Is protecting a small fragment of intact natural forest habitat amidst a sea of oil palm plantations enough to combat extinction? Two rare, critically endangered Sumatran rhinos were recently captured on hidden camera in Leuser National Park, Indonesia for the first time in 26 years. This came as a surprise to wildlife conservationists, as there are only an estimated 200 Sumatran rhinos left in the wild in small pockets throughout Indonesia and Malaysia. An estimated 70 percent of the Sumatran rhino population has been lost since 1985, due to poaching and loss of habitat from palm oil and pulp and paper plantation expansion. Although it’s clearly great news that these two rhinos have been documented inside the Leuser National Park protected area for the first time in 26 years, a new study published in Nature shows that protecting the land surrounding these areas is every bit as important as the health of the reserves themselves. The authors report:
Crucially, environmental changes immediately outside reserves seemed nearly as important as those inside in determining their ecological fate, with changes inside reserves strongly mirroring those occurring around them.
Meaning that, even with the best of intentions, the conservation of discreet pieces of park land cannot maintain healthy and vibrant habitat for wildlife if the ecosystem right outside the boundaries of the park is being devastated. This finding sheds light on the fate of Tripa—an area of 61,803 hectares on the west coast of the province of Aceh that represents one of only six remaining populations of the critically endangered Sumatran orangutan. Tripa is part of the Leuser Ecosystem, in the provinces of Aceh and North Sumatra, which covers more than 2.6 million hectares of prime tropical rain forest and is the last place on earth where the Sumatran sub-species of elephants, rhinoceros, tigers and orangutans coexist. What we’ve witnessed in the past six months is the near wholesale extinction of Sumatran orangutans due to the fires intentionally set by palm oil companies both inside and outside Tripa, threatening endangered orangutans throughout the region. Given the amount of endangered species struggling for survival inside Leuser National Park, our task is not only to protect this pocket of biodiversity that may not be able to survive long term, but to protect natural forests throughout Indonesia that are being razed to the ground to feed the growing appetite of international markets for cheap palm oil and pulp and paper. Whether it’s orangutans or rhinos who are eking out survival inside protected areas that are themselves under threat by encroaching deforestation, the habitat that these creatures depend on has been relentlessly chipped away by palm oil producers and pulp and paper companies. The urgency of the situation on the ground in Indonesia is even more pressing today than our August 2011 analysis that protected areas alone are not enough to combat the sixth mass extinction.