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Indonesia wildlife feels squeeze

The archipelago is losing an expanse of forest nearly the size of Switzerland every year, officials acknowledge. The loss of habitats and animals' new proximity to humans are a dangerous mix.

By Richard C. Paddock
Tribune Newspapers: Los Angeles Times

February 1, 2004

PELINDUNG, Indonesia -- At the end of a busy day cutting trees with chain saws, the four timber thieves camped in the Sumatran jungle. Three of the loggers rested on a raised wooden platform, while the fourth prepared food below.

The cook, Siadul, was sitting on the ground eating his dinner when a hungry Sumatran tiger, driven from its habitat by the relentless logging of the rain forest, leaped out of the darkness onto Siadul's back, ripped out a chunk of flesh and began dragging him away.

Nature had taken its revenge.

"It was like a cat catching a rat," said Siadul's friend Ponimin, a fellow illegal logger who, like many Indonesians, uses one name.

The Sumatran tiger--one of only about 500 left in the wild--would have succeeded in taking Siadul but for a felled log that blocked the path. The tree cutters fired up their chain saws and scared the animal away, but it was too late for Siadul. He died within hours.

People who live here believe the tiger is the enforcer of proper human behavior in the jungle, and so to them the killing in November was punishment for some violation of the forest people's code.

To environmentalists, the attack was the result of a timber harvest that is wildly out of control.

Across Indonesia, loggers have destroyed huge tracts of rain forest, turning much of the jungle into farms and palm oil plantations. They sell the timber overseas.

Government officials acknowledge that Indonesia, an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands, is losing an expanse of forest nearly the size of Switzerland annually, and with it the habitat of endangered tigers, rhinoceroses, orangutans and elephants. Scientists believe that hundreds of plant and animal species are becoming extinct each year.

Most logging illegal

At least 75 percent of the logging is illegal, said Environment Minister Nabiel Makarim, but the weak central government, plagued by graft, can't stop it.

"If this goes on for seven or eight years," he said, "we won't have any more forest."

Even the country's 376 national parks and conservation areas have fallen victim to the illegal harvest. Nearly every park has been assaulted by chain saws, officials say, some so severely that they are no longer suitable as nature preserves.

The rate of logging has risen dramatically since President Suharto was forced to step down in 1998. The authoritarian leader made a practice of rewarding his cronies with profitable logging concessions but kept some forests off-limits.

The new central government under Megawati Sukarnoputri has granted greater autonomy to regional officials, and some have opened forests to logging, reaping the profits for themselves.

The pace of destruction is highest on Sumatra, an island that straddles the equator. Experts warn that Sumatra's lowland forests--rich in biodiversity--could disappear outside of national parks by 2005.

In southern Sumatra, villagers have been cutting trees and planting coffee for years in the Bukit Rindingan protected forest.

The adjacent South Bukit Barisan National Park is home to up to 700 elephants, but about 50,000 people have moved into the preserve, clearing the jungle and building villages.

"It is forbidden to conduct any activities in the protected forest, but in fact it has become a settlement," said Tamen Sitorus, director of the national park. "The villagers think, `Why don't we kill the elephants? They are useless.'"

In the squatters' village of Sinar Harapan, residents chopped down trees on a route traveled by a herd of 13 elephants. On Nov. 28, the elephants appeared at the edge of the jungle and began eating the farmers' coffee bushes. Waving torches and banging on drums, the villagers drove them back.

The next day, most villagers fled, but one stayed behind: Mistad, 50, a farmer who had helped cut down the trees. At midday, the elephants entered the village and crushed him.

Last year, the number of elephant attacks on people jumped. According to forestry authorities, 16 attacks were reported from 1998 through 2002. In the first five months of 2003, there were 48, at least three of them fatal to the human victims.

Floods, landslides

Apart from animal attacks, officials say illegal logging contributed to floods and landslides that killed more than 140 people in 2003. Makarim predicted that the number will jump this year as the illicit harvest continues.

The Indonesian Forestry Department has reported that 5 million to 9 million acres of rain forest were lost each year from 1997 to 2000. Since then, the destruction has clearly soared, but the department's monitoring is so lax that it has no estimate of how much forest is being destroyed. The Indonesian Forum for the Environment estimates trees are being cut at more than 10 times the sustainable-harvest rate.

Indonesia has some of the world's largest tropical rain forests and ranks with Brazil as home to a great diversity of animal and plant species. But it is also renowned for corruption.

Indonesia is wealthy in timber, oil and minerals but suffered for three decades under Suharto, who did little to develop the country or its people. Since the Asian economic collapse of 1997, Indonesia has struggled to recover.

By the official count, nearly 40 million people are unemployed among a total population of more than 225 million.

Some citizens long for a return to what they call the stability of dictatorship, and others advocate a government based on conservative Islam. But many observers believe that for now, graft is what makes the country run.

Much of the illegal logging is carried out by large concerns in cahoots with officials in government and the military.

Some of Sumatra's heaviest logging is in the central province of Riau, where huge swaths of forest have been cleared for palm oil plantations. For centuries, people and tigers lived in the area with few conflicts. But as logging accelerated in 1999, tigers began coming into villages looking for food.

Since 2001, tigers have killed at least six people and possibly up to 30 near the coastal town of Dumai, authorities say. Many of the victims were illegal loggers.

Copyright 2004, Chicago Tribune