Educational Series: Indonesia’s Endangered Rainforest is an Irreplaceable Wildlife Haven

By Nick Engelfried
Where can you find wild elephants, tigers, rhinos, and apes all in the same forest? The answer is Indonesia, a tropical Southeast Asian nation composed of over 17,000 large and small islands. While not as famous as the Amazon or some other rainforests, the jungles of Indonesia are home to one of the most diverse and amazing communities of animals anywhere.

Unfortunately, the country’s unique wildlife also face many threats to their continued survival. From mass deforestation by the palm oil and paper industries to poaching, human activities have led to a crisis situation for the species Indonesia’s rainforests support. To better understand what is at stake, it’s helpful to take a look at some of the special creatures who call this place home.

Fantastic primates

When it comes to non-human primates–monkeys, apes, and their relatives–Indonesia is one of the richest countries on Earth. In fact, with over 40 living species, it is second only to Brazil and Madagascar in primate diversity. Most famous of these are the three kinds of orangutan: Bornean, Sumatran, and Tapanuli. Bornean and Sumatran orangutans are each confined to their respective namesake islands, the largest in the Indonesian archipelago. The Tapanuli orangutan has an even smaller range, a relatively tiny area in Sumatra. Together, the three species have the distinction of being the only wild great apes found outside of Africa. Their behavior is also unique; they spend more of their time in the trees than other great apes and are mainly solitary. All three are considered critically endangered.

Dozens of other primates also make their homes in Indonesia’s forests, including several ape species known as gibbons. Sometimes called the “lesser apes,” gibbons are smaller than orangutans but no less amazing. They are incredibly agile, spending almost all their time in the forest canopy. Also found in Indonesia is the proboscis monkey, a large species with an unmistakable long nose that lives only on Borneo. Proboscis monkeys prefer watery habitats like mangrove forests, and with their unique webbed toes are one of the few primates who frequently swim.

Other Indonesian primates include monkeys like playful macaques and graceful langurs, and the tarsier–a tiny insect-eating prosimian, or primitive primate. The single largest threat to the country’s primates is the destruction of their rainforest habitat, especially by the palm oil industry. Some species, like tarsiers, are also taken from the wild and sold as pets on the illegal market, despite being ill-suited to captivity.

Wild cats large and small

Indonesia is also home to a fascinating variety of big–and not so big–wild cats, including seven on Sumatra alone. By far the largest is the Sumatran tiger, a critically endangered subspecies with only about 400 remaining individuals. Historically, two other tiger subspecies–the Javan and Bali tigers–also existed in Indonesia, but were driven to extinction by a combination of habitat loss and hunting. Today, these same threats are the main ones facing the Sumatran tiger. The survival of Indonesia’s last tigers depends on preserving large remaining areas of forest and curbing the cruel poaching industry.

Other Indonesian cats include the spotted leopard cat, which is not much bigger than a house cat; and the medium-sized Asian golden cat, which as its name suggests has a sleek, gold coat. The Sunda clouded leopard, found on Borneo and Sumatra, was identified as a distinct species only in 2006. Up until then it was considered the same species as the clouded leopards who inhabit mainland Southeast Asia. However, genetic research revealed that nearly three million years of isolation from the mainland have given Sunda clouded leopards time to evolve unique traits qualifying them for species status.

Very little is known about the habits of Indonesia’s smaller cats. However, camera traps have revealed healthy forest ecosystems can support several kinds of cat in the same area, with each species feeding on a slightly different set of prey animals depending on its size. Preventing the conversion of Indonesian rainforests to palm oil and timber plantations is of utmost importance for wild cats.

Intelligent elephants

Yet another iconic Indonesian animal is the Sumatran elephant–a subspecies which, despite its name, is found on both Borneo and Sumatra. Although they can weigh up to five tons, these powerful animals are actually the smallest of three subspecies of Asian elephant (the others are the Indian and Sri Lankan elephants). They are also among the most endangered, having lost 80% of their population in the last 25 years alone. Today there are estimated to be about 2,400-2,800 Sumatran elephants left in the wild, with the main threats to their survival being habitat loss and poaching.

In 2012, scientists changed the conservation status of Sumatran elephants from “endangered” to “critically endangered,” a category denoting an even more severe level of threat. However, there is some good news: after China banned the ivory trade in 2017, poaching of elephants for their tusks has gone down. This is a reminder that conservation laws can be effective when they are strictly enforced.

Like all elephants, those in Indonesia are intelligent animals with complex, matriarchal societies. They live a long time–up to 70 years–allowing families to develop lasting intergenerational relationships. Finally, more than perhaps any other non-human animal in Asia, elephants help shape the landscapes they live in. Seeds from the plants they eat pass through their digestive systems largely intact, often sprouting in fertile piles of elephant dung. This makes Sumatran elephants important agents in the spread of new plant life into disturbed areas.

Rhinos on the brink

Indonesia is home to not one, but two rhinoceros species, both of which are now found nowhere else. The Sumatran rhino, the smallest rhinoceros in the world, is an adorable creature with a sparse coat of hair and two small horns. The slightly larger Javan rhino has wrinkled skin and one large horn that can grow up to ten inches long. Both are inhabitants of dense tropical forests where they browse on plant life.

Indonesia’s rhinos are critically endangered, with probably fewer than 80 individuals of each species surviving. Both once had large ranges that extended onto mainland Asia; the last known mainland Javan rhino was killed by poachers in Vietnam in 2010, and the Sumatran rhino was declared extinct on the mainland in 2015. Today, Sumatran rhinos survive only in a few very small, isolated populations on Sumatra and Borneo, while the sole wild population of Javan rhinos is confined to West Java’s Ujung Kulon National Park.

Despite the dire situation, there is reason to have hope for Indonesia’s rhinos. The Javan rhino’s numbers have actually been increasing after hitting a low point of about 40 individuals, showing that conservation in Ujung Kulon Park has been effective. Meanwhile, efforts are underway to breed Sumatran rhinos in captivity so they can eventually be released into the wild and re-establish healthy populations.

The animals featured above are just a tiny sampling of the incredible species found in Indonesia–and though many are at risk of extinction, there is still time to save them. Curbing the expansion of the palm oil industry and cracking down on poaching are two of the most important steps we can take to save orangutans, tigers, elephants, and rhinos. With effective conservation, the country’s jungles can continue supporting one of the most extraordinary assemblages of animals on Earth for countless years to come.

Photo credit: Tim Laman

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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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