World’s rarest great apes threatened by Chinese dam on Sumatra, scientists say

A $1.6bn, Chinese-backed scheme to build a hydropower dam on the Indonesian island of Sumatra will decimate the habitat of a recently discovered species of orangutan, say scientists, who are calling for the scheme to be canceled.

Scientists only identified the Tapanuli orangutan (pictured) in 2017 in Sumatra’s Batang Toru rainforest, and say the estimated population of 800 could be wiped out by the dam’s construction, the resulting flooding, and secondary impacts including road building, poaching and illegal logging.

Indonesian company North Sumatra Hydro Energy is developing the 510MW scheme with funding from the Bank of China, while Chinese mega-builder Sinohydro has the design and construction contract.

Biological anthropologist Erik Meijaard, who began studying the species in 1997, told the AFP news agency yesterday that the dam, due to begin construction soon, would be the "death knell" for the Tapanuli apes.

"Roads bring in hunters (and) settlers – it’s the start, generally, of things falling apart," he said.

Professor Bill Laurance, director of the Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science (TESS) at Australia’s James Cook University, said the project represents the dark side of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

"I think this crystallises in a way that people can understand what a tsunami of 7,000-plus projects will mean for nature," he told AFP.

The Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) filed a legal challenge in August against the environmental permit approved by the North Sumatra government, reports AFP.

Walhi said the permit failed to address the dam’s impact on wildlife, communities living downstream, or the risk of earthquakes in the seismically active region.

Earlier this month Laurance penned a riposte to claims made by North Sumatra Hydro Energy in the Indonesian press that the project’s impact would be limited.

He said the scheme would "cut across the heart" of the Tapanulis’ habitat, with roads, powerlines, earthworks and spoil dumps.

"But this massive impact is only the beginning," he 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."

In July, Laurance and scientists in Indonesia and around the world wrote to Indonesian President Joko Widodo urging him to halt the project and take steps to protect the Tapanuli.

  • See "TESS’s Bill Laurance confronts ape-killing corporation", available here.

Image: A Tapanuli orangutan, photographed in 2014, before the Tapanulis’ scientific identification as a separate species (Tim Laman/Creative Commons By 4.0)

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