Indonesia’s tropical forests are the world’s third-largest and the most ecologically important after those of the Amazon and Congo basins. Their biodiversity is astonishing, with 515 mammal species — the most of any nation — and 1,539 bird species. Alas, Indonesia has another more dubious distinction: It also ranks fourth on the list of countries with the most species in imminent danger of extinction.
Between 1990 and 2015, Indonesia lost nearly a quarter of its forests, chiefly due to deliberate fires intended to clear land for palm oil and timber plantations. (Rare tropical hardwoods can fetch as much as $1,375 per cubic yard.) It is estimated that 80 percent of this activity was illegal, but political corruption prevents the existing laws from being enforced. (Rampant illegal burning has caused major diplomatic rifts with neighboring countries, notably Singapore and Malaysia, whose cities have been shrouded in dense smoke, causing serious health consequences for their citizens.) Aside from the irreversible loss of biodiversity, the destruction of Indonesia’s forests also has alarming implications for the global climate.
Conservationists generally agree that the preservation of glamorous “flagship” species, which readily attract public interest and sympathy, is an effective way to protect an entire ecosystem. Here are Indonesia’s Big Five.
The world’s smallest elephant is found in northeastern Borneo. Its population has declined by approximately 50 percent over the past 75 years, and fewer than 1,000 now survive. A subspecies of the Asian elephant, it can be up to 30 percent smaller than its relatives on the mainland. The Sultan of Sulu (an archipelago in the Philippines) released captive elephants in Borneo during the 18th century, and it was long supposed that Borneo’s elephants were descended from these animals. However, DNA tests have shown that Borneo pygmy elephants are genetically different from their Asian counterparts. They are distinguished by their unusually long tails and placid temperaments, as well as by their size. Unfortunately, Borneo’s elephants prefer the same floodplain forests sought by logging and oil palm plantation companies. And logging has also cut off the elephants’ traditional pathways, reducing access to food sources, as well as to breeding opportunities with other elephant groups.
The sun bear was once found throughout Southeast Asia, but the loss of its forest habitat in countries such as Thailand has made populations in Kalimantan (Borneo) and elsewhere in Indonesia of extreme importance. The overall population is estimated to have declined by 30 percent in the past three decades. It has been suggested that there may be fewer that 1,000 of the creatures left in the wild today. Sun bears get their name from a large yellow patch on their chests. The world’s smallest bear, an adult male stands approximately four feet tall and weighs up to 150 pounds. Alas, the outlook for the sun bear is bleak, given the continuing demand for bear products. Traditional Asian medicines contain bear fat, gallbladder, meat, blood and bones and are used to treat ailments ranging from baldness to rheumatism. A soup made with sun bear paws is considered a delicacy in Taiwan. (Apparently you can Google the recipe, but I felt disinclined to do so.) The bile from sun bear gallbladder can sell for multiple times the price of gold, and the trade has been compared to that in heroin.
Nowhere in Indonesia has seen such relentless deforestation as Sumatra, which has lost about 65 percent of its tropical rainforest in the past 25 years. The Sumatran tiger is the world’s smallest — a subspecies about the same size as a jaguar or a large leopard — and the only surviving member of the Sunda Islands’ group of tigers, which included the now-extinct Bali and Javan tigers. The Sumatran tiger has thinner stripes on its coat than other tigers, and males have particularly long fur around the faces, giving them a maned appearance. Around 400 Sumatran tigers cling on in dwindling patches of forest, with the largest population being found in the 5,300-square-mile Kerinci Seblat National Park. Sumatran tigers are rapidly losing their habitat and prey, and despite increased international efforts at conservation, poaching shows no sign of decline.
Covered by a distinctive coat of reddish-brown hair, the Sumatran rhino is the smallest of the five extant rhinoceros species. However, it can still weigh up to 2,200 pounds. (The male African white rhino averages around 5,000 pounds.) It is now considered critically endangered, with fewer than 100 still living in the wild. Kerinci Seblat National Park was a former refuge, but due to poaching, its rhino population is now believed to be extinct. Elsewhere, poaching continues to be a chronic problem. Sumatran rhino horn can sell for up to $27,000 a pound. It is chiefly used in amulets that purportedly protect the wearer from poison."
Bornean Clouded Leopard
The reclusive Bornean clouded leopard is the top predator on the island of Borneo, preying on monkeys, young deer, wild boar and even the occasional orangutan. (Its relative, the Sumatran clouded leopard, has long been forced to compete with the Sumatran tiger.) Genetic tests have revealed that it is a separate species from the clouded leopards found in mainland Asia. Due to habitat loss, its population is estimated to be fewer than 10,000 and declining. The name comes from the irregular dark-edged ovals that the cat sports instead of spots and which, to some, resemble clouds. Certainly, it is one of the world’s most beautiful creatures.