Indonesia's conservation program seemed well planned but then came political turmoil. Now scientists predict that Indonesia's lowland forests could soon disappear completely. Twenty years ago, the Indonesian government took a long hard look at the country's forests, which accounted for more than 70 percent of its land area. They designated different areas for conservation, water-shed protection and production, based on the principles of sustainable forest management. But those ideals couldn't be farther from reality today, according to a new commentary in Science. "If the current state of resource anarchy continues," an international team of scientists write, "the lowland forests of the Sunda Shelf, the richest forests on earth, will be totally destroyed by 2005 on Sumatra and 2010 on Kalimatan."

The researchersPaul Jepson from the University of Oxford, James K. Jarvie based in Indonesia, Kathy MacKinnon of the World Bank and Kathryn A. Monk from the Leuser Management Unit in Indonesiacite several case studies, as well as a report by the Indonesian Directorate of Nature Conservation, and conclude that large-scale illegal logging operations conducted by logging gangs, often in accord with the local communities, are to blame. They also found that regional governments, unequipped to conduct sustainable forest management, are unable to enforce the goals initially set up by the national government. Apart from that, local police do not have the means to fight the illegal logging, and the report by the Directorate of Nature Conservation suggests that it may be necessary to use the military to protect the national park.

The lowland forests are home to several species of large mammals such as the Sumatran rhinoceros, the Sumatran tiger and the Asian elephant. Forest destruction may threaten their very survival. The authors point out that immediate action is needed but concede that there is no easy solution to the problem. "A change from large-scale, company-based exploitation to lower-impact joint ventures will require a complete rethinking of forest profitability and beneficiaries," they write.