Humans Are Destroying the Last Place on Earth Where Orangutans, Tigers, Rhinos and Elephants Still Live Together in the Wild

There are some places in the world that are so vital to the survival of wildlife and so important to surrounding people and their livelihoods that even if we will never visit them in person, we know we must cherish them.

The Leuser Ecosystem (pronounced low-sir) is a vast tropical landscape on the island of Sumatra. Spanning over 6.5 million acres of lowland jungle, montane rainforests and teeming peat swamps, Leuser’s forests are among the most ancient on earth. This is a realm where volcanic eruptions, fluctuating sea levels and species migrations over uninterrupted millennia have enabled one of the most biodiverse landscapes ever documented to evolve.

The Leuser Ecosystem pulses with life. It is the last place on earth where orangutans, tigers, rhinos and elephants still live side by side in the wild. To step into Leuser’s steamy rainforests is to experience a serenade of biodiversity, a cacophony of buzzing insects, singing birds, croaking frogs and loud-calling primates.

The Leuser contains some of the world’s highest known levels of plant and animal abundance, with at least 105 mammal species, 382 bird species and 95 reptile and amphibian species, among countless others still unrecorded by scientists. The rainfall Leuser’s forests produce, and the numerous clear rivers that emanate within them, provide millions of local people with clean drinking water and irrigation for agriculture, including water-intensive rice cultivation, as well as many other needs essential to local economies.

Even if you’ve never heard of Leuser, and couldn’t locate it on a map, the Leuser Ecosystem is providing you with a critical service too. As probably the largest intact, contiguous forest remaining in Southeast Asia, and containing three of the planet’s most indispensable carbon-rich deep peat swamp forests, the Leuser Ecosystem stores immense quantities of carbon in its forests and peatlands, mitigating global climate change by keeping pollution out of the atmosphere.

While still relatively little known outside Southeast Asia, the Leuser Ecosystem is easily among the most important expanses of forest left in the region and is widely recognized by scientists worldwide as a global conservation priority. If the Amazon rainforests are the lungs of the planet, the Leuser Ecosystem is its heart, beating with vitality for us all.

But today, Leuser’s forests are under constant and escalating threat. Despite being protected by Indonesian law, the Leuser Ecosystem is under siege for short-term profits. Corporate interests such as industrial pulp and palm oil plantations, mining and logging operations, energy projects, and all the roads and infrastructure that are built to support them, are eating away at every corner of the Ecosystem.

As the last remaining intact lowland forests and peatlands are being cleared, drained, burned and carved up into smaller and smaller fragments, all of the region’s threatened and endangered species are being pushed closer to the brink of extinction.

Since the vast majority of Sumatra’s remaining orangutans are found within the Leuser Ecosystem, the Sumatran orangutan could easily become the first great ape species to go extinct in the wild. Only a few hundred Sumatran tigers remain in the wild, and even fewer Sumatran rhinos are believed to still exist. If we lose Leuser, we will lose these species and countless others, forever.

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Confiscated from the home of an Indonesian palm oil plantation worker, Gokong the orangutan was weak, suffering from malnutrition and severely underweight. He was snatched from his mother after witnessing her brutal torture, and bought for less than $10 from the fisherman who stole him from his wild home. (The Orangutan Project)

Continued deforestation of the Leuser Ecosystem has begun to drastically change the region’s landscape. Totally preventable environmental disasters such as major floods and landsides have increased over recent years in both frequency and intensity. As local communities lose their forest buffer, more people are killed, more homes and villages are wiped off the map, and more livelihoods are crippled.

The future of all Leuser’s wildlife species, the water supplies and numerous other environmental services it provides to the millions of people living around it and to the climate itself, all depend on us protecting the Leuser Ecosystem today. To achieve that, we need to put the Leuser Ecosystem on the middle of the map for all the world to get to know it, to appreciate and cherish its importance, and ultimately to fall in love with it.

The "Love the Leuser Ecosystem" movement is a global effort to raise the profile of this amazing place in the imagination of everyone, everywhere, to make it a global household name.

This has worked in the past. It certainly helped slow the destruction of the Amazon, for example, and we need it to work for the little-known Leuser Ecosystem now. Of course, fame doesn’t guarantee protection, but a gleaming bright international spotlight on Leuser will send a clear signal to political and corporate decision-makers that the world won't stand for its destruction. With a united global movement demanding its protection, we will build greater pressure and increase the risk to the public image and reputation of anyone seeking to profit from the demise of Leuser’s forests.

I hope you will join us.

Instead of having to express our regret and apologies to future generations for what has been lost, we must be able to look back with pride in coming years that together we averted the current crisis facing Leuser, through collective global action. Let’s elevate the Leuser Ecosystem to its rightful place next to the Amazon, Great Barrier Reef, Serengeti and Grand Canyon—another place so widely loved that no one can tamper with it without encountering massive, overwhelming global resistance.

Watch a video of Dr. Ian Singleton reporting from the Jantho Forest in the Aceh region of Indonesia, about his work to save endangered orangutans, who are losing their natural habitat to rapid human development, deforestation and resource extraction.

This article was originally published by U.S. News & World Report. Reprinted with permission. Read the original.

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