Indonesia in Flames: Surviving the Dry Season

A potential threat to all living creatures, wildfires rage every day; but during the dry season in the many provinces of Indonesia these infernos threaten some of the world’s most endangered wildlife. The Orangutan Conservancy’s president, Dr. Rafaella Commitante emailed me late last night with a picture from the island of Borneo. The smoke-filled streets of East Kalimantan reminded me of morning fog, yet I knew this was a result of something far worse.

Smoke-filled streets of East Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia.
Received from Dr. Commitante on 8/4/2019

Indonesia is well into its dry season and fires have already started ranging in multiple areas. Since August 1st there have been 125 fire alerts in the province of Kalimantan Timur (East Kalimantan) alone! Additionally, 19% of those fire alerts have been inside the boundaries of primary forest regions.

East Kalimantan is home to the only remaining large, wild population of Northeast Bornean Orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus morio) in addition to the long-term field project called the Orangutan Kutai Project, which is led by our very own board member, Dr. Anne Russon. Just two decades ago Kutai National Park was considered an ecological wasteland, created by human development and intense wildfires that swept through the region. At that time researchers concluded that an important population of around 600 orangutans had been decimated by these events and were dwindling at just 30 wild individuals. Then in 2010, national park surveys of Kutai found that despite these horrific events the forest and orangutan population had been recovering surprisingly well. Those surveys estimated the current orangutan population to be between 1,000 and 2,000 individuals with a healthy reproductive population as well. Although this specific example showcases a habitat and population that was able to recover relatively well, not all regions are able to experience this type of outcome.

Just four years ago in 2015, fires engulfed about 5 million acres of the Kalimantan province including 25% of orangutan range areas (aka orangutan habitat). Fires in this region are not unlike the causes of wildfires right here in the U.S. Tinderbox conditions (dried out land and plants), forest-clearing fires, poor land management, and dried out peat-swamps are just some of the main causes that scorched regions have experienced.

Smoke from the fires in the Sintang Regency in the
Province of West Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia.

One of the most severe causes to forest fires is a result of drained and dried out peat swamps, like the ones in Sabangau National Forest. This forest, also home to our latest funded project with the Borneo Nature Foundation has seen its fair share of forest fires due to the poor forest management of the peat-swamped habitats. A peat-swamp forest can be compared to a giant sponge, wherein the soil retains an extremely high volume of water and can form a dome that rises above surrounding flood levels. These types of forests are extremely important ecosystems as they capture and hold a large amount of carbon dioxide, not to mention they help prevent flooding as well as keep regions from experiencing droughts in the dry season. Peat-swamps hold a tremendous amount of water and release it slowly throughout the season which support local communities and wildlife. In fact, Bornean and Sumatran Orangutans have both been found to inhabit peat-swamp forests. Now the tragedy that befalls peat swamp forests comes with deforestation. When deforestation occurs, the water held in the peat (underground) is released and the remaining dry peat is extremely flammable, often supporting fires for days and even weeks (also releasing more carbon into the atmosphere). Another consequence of losing this type of forest, other than the obvious wildlife impacts, is the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (in addition to the carbon released by fires) which adds to the total emissions of greenhouse gases caused by human activity. Since peat swamps accumulate such a high volume of carbon over thousands of years it is particularly alarming that the draining of one can release the carbon in just hundreds of subsequent years.

Fires are a common occurrence worldwide, but without conservationists and concerned individuals like you, forest fires could be the demise of precious forested habitat and endangered species like the orangutan. Conservation projects like the Orangutan Kutai project help initiatives to preserve forests from this type of activity by reporting illegal logging that could very well lead to forest wildfires. Furthering research in these forested areas is another great way to ensure the safety of the wildlife and primary forests of the region. By increasing the scientific knowledge of the benefits of these pristine forests as well as the negative impacts of deforestation on wildlife, we can help ensure the longevity of endangered species.

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