A recent report from one of the world’s largest national parks in terms of wild orangutan populations, Sebangau National Park in Central Kalimantan, uncovers an alarming occurrence of illegal activities within the park. Unfortunately, this is a realistic representation of the challenges national parks in Borneo generally face when it comes to protection. The Indonesian Independent Forest Monitoring Network (JPIK) and Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) have authored the report, which was published in September 2018.

Sebangau: Home to approximately 6000 orangutans

The large area in Central Kalimantan, southwest of Mawas, covers more than 568,000 hectares. Since 2004, the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry has characterised the area as a national park. 81% of the low-lying park’s total acreage consists of peat. Sebangau National Park has been named after the Sebangau River running through the area.

Peat forests are especially endangered forests in Borneo, and large peat forest areas have previously been drained or converted to facilitate agriculture and forestry. Moreover, the park’s acreage is home to more than 5800 wild orangutans (as of 2010) and large populations of the endangered white-bearded gibbon. In a climate perspective, Sebangau’s peat is also interesting as the 10-12m thick peat, consisting of partially decomposed plant material, stores large amounts of CO2 as long as it remains wetted.

Identified oil palm plantations within the Sebangau National Park. (Credit: JPIK)

A tragic background story and a doubtful future

Prior to 2004, Sebangau, like Mawas, was part of a large unsuccessful Indonesian rice project known as the “Mega Rice Project”. The project aimed to make Indonesia self-sufficient in rice. Before the initiation of the project, huge areas were drained via canals and deforested legally by the logging industry – partly due to soil conditions unfit for the project. What was left was a huge area of cleared forest and open space. Yet it kept its high ‘conservation value’ because of its wildlife and unique ecosystem.

Scientists have continually emphasised the alarmingly critical condition of the area and that the challenges in its restoration would be almost impossible to tackle. Among other precautions, restoring the area requires the drainage canals to be blocked in order to re-wet the fragile peat.

The 2018 report concludes that illegalities and violations continue to occur both within the restoration zones and in the partially intact forest (the wilderness zone) of the National Park. Several monitoring trips between 2016 and 2018 have even documented deforestation and forest burning within the National Park to benefit oil palm plantations. Obviously, those responsible for monitoring the park warrant no punishment for the illegalities and violations.

Besides expanding oil palm plantations, logging also poses a threat to the park. (Credit: JPIK)

Actual preservation and protection of national parks is a complicated challenge

Sebangau is defined as a single national park, however, the park is actually divided between three districts (Pulang Pisau, Kantingan, and Palangkaraya). Each of these districts has its own local government. And according to JPIK and EIA, maintenance of the park and interpretation of the laws on how the park is to be used and protected seemingly vary between the districts.

The areas within the National Park are huge and almost impossible to constantly patrol and monitor. Besides their random sampling monitoring, JPIK and EIA also use satellite photos to analyse the development in Sebangau. The satellite photos reveal a threefold increase in burnings, and several burnings have been linked directly to conversion of the area to oil palm plantations.

In 2013-2015 alone, more than 18,000 hectares of land within the National Park have been deforested. Additionally, JPIK and EIA have documented a large occurrence of illegal logging, which continues to be transported out of the park via canals and rivers.

It seems reasonable to believe that when an area has been classified as a national park on a national level, the area is then preserved and protected against further degradation. However, this is sadly not the case. The report is a tragic example of the real challenges to forest protection and a tragic proof of the difference between words and action. Threats such as forest fires are always present and impossible to eliminate completely, but the fact that deliberate deforestation and manufacture occurs within national parks is both tragic and alarming.

JPIK has observed and documented degradation in Senbangau by means of GPS coordinates. (Credit: JPIK)

Awareness raising and documentation are just parts of the solution

JPIK and EIA urge the Indonesian government to take action and react to their documented data of violations and illegalities within the park. They hope for a more thorough examination of how the National Park is used and its condition. Moreover, they hope for an improved evaluation and monitoring of the issued oil palm plantation licenses around the park since they can be linked to violations within the park.

The documented data and report paint a realistic picture of the challenges connected to forest and wild orangutan population protection: Opposing interests and a lack of monitoring and sanctions, to mention a few. You can read the full report and more details about Sebangau National Park here >>

Save the Orangutan is currently focusing our efforts in one area declared a national park: TNBBBR in the northern part of Central Kalimantan. The area is used as a release site for rehabilitated orangutans from the Nyaru Menteng rehabilitation centre. The classification of national parks in Borneo is often positive in regards to the remaining forest and wildlife being of ‘high conservation value’ (HCV). However, the classification unfortunately does not imply protection. This emphasises the need for further local protection activities and empowerment projects with preservation goals in both national parks and forests with other ‘land-use’ classifications.

Save the Orangutan and our Indonesian partners therefore strengthen our efforts to protect TNBBBR and the released orangutans against illegal activities.

A map showing the division of Sebangau National Park between the three districts. (Credit: JPIK, Bogor, Indonesia)