Fires raging unchecked in an Indonesian peat swamp forest could wipe out the remaining Sumatran orang-utans which live there, conservationists are warning. The forest is one of the last refuges of the great apes. The illegal fires, started by palm-oil companies clearing land to plant the lucrative crop, are believed to have killed at least 100 orang-utans – one-third of those living in the Tripa swamp, on the west coast of Sumatra's Aceh province. The rest could die within weeks, according to Dr Ian Singleton, conservation director of the Sumatran Orang-utan Conservation Programme.
"The speed of destruction has gone up dramatically in the last few weeks... This is obviously a deliberate drive by these companies to clear all the remaining forests," Dr Singleton said. "If this is not stopped right now, all those orang-utans... will be gone before the end of 2012."
Only 6,600 Sumatran orang-utans are estimated to be left in the wild, and the Tripa swamp – where they are most densely concentrated – is considered crucial to the species' survival. But less than one-quarter of the peat forest remains; the rest has been converted to palm-oil plantations.
Satellite imagery showing 92 fires over the past week has horrified conservationists, who are awaiting a court ruling with far-reaching implications for the protection of wildlife habitats in Indonesia. The judgment relates to a lawsuit brought against the governor of Aceh by the local branch of Walhi, an environmental group. Walhi decided to act after the governor, Irwandi Yusuf, granted a new permit to one of the country's biggest palm-oil companies, PT Kallista Alam. Walhi Aceh argues that the permit, which would allow another 4,000 acres of peatland to be destroyed, was granted illegally.
The judges are due to reach a decision next Tuesday. If they dismiss the challenge, other important habitats could also be threatened. Tripa is nominally protected by a presidential moratorium on new logging and palm-oil concessions, as well as by legislation governing the conservation area within which it is located.
There may now be as few as 200 orang-utans left in the Tripa forest, which shelters a dozen endangered species, including the white-handed gibbon, clouded leopard, Malayan sun bear, Sumatran tiger and giant soft-shelled turtle.