by Karen Michelmore, AAP South East Asia Correspondent
JAKARTA May 7 -- A massive new logging road will threaten the backyard of the only Australian zoo-born orangutan released into the Indonesian wilderness, environmentalists warn.
Conservation groups fear the 20m-wide thoroughfare cutting a swathe through the landscape south of Bukit Tigapuluh national park in Sumatra signals the beginning of the end for most of the thick forest landscape.
Only a third of the 450,000ha forest block - one of the largest remaining in Sumatra - is protected as national park.
Dozens of endangered Sumatran elephants, tigers and orangutans live outside the protected areas of the national park, in forest earmarked for future logging, they say.
WWF International spokeswoman Jan Vertefeuille said one of the world's largest paper companies, Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), appeared to be building the thoroughfare to link two of its large pulp mills in provinces at opposite ends of the park, and its affiliated concessions inside the forest block.
She fears it is only a matter of time until the two roads - former logging roads which are being reconstructed and widened - are joined in the middle.
The completed road is expected to lead to widespread forest conversion and will also give poachers and illegal settlers easier access to the park and its endangered inhabitants, Vertefeuille said.
"When these two roads connect, it will slice the entire landscape in half," Vertefeuille said.
"We are very concerned."
The protected 144,000ha national park is home to the only Australian zoo-born Sumatran orangutan to be released into the wild.
In 2006 Temara, now 15, of Perth Zoo, became the first zoo-bred Sumatran orangutan ever to be placed in her natural habitat.
Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program project director Peter Pratje says Bukit Tigapuluh will become an island in an ocean of plantations if the remaining rainforest around the park is logged, as planned.
"These areas, if they are converted to pulp and paper, will be lost. Orangutans in this area would be threatened," he said, adding Temara would likely be unharmed as she has constant protection.
"She would lose a potential area that she could live in," Pratje said.
Some 70 elephants believed to be living in the forest outside the park would lose "100 per cent" of their habitat, as the protected park itself was not suitable terrain for them, Pratje said.
The middle section to join the two existing roads was yet to be built, but it had been marked out.
"They seem to be more cautious at the moment, (but) I guess it's only a question of time," Pratje said, estimating the road could be completed in as little as six months.
"We don't know when APP plans to convert this area (to plantation).
"It may be a year or two. In the meantime we will already lose a large part to natural encroachment.
"But at the end of the day if it's going into pulp and paper plantations, or encroachment, it doesn't matter. It's still a desert (for the animals)."
Pratje said industry shouldn't be allowed to convert natural forest under Indonesian law, but the forest had been recently downgraded to "industrial forest".
"The only hope now is starting discussions with the industry, trying to (educate) them on high conservation value concepts," he said.
"The risk of losing all forest outside the national park boundaries is extremely high at the moment."
Supermarket chain Woolworths has been under pressure in Australia for sourcing its Select Brand paper products from APP.
Comment was being sought from the Asian pulp and paper giant.
--courtesy to Australian Associated Press
*Picture taken by EoF, April 2008