JAKARTA Forest fires and land clearing by palm oil firms could kill off within weeks about 200 orangutans in a forest in western Indonesia, an environmental group said on Wednesday.
The orangutans, part of a population of around 6,600 on Sumatra island, used to live in a lush forest and peatland region called Rawa Tripa on the coast of Indonesia's Aceh province. But more than two-thirds of the area has been divided up into palm oil concessions, said the Coalition to Save Tripa.
Graham Usher, a member of the coalition and a landscape protection specialist, said satellite images showed forest fires had been burning in Tripa since last week, and if allowed to continue they could wipe out orangutans already forced onto the edge of remaining forests.
"If there is any prolonged dry spell, which is quite likely, there's a very good chance that the whole piece of forest and everything in it, so that's orangutans, sun bears, tigers, and all the other protected species in it, will disappear in a few weeks and will be gone permanently," he told a news conference.
The palm oil industry has expanded to make Indonesia the world's top producer and exporter of the edible oil, used to make good ranging from cooking oil and biodiesel to biscuits and soap to feed growing Asian consumer demand.
Deforestation has threatened animals like the Sumatran tiger and Javan rhino and pushed up carbon dioxide emissions. The Bali tiger and the Java tiger have disappeared in the last 70 years.
A two-year moratorium on new permits to clear primary forests came into effect in Indonesia last year, part of a $1 billion deal with Norway to cut emissions and slow expansion of plantations. But the moratorium was breached in Aceh on its first days, an environmental group has said.
The last Aceh permit for palm oil was issued by former Aceh governor Irwandi Yusuf in August last year to PT Kallista Alam, prompting environmental group Walhi to file a legal suit against Yusuf. A court verdict is expected next week.
"If Kallista Alam win the case they will burn it and that whole bit of forest will disappear and we can say goodbye to the orangutan of Tripa peat swamps," Usher said.
Kallista Alam could not be reached for comment.
(Reporting by Olivia Rondonuwu; Editing by Neil Chatterjee and Ron Popeski)