Indonesia orangutan faces extinction as court rejects dam challenge

Indonesian environmentalists have lost a court challenge to a Chinese-backed dam project on Sumatra that could destroy the Batang Toru forest habitat of the most critically endangered orangutan species.

The administrative court in North Sumatra’s capital, Medan, ruled that 22 trillion rupiah (US$1.5 billion) construction could continue despite opponents of the 510-megawatt hydropower project providing evidence that its environmental impact assessment was misleading.

Opponents said the dam would flood or at least alter the habitat of an orangutan species, which numbers around 800, and probably mean it dies out.

The dam is scheduled for completion in 2022. The Jakarta Post reported that the dam would be constructed by Chinese state-owned firm Sinohydro, with funding from the Bank of China and other international banks.

Scholars announced the discovery of the distinct Pongo tapanuliensis species (pictured) in 2017 after DNA analysis and field studies showed the apes had unique characteristics.

The primates, with frizzy hair and distinctive long calls, were previously believed to be Sumatran orangutans, which are also critically endangered. Without special protection, the population is in danger of rapid extinction, researchers argue. The species is only found in the Batang Toru forest, where the dam is due to be built.

The dam will supply “clean” electricity to North Sumatra and be operated by Indonesian firm PT North Sumatra Hydro Energy.

The three-judge panel ruled that the witnesses and studies presented by the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), Indonesia’s largest environmental group, were irrelevant in the case against the North Sumatra provincial government.

“The judges reject every part of the plaintiff’s lawsuit,” said chief judge Jimmy Pardede, according to the Jakarta Post.

The judges said the environmental impact assessment was in line with existing regulations.
Walhi said it would appeal.

Professor Serge Wich, a specialist in primate conservation at Liverpool John Moores University, gave evidence to the court about the impact of the project on the orangutans.
The academic, who helped confirm the species in 2017, said the environmental assessment was “certainly flawed” and he was “amazed” the dam had been given the green light.

“Where they are building the dam is actually where the density of this species is the highest, so it’s actually the worst area in the forest you could build it,” Wich told the BBC.

He said one cluster of orangutans might not be affected by the project.

“[But the apes would be in] low numbers so that’s not sufficient for a viable population. There are many other potential places in Indonesia to build the dam… it’s unclear why this has to built here.

“The dam will put the orangutans on a firm path to extinction.”


The Pongo tapanuliensis. All of Sumatra’s orangutans are critically endangered. Picture credit: Wikimedia