Primates on the Edge

Indonesia, like countless other equatorial countries, is losing its battle against climate change and habitat destruction. While the reasons behind this are numerous and complex, they are all human-driven. Climate change has been a (shockingly) controversial hot topic on the world stage for well over a decade now. The average person is bombarded with images of coal stacks emitting smoke, forest fires, and floods, as scientists and reporters alike try to press the urgency of the situation on the populous. However, not all causes and effects of climate change are as visually stunning; some are more gradual, more subtle, but just as deadly to the future of this planet.

I manage a research station in the village of Cipaganti, West Java, Indonesia. Our project focuses on the conservation of a small primate species that is currently facing devastating, large-scale habitat loss: the Javan slow loris (Nycticebus javanicus). By the time our field station was established, nearly all of the original forest was already long gone. Yet the slow loris population was holding on, surviving literally in the single lines of trees that remained in between farm fields. Their situation is so devastatingly precarious that should even one crucial tree be cut down, a slow loris could lose access to half of its home range. This is the reality that we, and many other conservation biologists, work in every day.

So how did we get to this point? And how is it that, despite the apocalyptic images that are spewed all over the media every day, people don’t realize that the equatorial rainforests that once covered our planet…are virtually gone?

Indonesia has some of the world’s lushest and most biodiverse rainforests. At the turn of the 20th century, 84% of the country was covered in these rich forests1 where one could have found tigers, Asian elephants, orangutans, and rhinos all co-existing in these tropical paradises. These vast forests made up 1/3 of the earth’s equatorial belt of stabilizing tropical rainforests, playing a crucial role in the regulation of the Earth’s atmosphere and climate. And it only took a few decades to destroy almost all of it.

As Indonesia became more industrialized, especially during their time as a Dutch colony, deforestation began to skyrocket, as is often the case when countries move towards increased industrialization, and the archipelago nation is now suffering from large-scale deforestation. No-where has suffered more than the island of Java, currently the most populated island in the world2. Between 2003 and 2006, Java lost an estimated 10,000 hectares of forest, leaving the island with a currently estimated 10,000 total hectares of forest left3. We are far past the point of crisis. Species have already been lost (i.e. the Javan tiger went extinct in the 1980s) and huge numbers of species endemic to Java are teetering on the edge (the Javan slow loris, Javan langur, Javan hawk-eagle, and the surili just to name a few).

We see this destruction every day here in West Java. While life might seem peaceful and slow in our mountain village on the edge of the forest, we are witnessing the final stages of complete habitat loss. In our area, the bulk of the deforestation is the result of land conversion to agricultural areas. We don’t have large-scale industrial palm oil plantations here, instead our habitat loss is the simple result of increasing human populations. With each new family comes the need for a new house to be built and a new farm to be established to support that family. And so, each year as the population of Java slowly increases, the forest decreases. Farm by farm, home by home, it all disappears. The forest is cleared and tilled for farm land, the few remaining bamboo patches are cut down to make frames for a local species of squash that fetches a high price at the markets (frames that rarely survive even one year of this wet climate), and the slow-moving machine of habitat loss chugs on. We witness it daily, and while it might be disheartening, all we can do, as conservation biologists and as empathetic humans, is keep trying.

We try through the outreach events we hold for local farmers. We try through our education programmes that travel across our region to teach children about conservation. We try through our agroforestry initiative that is slowly replanting the forests around us. And we try simply by caring enough to keep working in a field that can so often feel like a losing battle.