation, and their daily water needs, ALERT says.
“These water fluctuations may also cause dramatically accelerated erosion and river sedimentation, causing loss of downstream farmland and infrastructure.”
ALERT says this issue has been so poorly considered publicly that it would be highly advisable for the Ministry of Energy and Mining to suspend all proposed “peaker” projects in Indonesia until urgently needed hydrological studies can be completed.
The alliance said it was also concerned about “recurring suggestions of untoward pressures and ‘inducements’ being applied by PT NSHE toward certain scientists, journalists, and others prepared to speak out in opposition to the project”. This, ALERT said, had provoked ongoing investigations by high-level journalists.
Those calling for an end to the Batang Toru dam project say the Tapanuli orangutan population is already threatened by many outside forces, from habitat loss to poaching and climate change.
Several NGOs on the front line of orangutan protection collaborated to produce a report about the dam project that was published in May last year. They said urgent action needed to be taken to save the Tapanuli orangutans from extinction, and protect local communities.
“Companies, government and investors must take immediate preventative action,” the NGOs stated.
“The Batang Toru forest is home to the entire remaining population of Tapanuli orangutans … The new project poses a very real threat of extinction for this entire species. Many more endangered species will be severely impacted, such as Sumatran tigers, sun bears, agile gibbons and pangolins.”
The NGOs say the orangutans’ remaining forest habitat would be split into three sections, permanently separating the two main blocks and the nature reserve.
A 13.5-kilometre tunnel is planned that would carry water from the dam to power generators downstream and the accompanying access road would create a permanent barrier that orangutans and other wildlife would be unwilling or unable to cross.
“In addition, forests will be felled to make way for high-voltage power lines running along the valley, creating another barrier,” the NGOS said.
The NGOs also point to the effect of the dam project on local people. “The dam will split the river in two, preventing fish and other species from migrating along the river,” they said.
“This will have serious impacts on fish like jurung, an extremely important and highly valued source of food and income for local communities.”
The dam would also emit significant quantities of greenhouse gases, the NGOs add, and this would contribute to climate change.
“These emissions originate from the manufacture of the massive amounts of concrete and other materials needed for construction. They are also emitted by decomposing vegetation in the flooded reservoir above the dam, especially methane, which as a greenhouse gas is thirty times more potent than carbon dioxide,” the NGOs state.
“Other dam reservoirs have also led to an increased concentration of methylmercury in the aquatic food chain, which is known to cause brain and nervous system damage.”
In addition, the NGOs say, more than a million cubic metres of rock and earth from the tunnel excavations will be dumped in the forest, further destroying habitat and impacting wildlife, as well as increasing the risk of erosion and landslides.
“And if that wasn’t enough, the area is notorious for powerful earthquake activity, exacerbating the risk of potential new disasters.”
The NGOs called on PT NSHE and Sinohydro to halt all operations immediately, and remove already built infrastructure, including roads and bridges, which was giving access to poaching, illegal logging, and land speculation.
The international team of scientists who identified the Tapanuli orangutan came to their conclusion after comparing its skeleton and genomes with the two other orangutan species, the Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) and the Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii).
The researchers, whose paper was published in the journal Current Biology, say that the Tapanuli orangutan is genetically and morphologically distinct from the other two species. The new species, they say, is more closely related to the Bornean orangutan, whose home is on an island more than one thousand kilometres away, than it is to other orangutans in Sumatra, who live further north on that island.
The oldest lineage belongs to the newly discovered species.
When the scientists compared the cranio-mandibular and dental characteristics of an orangutan who died from wounds inflicted by local villagers in November 2013 with those of 33 adult male orangutans at a similar stage of developmental, they found consistent differences.
The Tapanuli orangutan’s skull was found to be smaller than that of Sumatran and Bornean orangutans. Its face was flatter and its canine teeth were wider.
The researchers also found some subtle differences between the call of the Tapanuli orangutan and that of other orangutan populations.
The Tapanuli orangutans have thicker, frizzier hair than their Bornean and Sumatran relatives, and, unlike the Bornean orangutans, the females grow beards. The dominant males have a prominent moustache and flat flanges covered in downy hair, whereas the flanges of older males are more like those of Bornean males.
The newly described species is similar to the Sumatran orangutan in its linear body build and has a more cinnamon-coloured pelage than that of its Bornean relative.
Researchers have seen the Tapanuli orangutans eat plant species that have not been observed in the diet of other orangutan species.
The scientists who have identified the Tapanuli orangutan say that there are fewer individuals than in any other great ape species.
“A combination of small population size and geographic isolation is of particularly high conservation concern, as it may lead to inbreeding depression and threaten population persistence.”
The researchers say that, to ensure the Tapanuli orangutan’s long-term survival, conservation measures need to be implemented swiftly.
They say that, because of the rugged terrain in the Batang Toru forest, external threats to the primates have been primarily limited to road construction, illegal clearing of forests, hunting, killings during conflict over crops, and trade in orangutans.
However, they say, the proposed new hydroelectric development in the area of highest orangutan density could impact up to eight percent of the animal’s habitat.
“This project might lead to further genetic impoverishment and inbreeding, as it would jeopardise chances of maintaining habitat corridors between the western and eastern range, as well as smaller nature reserves, all of which maintain small populations of P. tapanuliensis.”
Bank of China will ‘evaluate the project very carefully’
The Ape Alliance organised a petition that was signed by 120,000 people, and there were protests on March 1 outside branches of the Bank of China in numerous cities including Jakarta, New York, Hong Kong, Manila, and Johannesburg.
The alliance said that, on Tuesday, the Bank of China sent the CEO of its London branch to Stroud to meet with the alliance’s chairman, Ian Redmond. The bank agreed that it would send executives from its Indonesia branch to a formal roundtable with all relevant NGOs later this month in London, and would hold similar meetings with stakeholders in Indonesia.
“We have concluded that it would counterproductive to hold protests at Bank of China while in the midst of these ongoing discussions,” the alliance said. “The Bank of China knows that we are only postponing the protests and that they will resume if the funding for the Batang Toru dam goes ahead.”
The Bank of China said in a statement on its website on March 4 that it had taken note of the concerns expressed by some environmental organisations about the Batang Toru project.
The bank said it would evaluate the project very carefully “and make prudent decisions by duly considering the promotion of green finance and the fulfilment of social responsibility as well as the adherence to commercial principles”.
It added: “We attach great importance to corporate social responsibility in our global operations and ensure that our business activities abide by local laws and regulations. We are committed to supporting environmental protection globally and upholding the principles of green finance.”
WALHI said it sincerely appreciated the bank’s re-evaluation of the risks associated with the Batang Toru dam project and viewed its response “as an encouraging sign of the bank’s recognition of ours and international civil society’s concerns regarding the controversial dam project”.
The NGO says that the environmental, social, and biodiversity risks posed by the Batang Toru dam are complex. It said it hoped that a meeting with Bank of China representatives would “help to clarify and dispel common misconceptions regarding the dam’s real impacts”.
Update: today’s protest outside the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park hotel in London.