The first rains in Indonesia are slowly containing the forest fires that have blanketed Indonesia and its neighbours in thick smoke since early September. As the smoke lifts, the devastating consequences are only now becoming painfully visible: a third of all wild orangutans are threatened. Barbara Barkhausen reports from Sydney.
It has been nearly 20 years since Indonesia experienced a catastrophe as horrifying as the fires that have been raging for the past two months, bringing everyday life to a standstill on so many parts of the island nation: schools in parts of the country have closed, and the construction, tourism and agriculture sectors have been battered.
According to an article in the Washington Post, the emissions released into the atmosphere by the forest fires are already higher than Germany’s total CO2 emissions in one year – and the fire season is not yet over. The forest fires have ravaged around 1.7 million hectares of forest and land in Indonesia, leading conservationists to call it the biggest “environmental crime of the 21st century.”
Apart from the climate damage and economic losses, which experts say is around USD 50 billion, and the health risks affecting well over 40 million people in the region, Indonesia’s diverse and unique wildlife has been hit particularly hard.
Orangutans face extinction
These include many species threatened with extinction such as orangutans. The Orangutan Project, a conservation organisation that works to protect the great apes of Asia from extinction, reported in early November on the difficult conditions its volunteers as well as the animals are exposed to: in their centre, where they release rescued animals back into the wild, the workers and animals alike have to endure thick smoke and fine ash and dust on a daily basis.
“We have closed down the jungle school and treat the animals with honey and immunostimulants to support their immune system,” says Peter Pratje from the Frankfurt Zoological Society, which operates two orangutan rehabilitation centres together with The Orangutan Project and WWF.
As the Guardian reports, up to one third of the world’s remaining wild orangutans are now threated as their habitat goes up in flames. The situation is dire as orangutans were already at threat of extinction even prior to the current forest fires, in part because of their slow reproduction rate. Females first reproduce between 10 to 15 years of age and give birth to just one infant at a time every eight or nine years, writes WWF.
El Niño adds kindle to the fires
Generally speaking, it is not entirely unusual for Indonesia to experience forest fires during the dry season. Each year farmers and palm oil producers set their old crops on fire to make way for new palm oil plantations. Even neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore are accustomed to suffering from heavy smoke that can last for weeks, darkening the sky and sending huge amounts of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere.
“But this years the fires have been particularly strong,” says Thomas Yoshimura, director of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Jakarta. “This is also due to the strong impact of the El Niño weather phenomenon, which has been fatally underestimated by Indonesia experts and government agencies alike.”
Monsoons bring relief
Relief is slowly coming with the onset of the rainy monsoon season, and the number of hotspots is expected to fall from over 1,000 to just under 200, explains Yoshimura.
But as the fires are gradually contained and the smoke clears somewhat, the extent of the devastation is becoming painfully evident. And the Indonesian government – which has been heavily criticised from all sides for doing too little for too long – is finally opening its eyes to the escalating crisis and responding to international pressure to change its approach.
“The government has now become visibly active,” says Yoshimura. Around 250 investigations into allegations of arson have been opened. In a sign of positive change, some are even against international companies.