Even before Dutch conservation specialist Erik Meijaard submitted an opinion piece to Jakarta Post last month he was worried about the reaction of the Indonesian government. In the article, he and four other Western scientists challenged government claims that the country’s orangutan populations are booming. Meijaard was aware that Indonesia was increasingly wary of “foreign interference” in conservation issues and invited eight Indonesian contributors to co-write the article. None agreed to do so.

After the play raced on September 14, the response was quick. In a letter Published the same day, Indonesia’s Ministry of Forestry and Environmental Affairs (KLHK), said the authors had “discredited” the government and banned them from doing research in Indonesia. He also ordered national parks and KLHK offices across the country to notify the ministry’s headquarters of any research conducted by foreign scientists. The data from these searches would now be subject to the oversight and control of KLHK.

This decision has no direct impact on the work of the five authors. None of them are currently working in the field in Indonesia and all are based overseas. Meijaard runs a consulting firm in nearby Brunei; its co-authors are based in the United States, Malaysia, Germany and the United Kingdom. But the ban signals a deeper problem, Meijaard says. Wary of interference in the government’s ambitious development goals, KLHK has tightened control over research into the country’s enormous biological diversity by Indonesian and foreign scientists. Data on wildlife populations has been sidelined and criticism of the government has had repercussions. “Our ban on KLHK is not the problem,” says Meijaard. “The real problem is the independence of Indonesian science in general and conservation science more specifically.”

Many Indonesian scientists agree, but very few want to talk about it publicly. “Our voices are being silenced,” says a conservationist in Sumatra who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.

There is little doubt about the threats to Indonesia’s biodiversity. Sumatra, home to six critically endangered iconic mammal species found nowhere else – Tapanuli Orangutan, Sumatran Orangutan, Sumatran Tiger, Sumatran Rhinoceros and the Sumatran elephant – has lost over 80% of its lowland forests since the 1990s to make way for pulpwood and oil palm plantations. Conflicts between humans and wildlife have become increasingly frequent. News reports frequently report poisoned elephants by angry farmers, tigers trapped by poachersand orangutans stranded in the plantations.

Scientists and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) say producing reliable population estimates and mapping remaining habitats is essential for conservation. Provincial conservation agencies of the Ministry of Environment (BKSDA) and national park rangers have supported this field work, for example counting orangutan nests, collecting elephant dung samples and by installing camera traps for tigers. But researchers say KLHK headquarters kept data from those efforts secret.

Wulan Pusparini, an Indonesian wildlife ecologist at the University of Oxford, says her DNA-based population survey showed the elephant population in a national park in South Sumatra has declined by 75% between 2001 and 2015. BKSDA provincial officials were “very supportive” when she presented this data in 2018, she says, “but it got stuck in Jakarta.” KLHK’s central office did not allow him to publish the findings, Pusparini said.

In 2020, the Sumatran Elephant Conservation Forum, a consortium of scientists and conservationists from various NGOs and BKSDA offices, produced what it called an Urgent Action Plan outlining elephant populations. remaining elephants, the threats they face and how they could be protected. KLHK’s director of conservation signed and released the document, but the ministry withdrew it a year later. Among the reasons was what KLHK called “a counterproductive statement against the government” in the plan.

Studies on other species met a similar fate. KLHK did not endorse a consortium estimate for Indonesia’s tiger population, submitted in 2016; the data remains unpublished. (“It’s the best knowledge available to date,” says an Indonesian member of the team.) The ministry has also disputes a recent report by a group of specialists to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which estimates that there are fewer than 50 Sumatran rhinos left in the wild. KLHK says it’s between 67 and 75.

As for orangutans, the editorial by Meijaard and his colleagues disputed with an optimistic assessment by KLHK Minister Siti Nurbaya on World Orangutan Day, August 19. The minister highlighted Indonesia’s commitment to conservation, but said the country’s three species, including the Tapanuli orangutan, whose existence is threatened by a hydroelectric project in northern Sumatra, would continue to “grow and prosper”. Yet “a wide range of scientific studies … show that all three orangutan species have declined in recent decades and nowhere are populations growing,” the authors countered in Jakarta Post.

KLHK did not respond to questions from Science. In a response posted by Jakarta Post on September 26, however, a ministry spokesperson said Meijaard’s analysis was based on “outdated information” and ignored many steps KLHK had taken to protect orangutans, including the end of some concessions for new plantings. Nurbaya’s assessment “was intended to instill optimism,” the rebuttal said.

KLHK has also blocked conservation initiatives. In late 2019, the ministry unilaterally ended a joint forest conservation program with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) after the organization criticized the government’s handling of forest fires. The move forced WWF to lay off around 400 employees in offices across Indonesia. In 2020, KLHK asked the Bogor International Forestry Research Center to withdraw a newsletter containing a sobering estimate of the area burned during the 2019 fire season. Science reported, the spat led to the deportation of David Gaveau, a French landscape ecologist who worked with the agency.

Some NGOs have chosen to adapt. PanEco, a Swiss-based organization, has previously campaigned against the Batang Toru hydroelectric project in North Sumatra, which poses a threat to the approximately 800 remaining Tapanuli orangutans. He did an about face in 2019 and decided to work with the Indonesian government and the company building the dam. But a new population estimate produced by the group since then has yet to be released; a representative of PanEco says that it is up to the BKSDA office in North Sumatra to do so.

Meijaard says the Indonesian government should be open about the state of its biodiversity by making population and habitat survey results public and storing them in Indonesian and international databases. But with foreign researchers pushed out and their Indonesian colleagues increasingly fearful, that seems unlikely.

An Indonesian scientist says publicly criticizing the government could mean losing his job. “And it’s not just me, but hundreds of people working in the same organization,” adds the researcher. Since Jakarta Post article, at least a third of Indonesia-based co-authors of a forthcoming paper on orangutan conservation have asked Meijaard to remove their names, he says, “This fear is causing real damage to Indonesian science” .