Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Habitat loss wiping out Orang Utans fast

Kota Kinabalu: A three-year international genetic study has detected a "catastrophic collapse" in orang-utan populations along the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary in Sabah .

The ape is the mascot of Sabah Tourism which sells Sabah to the world as a Premier Nature Destination.

"The study shows a high risk of extinction of the Orang-utan in the close future if this decline goes unabated," said wildlife geneticist Dr Benoit Goossens of Cardiff University, one of a team of researchers from Sabah Wildlife department, UMS, French primatologists Marc Ancrenaz, Isabele Lackman Ancrenaz, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), France, and funded by the Darwin Initiative for the Survival of Species, UK. Goossens said 200 orang utans were identified using genetic markers called microsatellites and used the Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) information to stimulate population history and detect evidence of a population decline.

"The major threat is linked to forest destruction and oil palm plantation development while illegal killing also contributed to the decline," he said.

The findings are being published online in the international scientific journal entitled "Public Library of Science" (PloS Biology), Dr Goossens said.

"The collapse occurred within the past 100 years and most likely within the past decades - coinciding with massive deforestation which began in the 1890s and accelerated in the 1950s and 1970s," Goossens said.

"This is the first time that a recent and alarming decline of a great ape population - brought about by man - has been demonstrated, dated, and quantified using genetic information," Dr Goossens noted.

Earth has entered what the UN called the "Great Ape Crisis" where all four of the world's great apes, namely orang utans in Asia as well as chimpanzees, gorillas and the bonobos in Africa, considered man's closest relatives, are threatened with extinction.

The scientists collected hair from tree nests 30m above ground and faeces found under nests or near orang utans encountered along the Kinabatangan River.

To no one's surprise, deforestation was singled out as the main culprit for the population collapse but there is a definite time frame to hang on to when all that happened - 100 years since the 1890s, accelerated in the 1950s and 70s.

The grim picture reversed earlier optimism triggered by a wildlife survey carried out by the Department of Wildlife and Danida three years ago which found Sabah still had 11,000 wild Orang-utans - much larger than expected.

A major uncertainty on the future of the Orang-utan, stressed Laurentius Ambu, Deputy Director of Sabah Wildlife Department, is that 60% or about 5,000 individuals in Sabah are living outside of the network of protected areas.

These areas happened to be the lowland dipterocarp commercial forests under the Sabah Foundation concession , which are exploited under natural forest management.

The lure of palm oil revenues and now Bio-diesel seems hard to resist. Comments at public forums suggest senior Yayasan Sabah officials remain ambivalent on committing Orang-utan-rich natural forests for "permanent" protection.

"The Orang-utan cannot survive in industrial tree plantations and this population will disappear forever if these forests are converted to oil palm agriculture.

As such, Dr Ancrenaz said a "priority"of the Orang-utan's future is to "identify mechanisms" that will secure both Sabah's economic development and conserve the Orang-utan habitats at the same time.

He cited the Reduced-Impact Logging practices that are implemented at Deramakot Forest Reserve by the Sabah Forestry Department which proves that sustainable logging practices are compatible with orang-utan long term survival.

"Ideally, all forests should follow the sustainable logging practices that are in place in Deramakot Forest reserve," he said.

"The animals will show enough genetic diversity to stabilise, if immediate steps are taken to reconnect remnant forest patches and halt further deforestation," added Laurentius.

"Otherwise, humans will have relegated the fabled 'man of the forests' to the realm of memory - or a life behind bars in a zoo," Laurentius said.

The Orangutan is still one of Sabah Tourism's strongest trump cards to differentiate Sabah from the rest of the competing nature destinations.

The enduring popularity of Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation is proof. More recently, together with the villagers of Sukau, the Sabah Wildlife department created a community-based orang utan eco-tourism project (Red Ape Encounters Sdn Bhd) with Tadun Lias as Director, within the newly-created Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary.

Source: Daily Express

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