Forest fires threaten wild orangutans

The first rains in Indonesia are slowly containing the forest fires that have blanketed Indonesia & 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.

Indonesia’s catastrophic forest fires are threatening unique wildlife. (Photo credit: Gemma i Jere, flickr)

Indonesia’s catastrophic forest fires are threatening unique wildlife. (Photo credit: Gemma i Jere, flickr)

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, & the construction, tourism & 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 – & the fire season is not yet over. The forest fires have ravaged around 1.7 million hectares of forest & land in Indonesia, leading conservationists to call it the biggest “environmental crime of the 21st century.”

Apart from the climate damage & economic losses, which experts say is around USD 50 billion, & the health risks affecting well over 40 million people in the region, Indonesia’s diverse & 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 tremendous 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 & animals alike have to endure thick smoke & fine ash & dust on a daily basis.

“We have closed down the jungle school & treat the animals with honey & 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 & 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 & donate 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 & palm oil producers set their old crops on fire to make way for new palm oil plantations. Even neighbouring Malaysia & Singapore are accustomed to suffering from heavy smoke that can last for weeks, darkening the sky & 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 moreover due to the strong impact of the El Niño weather phenomenon, which has been fatally underestimated by Indonesia experts & government agencies alike.”

Monsoons bring relief

Relief is slowly coming with the onset of the rainy monsoon season, & 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 & 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 & responding to international pressure to alter 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.


Gemma i Jere, flickr/Creative Commons

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