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Chinese-backed dam risks orangutan habitat, scientists warn

Experts say the project in Sumatra will flood or otherwise alter part of the habitat, making it almost impossible to ensure the rare species survives.

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Scientists are calling for the cancellation of a Chinese-backed hydroelectric dam in Indonesia which threatens the habitat of a newly-discovered orangutan species numbering only 800 animals.

In the journal Current Biology, the experts say the 510-megawatt dam in Sumatra will flood or otherwise alter part of the habitat, making it almost impossible to take a crucial step towards ensuring the species survives — reconnecting fragmented forests the primates are spread across.

New species orangutan
The new Tapanuli species of orangutan was discovered in the forests of North Sumatra in Indonesia (James Askew/Australian National University/PA)

Critics of the project say it is part of China’s “Belt & Road” plans to link infrastructure across Asia.

Scientists announced the discovery of the third orangutan species, Pongo tapanuliensis, in November.

They said that without special protection it is in danger of rapid extinction.

“It’s appalling to think that, within our lifetimes, a new great ape species could be both discovered and driven to extinction,” said Serge Wich, a professor at Liverpool John Moores University, who was involved in identifying the new orangutan species.

The scientists also urged that the remaining habitat in the Batang Toru forest of northern Sumatra be given strict conservation protection and that forest corridors be created to link separated populations.

One way to do that, they said, is to close a section of the road between two main forest fragments.

The Batang Toru orangutan was the first great ape species to be proposed by scientists in nearly 90 years.

Previously, science has recognised six great ape species – Sumatran and Bornean orangutans, eastern and western gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature classified Bornean orangutans as critically endangered in 2016 due to a precipitous population decline caused by destruction of their forest habitat for palm oil and pulp wood plantations.

Indonesia China Orangutans
Director General of Conservation of Natural Resources and Ecosystem at the Indonesian Forestry Ministry Wiratno, centre, inspects a map of the Batang Toru ecosystem in North Sumatra where the species of orangutans was found (Tatan Syuflana/AP)

The scientists writing in Current Biology said orangutan sub-populations need to number at least 200 to have a chance of surviving a century and more than 500 for longer-term survival.

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