Media Type: Article - Foundational
Date of Publication: September 1, 2018
Year of Publication: 2018
Author(s): Graham Lawton
Journal: New Scientist
The world is experiencing an unprecedented highway building boom – with untold consequences for the planet’s wildlife, says Graham Lawton.
Last November, a remarkable new species was added to life’s catalogue. The Tapanuli orangutan lives in a small patch of rainforest on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, a biodiversity hotspot known as the Batang Toru ecosystem. It is just the eighth living species of great ape to be described, besides two previously known orangutans, two gorillas, chimps, bonobos – and us. But triumph is tinged with tragedy. The entire population of Tapanuli orangutans is thought to be fewer than 800. It instantly became the world’s most endangered great ape. Soon it won’t be endangered any more. It will be extinct.
Right now, bulldozers and chainsaws are tearing into its habitat. By 2022, if things go to plan, the Batang Toru hydroelectric dam will have destroyed 3.6 square kilometres of prime habitat in the middle of the orang’s home. A 13.5-kilometre tunnel will be dug to carry water from the dam. Access roads will be built, power lines laid and part of the valley flooded. “The associated infrastructure will destroy key habitat with the highest density of orangutans,” says Gabriella Fredriksson, founder of the Pro Natura Foundation, a local conservation charity. The dam will send the orangs “spinning towards extinction”, says her colleague Matt Nowak.
The orangutan’s demise is not unstoppable, but the forces that threaten it probably are. The dam is one small piece of a global infrastructure boom that promises to reshape our world over the next decade. This will bring much-needed roads, energy and jobs to some of the world’s poorest people. But it will come at a shocking expense to nature.
The question is: can we do things better?
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