As Indonesia’s forest fires spread, a third of world’s wild orangutans are under threat

The fires have encroached into the strongholds of the remaining apes

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 October, 2015, 3:31pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 October, 2015, 8:40pm

Raging Indonesian forest fires have advanced into dense forest on Borneo and now threaten one third of the world’s remaining wild orangutans, say conservationists.

Satellite photography shows that around 100,000 fires have burned in Indonesia’s carbon-rich peatlands since July. But instead of being mostly confined to farmland and plantations, as they are in most years, several thousand fires have now penetrated deep into primary forests and national parks, the strongholds of the remaining wild apes and other endangered animals.

Alarmingly, 358 fire “hotspots” have been detected inside the Sabangau Forest in Borneo which has the world’s largest population of nearly 7,000 wild orangutans. Elsewhere, fires are raging in the Tanjung Puting national park, home to 6,000 wild apes, the Katingan forest with 3,000 and the Mawas reserve where there are an estimated 3,500.

“I dread to think what it will mean for orangutans. For them and other species, like the secretive clouded leopard and the iconic hornbill, the situation is dire and deteriorating by the day,” said Mark Harrison, director of the UK-based research and conservation organisation Orangutan tropical peatland project (OuTrop), which has been studying the tropical peat swamp forest of Sabangau since 1999.

“In their undisturbed, flooded state, peatland forests are naturally fire-resistant. But decades of poor peatland management practices, including extensive forest clearance and canal construction, has drained the peat, putting the whole region at high fire risk when the inevitable droughts occur,” Harrison said.

Professor Susan Page, a geographer at the University of Leicester and an expert on peatland conservation, said: “Dry peat ignites very easily and can burn for days or weeks, even smouldering underground and re-emerging away from the initial source. This makes them incredibly difficult to extinguish. Smouldering fires produce high levels of harmful gases and particulates.”

Little is known about the precise effects of smoke inhalation on animals but the lungs of animals are similar to those of humans, so it is expected to make them sick and unable to feed.

Teams of volunteers have been trying to put the fires out but many are out of control. In Sabangau forest one fire has already burned more than 500 hectares and is threatening the renowned research station managed by the Centre for International Cooperation in Sustainable Management of Tropical Peatland (CIMTROP) at the University of Palangka Raya, according to OuTrop director of conservation, Simon Husson.

The wildfires across Indonesia are now thought to be responsible for up to 500,000 cases of respiratory infections, and six provinces have declared a state of emergency.

“People are choking in the smoke and one of the world’s last great rainforests is burning down,” Husson said. “The only way to tackle this is with huge manpower on the ground, supported by intensive and sustained aerial water-bombing. Mobilising these resources requires raising international awareness of the catastrophe unfolding in Sabangau.”