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Indonesia’s forest fires: What it means for the orangutans

Fires have been blazing since August in Indonesia and are now threatening one third of the world's orangutan population.

Indonesia’s forest fires: What it means for the orangutans

According to conservationists, fires that have been raging since July, have now penetrated Borneo’s dense forest and are threatening to wipe out one third of the world’s wild orangutans. 

So far, millions of acres of Indonesian forest have been reduced to ash, with fires showing little sign of slowing down.

The fires have touched areas of Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, other Indonesian islands and even west Papua. 

Satellite photography is currently showing over 100,000 fires still burning across Indonesia’s peatlands.

The fires are not an uncommon practice in Indonesia, as high levels of palm oil production dictate that land be cleared for regrowth and new crops every year.

As a form of ‘slash and burn agriculture’ – a technique that involes burning of forestland to make way for new plantings of oil palm and acacia pulp, the fires are often lit on areas underlain with peat.

Compared to other types of fires, those that form on peat surfaces release high levels of pollutants – releasing three times as much carbon monoxide and ten times the amount of methane as a regular fire.

However, what is more alarming about these fires is the incredible rate at which they are spreading through protected conservation land, wildlife parks, and animal dense areas.

In early October, shocking footage was captured by Greenpeace field researchers depicting extensive peat and forest fires burning around the edge of the Gunung Palung national park – home to a wide range of biodiversity.

According to conservationists an alarming 358 fire “hotspots” have been identified within the Sabangau Forest in Borneo which houses the largest population of nearly 7000 orangutans. Fires are also out of control  in the Tajung Puting national park, home to 6000 wild apes, and the Katingan and Mawas reserves – where just under 7000 animals live.

“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).

“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.

As the world’s largest producer of palm oil, the region has now reported over 500,000 cases of repiratory infections with many of the provinces being declared under a state of emergency.

“People are choking in the smoke and one of the world’s last great rainforests is burning down,” Simon Husson, conservation director at OuTrop told The Guardian. “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.”

The levels of pollution alone are already threatening to cost the Indonesian economy billions of dollars and has led to region-wide demonstrations against the government.

“People are getting angry. They used to accept a certain amount of smog but this year it’s much worse,” said one protester.

These fires, whilst causing huge amounts of damage due to a completely avoidable reason, have remained largely absent from mainstream media.

“Large parts of Indonesia have now been in a state of emergency for over a month. Why has there not been a nationally declared total fire ban advertised 24/7 on all television channels?” asked Dr. Eric Meijaard, an Indonesia-based associate professor at the University of Queensland, in a recent editorial in the Jakarta Globe.

The fires and their associated emissions will be subject to serious review in the upcoming Climate Change Conference in Paris this December as Indonesia prepares to defend its climate change commitments to the United Nations.

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