Deforestation and fragmentation is the greatest driver of habitat loss for great apes across Equatorial Africa and Indo-Malaysia.

Deforestation and fragmentation is the greatest driver of habitat loss for great apes across Equatorial Africa and Indomalaya ecozone.

Great apes have lost over 50% of their original habitat since 1900. In most locations that loss has accelerated at unfathomable speed during the past 25 years. In Indonesian Borneo (Kalimantans) and Sumatra that deforestation has wiped out 90% of the viable tropical rainforest once home to thousands of orang-utans. A similar rate of devastation may be on the horizon for gorillas, chimps and bonobos in one of the last great rainforests—Congo Basin. About 15 percent of the world’s historical forest cover remains intact, according to the World Resources Institute. The rest has been cleared or degraded or is in fragments.

What drives deforestation?

Forests—especially tropical forests—store enormous amounts of carbon. When forests are destroyed, that carbon is released to the atmosphere, accelerating global warming. Deforestation accounts for around 10% of total heat-trapping emissions—roughly the same as the yearly emissions from 600 million cars.

In addition to storing carbon, forests provide important habitat for a long list of endangered species—and they offer many other benefits, such as clean water, forest products, and livelihoods for indigenous communities.

great ape deforestation habitat loss P1200727deforestation fire palm oil -1250060

No Forest for the Trees

Viewed from space one might see the Congo Basin and the Amazon Basin as the right and left lungs of our planet. They not only respire exchanging CO2 and oxygen, but they drive the atmospheric hydrology or Earth’s water currents in the air. For years we have been slicing away at the Amazon Basin, and with the great forests of Borneo under stress only the Congo Basin remains, but it too is hemorrhaging timber.

The forests of Congo Basin across Central Africa are the range of Africa’s gorillas, chimps and bonobos. They are also the primary resource fueling economic growth for most of the countries of the region. That growth is finically influenced and underwritten by outside interests in the USA, Europe and China with little or no interest in the long-term health of the region, or global climate. As one local conservationist said, while standing at the base of a rainforest giant, “Politicians see these and don’t see a tree, they see a new BMW in there garage.”

The harvestable trees are also seen as an insurance against profits in creating palm oil plantations. Revenues from timber, legal or illegal, can put a company in the black immediately while it waits the first 4-5 years for initial oil palm harvest.

With a financial focus on trees, or timber, rather that forests and the conservation of natural services they provide, politicians are incentivized to disagree over the definition of a forest until they are cleared.

What is a Forest?

One serious conservation roadblocks in this debate is that there is no universally agreed upon definition of what a “forest” is, let alone a primary forest. According to one definition, favored by the FAO**, a forest is defined by tree cover: “land spanning more than 0.5 hectares with trees higher than 5 meters and a canopy cover of more than 10 percent.” According to the other main definition (which the FAO also acknowledges), the designation is based on land use: forests are marked by being free from agriculture.

But a pine or oil-palm plantation may meet the tree-cover definition. Conversely, certain swaths of primeval-looking jungle in places like Congo and Indonesia have been cultivated by people for thousands of years. Hence the proliferation of terms to describe the thing variously called “primary forest,” “old-growth forest,” “virgin forest,” or “intact forest.” Each one highlights a slightly different forest characteristic and has a slightly (or dramatically) different political shade. All of this plays nicely into the hands of corrupt politicians and corporations eager to benefit from deforestation of primary tropical forests.

Following the FAO definition, a primary forest is “a naturally regenerated forest of native species, where there are no clearly visible indications of human activities and the ecological processes are not significantly disturbed.” These are forests that either have never been industrially logged (“virgin forest”) or that were logged so long ago that the great canopy trees have had time to regenerate and mature. Though primary forests may sustain populations of hunting or foraging people, the dominant forces on the landscape are non-human.

While disagreements continue on what a forest is, few dispute that the term “deforestation” means simply the clearing of forest. It often precedes “conversion,” the changing of primary forest lands to some other use, whether small farms, cattle ranches, or industrial agriculture such as palm or tree plantations. That conversion process often includes fire or drainage, both of which produced the horrific environmental disaster in Borneo and Sumatra in late 2015.

What virtually everyone in this debate agrees on is that primary forests have an outsized role in regulating Earth’s carbon cycle. A tree is about half carbon by weight. When it burns, whether in a fire or in the guts of microbes dissolving it on the forest floor, that carbon binds with atmospheric oxygen to become carbon dioxide, the primary gas driving climate change. The reverse is also true. Growing trees sequester or pull carbon from the air.

A Fragmented Future

Forest fragmentation is the breaking of large, contiguous, forested areas into smaller pieces of forest; typically these pieces are separated by roads, agriculture, utility corridors, subdivisions, or other human development.

Fragmented forests create enormous barriers to great apes. Not only habitat is lost, but gaps in the forest continuity generate opportunities for disease spread, poaching, wildlife trafficking, and climate chaos.

Especially in the Equatorial tropics clearing of forests and roads into previously uncut forests are done with little regard to landscape planning or maintaining forest corridors. The result is chaotic fragmentation that often creates island forests where apes and other land animals have little or no chance of moving safely between forest islands.

Fragmentation creates the illusion of saving some forest area, without the benefit of preserving needed biodiversity. The clearest example of this can be seen in Kalimantan Borneo where independent palm oil plantations are created with little coordination. Even where High Conservation Value forests are preserved they remain isolated and ultimately of little overall landscape or habitat value.

Illegal Logging & Blood Timber

Illegal logging, or trade in round-logs, has been compared to the international drug trade in terms of value. In some locations it has even been called Blood Timber, for its role in wars, war crimes, corruption and political destabilization.

For more than a decade accounts on the scale of illegal logging, or illegal round log trade, has been the subject of reports from UNEP, Interpol, EIA, Global Witness, Greenpeace, and others, but little attention has been paid by governments and the public in general. At times compared to the illicit trade in drugs, trafficking of illegal timber according to UNEP has an estimated value of US$30 to US$100 billion annually, or 10 to 30 per cent of the total global timber trade—and in certain countries, 50-90% of the wood is harvested or traded illegally. This illegal logging results in a loss of $10 billion to the global economy, and a loss of $5billion in government revenue. Across tropical Indomalaya and Africa much of this illegal logging has resulted in direct deforestation of critical great ape habitat as well as promoted direct ape killing by accelerating bushmeat poaching (to feed loggers.)

More About Deforestation

orangutan peatland fire Borneo 

BORNEO — Surviving on a burnt landscape

In mid-November 2015 I journeyed over an hour east of Ketapang, West Kalimantan with IAR orang-utan rescue staff to search for...
Read More
Learn More
toxic fire haze Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia 

BORNEO — The Price of Palm Oil

I traveled to Borneo intentionally during the height of the 2015 fire season, which lasted over two-months between September and...
Read More
Learn More

Information for this section from research through Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and websites. Video on Congo Basin and World Forest Clock shared from ** Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Info graphic courtesy Union of Concerned Scientists

You are donating to : GLOBIO

How much would you like to donate?
$20 $50 $100
Would you like to make regular donations? I would like to make donation(s)
How many times would you like this to recur? (including this payment) *
Name *
Last Name *
Email *
Additional Note