JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) -- Hundreds of critically endangered orangutans in western Indonesia could be wiped out by the year's end if palm oil companies keep setting land-clearing fires in their peat swamp forests, conservationists warned Thursday.
"They are just barely hanging on," Ian Singleton, conservation director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program, said of the Sumatran orangutans who live in the Tripa forest on the coast of Aceh province. "It is no longer several years away, but just a few months or even weeks before this iconic creature disappears."
The forest -- though officially protected -- is hemmed in by palm oil plantations, including one that was granted a permit just last year
Land clearing fires, several set inside the perimeters, have sent orangutans fleeing. Some risk being captured or killed by residents, Singleton said. Others will simply die, either directly in the fires or of gradual starvation and malnutrition as their food resources disappear.
"We are currently watching a global tragedy," he said.
There are only 6,600 Sumatran orangutans left in the wild.
The Tripa forest -- which in the early '90s was home to around 3,000 of them -- today has just 200. But with eight individuals every square kilometer, its the densest population in the world.
Cloud-free images from December show only 12,267 hectares (30,311 acres) of Tripa's original 60,000 hectares (148,260 acres) of forest remains, said Graham Usher of the Foundation of a Sustainable Ecosystem.
The rest has been broken up and degraded as palm oil companies drain the swamp, he said, adding a total of 92 fire hotspots were recorded between March 19 and 25 in several of the surrounding plantations.
A half-century ago, more than three-quarters of Indonesia was blanketed in plush tropical rain forest. But half those trees have been cleared in the rush to supply the world with pulp, paper and, more recently, palm oil -- used to make everything from lipstick and soap to "clean-burning" fuel.
Governments are now trying to find ways to convince the sprawling archipelagic nation to keep trees standing.
As part of a $1 billion deal with Norway, Indonesia recently put in place a two-year moratorium on issuing new permits to clear primary forests.
But conservationists say that deal was violated when the government gave a license to PT Kallista Alam last year to convert 4,000 acres of the Tripa peat swamp. Three other companies are already operating in the area.
An environmental group has filed both a criminal complaint and a lawsuit against the government. The Aceh Administrative Court is expected to hand down a verdict on the lawsuit next week.