Orangutan News: Orangutans at Threat as Forest Fires Escalate

photo from the Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project
photo from the Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project

As the Orangutan Conservancy reported just two weeks ago, monumental fires are raging across Indonesia right now and the always vulnerable orangutans are clearly in harms way as the flames engulf more and more land during this El Nino event.  This update arrives from the Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project (OuTrop), one of the projects that OC helps to support in Borneo.

A global ecological and social disaster is currently unfolding in Indonesia. In the last month alone approximately 9,735 forest fires have occurred across Sumatra and Indonesian Borneo. Forest and peatland are burning, destroying wildlife habitat and creating a cloud of thick, dangerous haze across the region. The consequences are severe: vast amounts of carbon are emitted, tens of thousands of people are suffering from respiratory problems and endangered species are at risk. Yet this has largely gone unreported in the mainstream press outside of South-east Asia.

Some fires are accidental, but most are started deliberately. Fire is used as a cheap method for land clearing and as a weapon in land tenure conflicts. During droughts, fires can quickly grow out of control, burning neighbouring land and forests. While large oil-palm and plantation companies shoulder much of the blame, some recent studies suggest that most fires occur outside of concessions, indicating both large and small-holders contribute to the crisis.

This annual problem has been exacerbated by a strong current El Niño weather event, which is expected to last into spring 2016 and could prolong the drought in Indonesia. The worst fires in Indonesia to date occurred during the strong El Niño winter of 1997-98, and some forecasts have predicted that this year might be a match. This does not bode well for Indonesia’s forests and peatlands.

Cimtrop fire fighting teams at work as thick haze blankets the forest
CIMTROP fire fighting teams at work as thick haze blankets the burning forest

Dr Mark Harrison, Managing Director of the Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project (OuTrop), a UK-based conservation organisation working in Indonesian Borneo, expresses his deep concern “Tropical peat-swamp forests are one of the world’s most important ecosystems. They are home to globally threatened wildlife, including the orangutan, southern Bornean gibbon and clouded leopard. Indonesia’s peat forests contain vast amounts of carbon – 57 billion tonnes equivalent to 25% of the carbon stored in the world’s tropical forests and so play a key role in preventing dangerous global temperature rises. Intact peatlands also help prevent both floods and fires, plus provide fish to eat and other important ecosystem services for local people.”

“OuTrop’s main research site in the Sabangau Forest, Indonesian Borneo, is a peat-swamp that is home to the world’s largest orangutan population” continues Dr Harrison. “Fire here not only burns the surface vegetation, but also the peat soil that has taken thousands of years to form. This makes fire the biggest threat to Sabangau’s orangutans and many other species that call this forest home.”

Professor Susan Page, a geographer at the University of Leicester and leading expert on Indonesia’s peatlands, explains the cause of the problem “Ironically, intact peatlands are actually very fire resistant, as they are protected by a high water table. The problem arises when peatlands are drained, normally for conversion to agriculture, but also for logging timber. 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.”

The haze from these fires is extremely damaging. Visibility is severely restricted causing flight cancellations, and school and business closures lead to a loss of billions of dollars for the Indonesian economy. Of greater concern is the small particulate matter in the haze, which poses a serious public health risk. It has been reported that over 75,000 people in Sumatra and Indonesian Borneo are suffering from upper respiratory infections as a result of the haze. The long-term effects of living in such high levels of air pollution are unknown. The haze and its associated problems even extend across the ocean to the Indo-Malay Peninsula, creating international political tensions.

Locally-led teams are spearheading fire-fighting efforts on the ground, like the CIMTROP Community Patrol Team, which works to protect the Natural Laboratory of Peat-Swamp Forest in the north of the Sabangau Forest and is supported by OuTrop. Government fire-fighting teams have also been sent to affected areas, with aircraft deployed for fire-fighting and cloud seeding. Police are starting to crack down on companies starting fires illegally, and local media and public campaigns are urging people not to start fires.

“Efforts to stop the fires are being stepped up, but are currently insufficient to cope with the scale of the problem” explains Dr Harrison. “Stopping the fires requires both urgent on-the-ground fire-fighting during drought periods and, in the longer term, damming of canals in drained peatlands to prevent future fires. Any further canal construction and peatland drainage should be avoided.”

Professor Page added “Until adequate financial and policy support exists to realise this aim, the fire problem will continue to re-emerge in Indonesia each time dry conditions prevail, and wildlife, the climate and people will continue to suffer”.Or

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