Twelve endangered tigers, Barbie dolls, and a logging road of questionable legality have emerged as key elements in a long-running battle to save one of the last remaining fragments of Sumatra’s battered rainforest.
At issue is the forest surrounding Bukit Tigapuluh National Park in Indonesia’s Central Sumatra, where endangered Sumatran tigers, reintroduced orangutans, elephants and two tribes of indigenous people make their home.
Indonesian and international environmental groups say that 240,000 acres of forest are in imminent danger from timber companies that are cutting the trees to make paper products. The threatened forest surrounds Bukit Tigapuluh, or “Thirty Hills,” a 330,000-acre wildlife haven that is protected from logging. But many of the endangered animals, oblivious to park boundaries, prefer to dwell in the low-lying forest on the periphery of rugged Bukit Tigapuluh. The activists are seeking to expand the national park to include that forest.
Sumatra, the world’s sixth largest island, has been heavily logged over the past few decades, largely to provide trees for the pulp and paper industry. Much of the island’s ecologically diverse rainforest has been replaced by non-diverse palm plantations that produce low-cost cooking oil.
The logging slashed Sumatra’s rainforest by nearly half between 1985 and 2007 – a loss of some 30 million acres that has threatened biodiversity, filled the air with smoke from forest and peat fires, and led to soil degradation. “The lowland tropical forest, the most threatened type of forest on the island, is now only 20 percent of its original extent of 25 million hectares,” or nearly 62 million acres, according to a report from the United Nations Environment Program’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre. Most of the remaining forest consists of “scattered remnants,” the report said.
Environmentalists say the continuing destruction of Indonesia’s rainforest has helped make the country the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after the United States and China.
“The tropical rainforest is carelessly used to make cheap products (for use) almost everywhere,” says Peter Pratje, a German wildlife biologist who heads a program to reintroduce orangutans into the wild at Bukit Tigapuluh.
In the face of the degradation, environmental activists have sought to draw global attention to the threats facing the little-known national park and its wildlife.
In May, the World Wildlife Fund released a video of 12 Sumatran tigers taken in the forest near the park using a hidden camera activated by infrared sensors. Set up in a small clearing, the camera recorded the tigers, including two mothers with cubs, wandering in and out of view. At one point, three cubs can be seen scampering around and playing with a large leaf.
WWF says the forest around Bukit Tigapuluh is home to about 30 of the estimated 400 Sumatran tigers left in the wild. Two other Indonesian tiger subspecies, the Javan tiger and the Bali tiger, were driven to extinction in the 20th Century. Last year, the Indonesian government declared Bukit Tigapuluh one of six priority areas for tiger conservation, but that has had little effect on logging operations.
“This video confirms the extreme importance of these forests in the Bukit Tigapuluh ecosystem and its wildlife corridor,” said Anwar Purwoto, director of WWF-Indonesia’s Forest and Species Program. “WWF calls for all concessions operating in this area to abandon plans to clear this forest and protect areas with high conservation value.”
WWF and other environmentalist groups say the greatest threat to the forests around Bukit Tigapuluh comes from logging companies that supply pulpwood to Asia Pulp & Paper (APP). The controversial company, part of the Singapore-based Sinar Mas Group, is one of the largest pulp and paper businesses in the world; environmentalists say it is responsible for more deforestation in Sumatra than any other firm. Known as APP, it acquires much of its pulpwood by contracting with local logging companies.
APP and the Sinar Mas Group were founded by Eka Tjipta Widjaja, who had close ties to Suharto, Indonesia’s former military dictator. WWF and other critics say he became the nation’s wealthiest man (according to Forbes) in part through aggressive clear-cutting of Indonesia’s rainforest. Sinar Mas also has significant holdings in palm oil, mining, oil and gas, real estate and banking.