04.12.16

Threat To Indonesia's Orangutans

 Mr. LEAHY. Mr. President, a December 16, 1997, New York Times article entitled "Asia's Forest Fires, Scant Mercy for Orangutans'' described the widespread illegal logging and slash and burn agriculture that posed an existential threat to the orangutan, one of the world's only four species of great apes. It was after reading that article and speaking to scientists who had devoted their lives to saving the orangutan from extinction that I started a program in the foreign aid budget to help protect their rapidly shrinking habitat.

Orangutans live in only two places on Earth, Borneo and Sumatra, and since I first learned of the threats they are facing, the U.S. Agency for International Development has provided millions of dollars to nongovernmental organizations in Indonesia to try to ensure their survival in the wild.

Important progress has been made. Back when the program started, it was feared that the orangutan would be extinct in the wild within 15 years if nothing was done. That has not happened, but their survival is far from assured, as an article in the April 6, 2016, edition of the

New York Times entitled "Adapting to Life as Orphans, Fires and Corporate Expansion Threaten Indonesia's Orangutans,'' describes. It reminded me of what had sparked my attention 20 years ago and how much more there is yet to do.

Orangutans and humans share 97 percent of the same DNA. They are extraordinarily intelligent animals and physically far stronger than humans, but today, like all species, their survival depends on humans.

The Indonesian Government has taken steps to change people's attitudes toward orangutans, so they are recognized as deserving of protection, not as pests to be killed or captured and kept as pets. In many ways, the orangutan is or could be Indonesia's equivalent of China's Giant Pandas which are protected and admired around the world.

Among the biggest threat to orangutans today is the palm oil industry, which is responsible for the destruction of huge areas of tropical forest where orangutans live. The fires used to clear the forest for the planting of palm oil trees has caused havoc on the environment and public health, contributing not only to the destruction of species but widespread drought.

The New York Times describes this increasingly precarious situation. I want to quote a few passages from that article: "The blazes destroyed more than 10,000 square miles of forests, blanketing large parts of Southeast Asia in a toxic haze for weeks, sickening hundreds of thousands of people and, according to the World Bank, causing $16 billion in economic losses.''

"They also killed at least nine orangutans, the endangered apes native to the rain forests of Borneo and Sumatra. More than 100, trapped by the loss of habitat, had to be relocated. Seven orphans, including five infants, were rescued and taken to rehabilitation centers here.''

"Indonesia has approved palm oil concessions on nearly 15 million acres of peatlands over the last decade; burning peat emits high levels of carbon dioxide and is devilishly hard to extinguish.''

"Multinational palm oil companies, pulp and paper businesses, the plantations that sell to them, farmers and even day laborers all contribute to the problem.''

"While it is against Indonesian law to clear plantations by burning, enforcement is lax. The authorities have opened criminal investigations against at least eight companies in connection with last year's fires, but there has yet to be a single high-profile case to get to court.''

"The government in Jakarta, the capital, has recently banned the draining and clearing of all peatland for agricultural use, and it has ordered provincial governments to adopt better fire suppression methods. But it has not publicly responded to calls for better prevention, such as cracking down on slash-and-burn operations by large palm oil companies.''

It would be an unforgiveable tragedy if any species of great apes were to become extinct in the wild. They are all endangered--gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans. We need to do whatever is necessary to build international support for protecting these animals, and to help countries like Indonesia enforce its laws to stop the destruction of tropical forests on which these and so many other species depend.

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