Are Indonesia’s orangutans and other iconic endangered species on track for extinction, or enjoying a recovery under the country’s current green-minded government? It depends on who you ask. But amid a welter of conflicting data, the scientific debate that could untangle the mystery is being thwarted by a government clampdown on research findings. Coupled with bans on “negative” foreign researchers, the policies are leaving conservationists confused and some Indonesian scientists in fear for their careers.
As one great rainforest nation, Brazil, looks set to open up environmental cooperation and accountability under its new president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Indonesia appears to be sliding in the other direction. As a result, despite a decade of reduced rates of deforestation under its current president, Joko Widodo, the fate of the country’s orangutan, elephant, rhino, and tiger populations remains shrouded in uncertainty.
In response to the censorship, a group of Indonesian and international environment and human rights NGOs, including local branches of Greenpeace and Amnesty International, next month plan to launch a court action against the country’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry and the president’s office. They say their suit will seek to overturn a growing pattern of undermining the science needed for conservation and to unlock vital analysis of the state of the country’s rare and charismatic wildlife.
The clampdown on researchers is part of a long-running attack on foreign conservationists and scientists.
The latest clampdown began in September in response to an article in the Jakarta Post, Indonesia’s leading English-language newspaper. In it, Dutch ecologist Erik Meijaard, director of Borneo Futures, a consultancy based in neighboring Brunei, and Julie Sherman, president and director of the U.S.-based NGO Wildlife Impact, in collaboration with three other foreign researchers, criticized the country’s environment minister Siti Nurbaya. A month earlier, on World Orangutan Day, Nurbaya had claimed that the three species of the country’s most iconic mammal were increasing in numbers and “will continue to have growing populations.”
The article’s authors, with a collective hundred-year record of researching Indonesia’s forest mammals, said this was the opposite of the truth. They argued that, despite a decline in the rate of the country’s forest loss, the habitat for orangutans continues to shrink and population densities within that habitat are also faltering. “The declines are real and they are well supported,” including by data commissioned by the ministry, they said. “This means a high likelihood of extinction.”
The pushback from the government was immediate. The environment ministry wrote to its national parks and conservation agencies, slamming this “foreign interference,” and accusing the authors of “negative” intentions that “discredit the government.”
The letter, subsequently leaked, told the parks and agencies to end cooperation with the article’s authors and contributors, including banning the sharing of data and withdrawing permission for field research. It also asked park managers to report on all ongoing research in their territories conducted by, or funded by, foreigners.
The clampdown on researchers is part of a long-running attack on foreign conservationists and scientists, says Herlambang Wiratraman, a lawyer at the Gadjah Mada University and founder of the Indonesian Caucus of Academic Freedom, one of the initiators of the planned legal action against the government. The Widodo administration “has excessively controlled all research agencies in the country,” he says.
At the end of 2019, Indonesia’s environment ministry abruptly ended a 25-year collaboration with the international conservation group WWF for monitoring wildlife, effectively banning the organization from the country’s national parks and putting hundreds of staff out of work, after WWF had criticized the government’s handling of a spate of forest fires earlier that year.
Soon after, French ecologist David Gaveau was deported, allegedly for a visa violation, after 15 years working in the country, most recently for the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), an international research organization based in Bogor, Indonesia. There, he had published data from satellite images suggesting that damage from the 2019 fires had significantly exceeded government estimates. CIFOR deleted the findings from its website, saying they had not been submitted for peer review.
Meanwhile, data produced in collaboration with government agencies is falling afoul of regulations requiring ministerial sign-off before publication.
The Indonesian government has published a number of claims of population growth among charismatic species.
In 2018, Wulan Pusparini, an ecologist currently at Oxford University, conducted an analysis of DNA samples from elephants in national parks in Sumatra for the U.S.-based Wildlife Conservation Society. It suggested a 75 percent decline in one important population since 2001. The crude finding was included in a government report in 2020, but then retracted by the ministry, though it remains online. The analysis behind the finding is still unpublished, however, says Pusparini.
The Indonesian government has in recent years published a number of claims about population growth among other charismatic endangered species, such as Sumatran rhinos, that Sherman says are “not possible, given known breeding rates and threat levels.” In addition, says Serge Wich, a primate biologist at Liverpool John Moores University in England, “the government is asking NGOs to consult with them before publishing research findings, so it can verify them. NGOs tell me the government is monitoring their social media too, and asking for changes.”
The effect of these controls on research, publication, and advocacy is chilling for science, says Wich. “For decades we have shared data. But now the ban [on foreign scientists] means collaborators within the country are not keen to share their data, because it would have repercussions with the government.”
Soon after the new restrictions on foreign researchers were imposed last September, the environment ministry’s spokesperson, Nunu Anugrah, defended his minister’s claim of increasing orangutan numbers in a letter to the Jakarta Post. He argued that data collected at 24 forest monitoring sites had revealed a 69 percent increase in orangutan numbers between 2014 and 2022. He said that this sampling data was superior to the “misleading and inaccurate information” used by the ministry’s critics.
But the researchers, in turn, say they don’t trust the analysis behind the ministry’s claims. “Neither data nor any methodology were provided to support this assertion [of rising numbers],” says Sherman.
Wich, one of Sherman’s collaborators on the article, who has spent almost three decades monitoring the country’s orangutans, told Yale Environment 360 that the government statistic did not make sense. “If you look at their data and try to model the trends, you find such growth is not possible, because the animals don’t reproduce that fast,” he says.
“We think that probably the surveys are being done in areas where orangutans are being released [as a result of translocations or after rescue from wildlife traffickers]. But we don’t know, because they don’t tell us exactly where they are doing the sampling,” he says. “If they are confident about their numbers, why don’t they publish the details?”
Wich also notes that the government sampling sites may not be representative. They appear to be all within protected areas, whereas research at the country’s Primate Research Center in Bogor, Java, shows that more than 70 percent of orangutans live outside protected areas.
The banning letter claimed that foreign researchers had contravened regulations requiring them to obtain permits to collect field data. But Sherman says “we are not aware of having contravened any regulations, nor has any specific evidence of this been provided.”
If the government says species are doing well, but the data shows the opposite, then “policy will be based on things that are not happening.”
The ministry, which did not respond to requests for comment, insisted in a December letter to complainants that the order against foreign researchers was not intended to hinder their work, but “as a form of controlling research activities aimed at optimizing the benefits of research results … in supporting long-term, conservation efforts.”
Meijaard and Jayden Engert of James Cook University in Townsville, Queensland, both told Yale Environment 360 that Indonesian collaborators on papers they were preparing on orangutan conservation and the environmental impact of mining roads in Sumatra have in recent weeks asked for their names to be removed as authors. Several Indonesian researchers also declined requests to answer questions for this article.
In a paper published last June, before the latest bans, Engert suggested getting around the ongoing problem by establishing a scientific journal devoted to publishing research anonymously.
Wich says that the censorship of science matters for conservation policy too: “If the government keeps saying species are doing well when all the data shows the opposite, then policy will be based on things that are not happening.”
Orangutans could be early victims. Sherman, Wich, and others believe that an important reason for the decline they report in orangutan populations is illegal killing and capture — for bushmeat, to protect crops, or for the lucrative trade in pet baby orangutans. “It is happening on a large scale, even in protected areas,” says Wich. “But the government, believing numbers are increasing, does not act.”
Sherman notes that “prosecution is extremely rare” and says that “if orangutan killing and capture continues at current rates, forest protection alone will not be enough to save these species.” In a paper published in November, she, Wich, Meijaard, and others called for anti-poaching patrols to be “dramatically expanded across protected and unprotected areas.”
Indonesia is a large nation of tropical islands between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, including Sumatra, most of Borneo, and western New Guinea. Half of the country remains forested. It is still home to more than 200 million acres of tropical rainforest, a figure exceeded only by Brazil and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Deforestation has been more than halved since Widodo became president in 2014 and imposed a ban on new licences for clearing primary forest. His conservation policies have been widely applauded and have brought offers of international help to speed the process, including a $1 billion deal signed with the Norwegian government in September.
Nonetheless, deforestation continues, at about 500,000 acres per year. Wildlife is being squeezed. A study headed by Maria Voigt of the University of Kent, published last year, projected a likely loss by the mid-2030s of habitat for a quarter of the estimated 100,000 remaining Bornean orangutans, many in forests already earmarked for timber and oil palm plantations.
Some researchers argue that, despite government efforts, the underlying economic forces behind deforestation are largely unchanged, especially since many licenses issued in the past for clearing forests have not yet been acted on. They say an important reason for the slowdown in deforestation is falling palm oil prices, which have reduced the economic pressure for conversion — a trend that could easily be reversed.
“Indonesia is a real jungle — socially, economically and especially politically,” says Bill Laurance of James Cook University, a long-standing observer of the country. Roads, in particular, are opening up previously isolated forest regions. “Time and again with new roads, we see increases in poaching, fires, forest fragmentation, exotic species invasion, illegal logging, and mining following in their wake,” he says. “The threats are growing fast.”
Major roads are planned through thousands of kilometers of forests in Indonesian parts of Borneo, home to Bornean orangutans and elephants. The environment ministry angered environmentalists recently when it gave approval for an 88-kilometer road to a coal mine through the Harapan Forest, a rare surviving fragment of lowland rainforest in Sumatra.
And a giant hydroelectric scheme under construction in northern Sumatra will destroy habitat of the last 800 Tapanuli orangutans, in Batang Toru forest. Laurance says NGOs and scientists have been pressured to condone the project or face sanctions.
Critics allege “mal-governance” by the ministry for not making research the basis for conservation policymaking.
The impending court action against the environment ministry and the president’s office follows a correspondence between the government and its critics. Abdil Mughis Mudhoffir, a political scientist with posts at the universities of both Jakarta and Melbourne, who is coordinating the action, says the lawsuit will center on the government’s failure to address charges made in a formal “objection letter” letter sent last year following the ban on the foreign scientists.
The critics allege “mal-governance” by the environment ministry for not making research the basis for conservation policymaking and call on the courts to halt the government’s suppression of science.
Not all researchers agree that the legal action is a good idea, particularly with a presidential election due early next year in which Widodo, who has served two terms, will not be allowed to run. “I don’t think there is much merit in criticizing or suing the ministry for the time being,” says Pusparini. “The focus should be on who the next president will bring in as the new minister and their commitment to biodiversity and environmental conservation.”
But meanwhile, the ongoing row threatens to tarnish Widodo’s reputation as a pioneer of enlightened conservation policies — and the science that should underpin effective conservation of some of the world’s most valued species continues to be sacrificed.