Rumble in the jungle


By Martin Brookes A UNIQUE population of tool-using orang-utans is being threatened by an upsurge in logging around the Suaq Balimbing research station in the north of Sumatra, Indonesia. The apes fashion sticks into probes with which they extract honey and insects from trees, and dig out seeds from fruits protected by stinging hairs. Orang-utans are found only in Borneo and Sumatra, and 90 per cent of them have been lost over the past century. The total population was estimated at less than 40 000 even before the latest upsurge in logging and the forest fires that have ravaged Borneo since 1997. The Suaq Balimbing orang-utans live in an area of tropical forest teeming with biting insects. “It’s a horrible place for research, a fetid swamp, but it’s orang-utan paradise,” says primatologist Ian Singleton of the University of Kent at Canterbury, who has recently returned from the area. Not only can the orang-utans wield tools but they are more gregarious than most. The research station lies within the Gunung-Leuser National Park. This is part of the Leuser Ecosystem, an area of tropical rainforest extending over 2.5 million hectares. But the resignation of Indonesia’s President Suharto in May last year has created an unstable situation. “Because of the political uncertainty, everyone is making the most of what they can get,” says Singleton. Loggers have been openly flouting regulations and removing many of the large trees that provide the orang-utans with their food. The apes are especially vulnerable to habitat disturbance. Even selective logging has a drastic impact on populations. Females are almost totally sedentary, and when large feeding trees are removed they become malnourished. According to Kathryn Monk of the Zoological Society of London, a scientific co-ordinator with the Leuser Management Unit, half of the research area has already been affected by logging. Even if the apes survive, she fears that the disturbance could endanger their unique social behaviour and tool use. Some research students have even been threatened by loggers. “In the past week, we’ve had meetings with local people and local and provincial government. Everyone is giving their support,” says Monk. “But in the longer term,
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