Primate expert's vision for conservation

By Nina Fowler

Dr Ian Singleton has dedicated his life to protect the orangutan. Photo / Supplied
Dr Ian Singleton has dedicated his life to protect the orangutan. Photo / Supplied

"It's no longer about saving the orangutan in Sumatra." This is an unexpected comment from Dr Ian Singleton - a primate expert, former zookeeper, and director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP).

Dr Singleton has dedicated his career to protecting vulnerable species in Indonesia. His priority is Aceh's Leuser Ecosystem, a 2.6 million hectare expanse of protected rainforest at risk of new industry concessions.

It's one of the world's most important conservation areas, he says, and the stakes are higher than a grave threat to any one particular species.

He spoke to Element from Vietnam ahead of this week's visit to New Zealand.
What's the state of play in your conservation work in Sumatra?

By far, the biggest threat, all of the time, is the loss of the habitat - the loss of forest. That's unusually conversion for palm oil plantations, mining, things like that. But the biggest problem right now is this spatial plan that's being developed by the government of the province of Aceh, which is where most of the wild orangutans are.

That's involving the opening of a lot of new roads and opening of this Leuser Ecosystem, a protected area, to new concessions and mining and plantations.

That's a major, major problem for us. We really could see the orangutans, elephants, tigers and rhinos heading to extinction in the next decade or two as a result of this one spatial plan.

How pivotal is this region for those species' survival?

It's totally critical. It's like 85% of all wild Sumatran orangutans live within the Leuser ecosystem. Most of that Leuser ecosystem is within the province of Aceh.

Would you say it's important for conservation activists to start with problems in their own backyards? Or is it more important to take a global approach?

Conservation has changed from being about saving a particular frog on a particular island to being a global issue. Climate change is the one gamechanger now that everyone needs to be aware of. Climbing Kilimanjaro (to raise money for reforestation charity PATT Foundation) was an attempt to bring attention to that....

It's no longer about saving the orangutan in Sumatra or saving the kakapo on Codfish Island in New Zealand. It's about trying to manage this planet in a more sustainable way and not destroying our own resources.

Using the orangutan as an emblem attracts attention but the goal is to save the tropical rainforest and everything that lives there. Not just the orangutan or this species or that species. We do really have to start thinking on a global scale now because the issues are global in nature.

With that in mind, though, should people look around in their own community first?

You only get one life. It's up to the individual to do whatever makes them feel best. You're probably more able to have an impact on the local scale.

People should very much get involved and pay attention to what's going on and realise that they can, for the first time, they can access information that they've never been able to access before.

They can measure things, they can map things, they can publicise things, promote things... You can send a message 15 times around the world before breakfast if you so wish. It's up to individuals to decide where they fit in and far they want to act on the info and the knowledge that they have.

Are there any particular new tools - online or software - that have come in useful in your own work recently, beyond social media?

The big innovation a few years ago was GIS (Geographic Information Systems) and satellite imagery. Five years ago, it cost you thousands of dollars to buy a photograph of a forest. Nowadays, it's all downloadable for free...

We're also using drones, remote-controlled model aircraft, to fly over areas and photograph and film in areas that we otherwise wouldn't be able to get to.

The potential uses for that in some places are unlimited, really. I think we're only just scratching the surface.

Are there any other trends in conservation that fascinate you at the moment?

The key for me, as I said earlier, it's no longer about saving one species in one particular area. We're all living in a world where we're actually destroying soil faster than the earth is making soil.

Everybody says 'what about sustainable this, sustainable that' but nothing that we do at the moment is really sustainable in the long-term.

We have to start looking at that issue. We have to start thinking, well, if we want humans to live on planet earth in another 500 years, we need to start doing things now to enable that to happen.

Dr Singleton is the director of the SOCP and co-founder of Earth 4 Orangutans, which is working to raise funds to establish the Orangutan Haven and Wildlife Conservation Education Centre in North Sumatra.

He will give a public talk at Auckland's Bruce Mason Centre on Tuesday August 19. Tickets cost $20 and all profits will go to Earth 4 Orangutans.

The above interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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