Mon, Oct 22, 2018 - Page 4 News List

China-backed hydro dam threatens rarest orangutan

AFP, JAKARTA

A billion-dollar hydroelectric dam development in Indonesia that threatens the habitat of the world’s rarest great ape has sparked fresh concerns about the effects of China’s globe-spanning infrastructure drive.

The site of the dam in the Batang Toru rainforest on Sumatra Island is the only known habitat of the Tapanuli orangutan, a newly discovered species that numbers about 800 individuals in total.

The US$1.6 billion project, which is expected to be operational by 2022, is to cut through the heart of the critically endangered animal’s habitat, which is also home to agile gibbons, siamangs and Sumatran tigers.

Indonesian firm PT North Sumatra Hydro Energy is building the power plant with backing from Sinosure, a Chinese state-owned enterprise (SOE) that insures overseas investment projects, and the Bank of China, company documents show.

Chinese SOE Sinohydro, which built the mammoth Three Gorges Dam, has been awarded the design and construction contract for the project.

The development is one of dozens being pushed by the Indonesian government to improve electricity supply throughout the sprawling archipelago, parts of which are regularly plagued by blackouts.

However, the Chinese-backed project has sparked fierce resistance from conservationists, who said the potential environmental risk has already seen the World Bank Group shy away from involvement.

However, its Chinese backers appear undeterred, something critics said underscores the troubling environmental impact of Beijing’s trademark Belt and Road Initiative, which seeks to link Asia, Europe and Africa with a network of ports, highways and railways.

“This issue is becoming in some ways the face of the Belt and Road Initiative,” Professor Bill Laurance, director of the Center for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science at James Cook University in Australia, told reporters. “I think this crystallizes in a way that people can understand what a tsunami of 7,000-plus projects will mean for nature.”

Until recently, scientists thought there were only two genetically distinct types of orangutan, Bornean and Sumatran.

However, in 1997 biological anthropologist Erik Meijaard observed an isolated population of the great apes in Batang Toru, south of the known habitat for Sumatran orangutans, and scientists began to investigate if it was a unique species.

Researchers studied the DNA, skulls and teeth of 33 orangutans killed in human-animal conflict before concluding that they had indeed discovered a new species, giving it the scientific name Pongo tapanuliensis or Tapanuli orangutan.

The 510-megawatt dam, which is to supply peak-load electricity to North Sumatra Province, would flood part of the ape’s habitat and include a network of roads and high-voltage transmission lines.

Critics have said it will fragment the three existing populations, who are living in a tract of forest less than one-fifth the size of the greater Jakarta region, and lead to inbreeding.

Meijaard said the dam would be the “death knell” for the animal.

“Roads bring in hunters [and] settlers — it’s the start, generally, of things falling apart,” he said.

However, the plight of the ape seems to have been given little attention in the environmental impact assessment by PT North Sumatra Hydro Energy, according to conservationists and scientists who have seen the document.

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