Fires raging in an Indonesian swamp forest may have killed a third of the rare Sumatran orangutans living there and all of them may be lost this year, conservationists warned Wednesday.
The Tripa swamp forest in Aceh province is home to the world's densest population of critically endangered Sumatran orangutans. About 200 still live there, out of a world population estimated at 6,600, the conservationists said.
Cloud-free images from December show only 12,267 hectares (30,311 acres) of Tripa's original 60,000 hectares (148,260 acres) of forest remains, said Graham Usher of the Foundation of a Sustainable Ecosystem.
The rest has been broken up and degraded as palm oil companies drain the swamp, Usher said. He said a total of 92 fire hotspots were recorded between March 19 and 25 in several of the palm oil plantations in the area.
"If there is a prolonged drought and the fire continues ... then orangutans, tigers and sun bears within it will disappear will be exterminated before the end of 2012," he told a news conference, held by the Coalition to Save Tripa, which includes Greenpeace.
The number of orangutans killed in recent months must be at least approaching 100 or if not even more, the groups estimated, while about 100 others perished between 2009 and 2011 either killed in the conversion process or due to starvation and malnutrition.
Ian Singleton, conservation director of Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program, said there are less than 200 orangutan still hanging in Tripa, which was home to around 3,000 individuals in early 1990. The global population is estimated at 6,600, he added.
"It is no longer several years away, but just a few months or even weeks before this iconic creature disappear," Singleton said. "We are currently watching a global tragedy."
He described those kept illegally as pets as the 'lucky' ones but said they will be refugees from a forest that no longer exists.
Last year, Aceh's Governor Irwandi Yusuf gave a license to PT Kallista Alam to convert 4,000 acres of the Tripa peat swamp, a home to orangutans, tigers and bears. Three other companies are already operating in the area.
An environmental group has filed both a criminal complaint and a lawsuit against the government. The Aceh Administrative Court is expected to hand down a verdict on the lawsuit next week.