By Charles Clover, Environment Editor
Some of Asia's rarest and most endangered species including tigers, elephants, sun bears and clouded leopards have been found by scientists in Sumatran forests currently being allocated by the Indonesian government for oil palm plantations.
The survey of a logged, unprotected and partly inhabited forest adjacent to a national park found evidence of tigers throughout the area, groups of elephants with calves in half the area and many records of other species such as tapirs and golden cats.
The animals were found by scientists from the Zoological Society of London using camera traps to assess the wildlife interest of "production forest" that the Indonesian government is in the process of allocating for oil palm or timber plantations.
"Although we always believed these areas were important, it is incredibly encouraging to have actual, incontrovertible proof of the animals' presence. We hope that this evidence will help persuade the government that such areas are highly important for conservation."
The survey covered nearly 2000 square kilometres of degraded, logged and partially settled forest adjacent to Bukit Tiga Puluh National Park in central Sumatra, which has recently been allocated for clearance.
The surveys were led by the Society, with survey teams including members of the Frankfurt Zoological Society wildlife protection teams and Indonesian forestry department staff from Bukit 30 National Park.
Sarah Christie, carnivore programme manager at the Society said: "This work shows that the criteria for developing land in Sumatra need to be urgently reassessed. Just because forests have been logged does not mean they have lost their value for biodiversity.
"Many of these areas are playing a vital role in supporting the last remaining Sumatran tigers. Before any land is allocated for conversion it is vital that thorough assessments are made of the remaining value to wildlife so that important areas can be avoided whilst areas that have to be developed can be done so sustainably."
Indonesia, one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, lost over a third of its forest between 1985 and 1997 and was recently named as the third largest carbon-emitter in the world. While the government is taking steps to prevent further loss of primary forest, development of "degraded" or secondary forest by industry is being actively encouraged.
Under a proposal being brokered at the talks on a new climate change treaty to replace the Kyoto protocol, due to take place in Bali, Indonesia, in December, rainforest countries could be paid to leave existing forest standing as "carbon sinks." This would applied to degraded forest as well as primary forest.
However, international agreements are slow and may not come into force for several years. The Society says that for the wildlife in the area of forest it surveyed the agreement will come too late as a company has been allocated the land.
However, in a sign of agreements that could result from the deal this December, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds recently bought a 200,000 acre logging concession in Sumatra which had many of the species found in the ZSL survey – then said it would not log it. The law had to be changed to make this possible.