Orangutans Dying and Injured in Indonesian Wildfires

MANTANGAI, Indonesia, November 7, 2006 (ENS) - Fires set to clear land in Indonesia have choked the country in a thick, smoky haze since mid-September and have killed hundreds of endangered orangutans, conservationists said today.

The Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation has predicted that forest and peat land fires in Kalimantan have killed about 1,000 orangutans and threatened the biodiversity in the peat lands of the Mawas Reserve.

"The fires have caused a number of orangutans to suffer from dehydration, respiratory problems, lack of food and even sustained injuries due to the fires," said the foundation's coordinator Willie Smits.

An animal rescue team from the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation and the Washington, DC based International Fund for Animal Welfare, IFAW, has treated more than 40 orangutans for respiratory problems and burns.

Fires, primarily set by palm oil companies, are burning out of control in Indonesian Borneo and on the island of Sumatra, sending a choking haze over Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and as far away as Guam, 3,600 kilometers to the east. Schools and airports in the region have been closed, and people advised to stay indoors.

Annual fires are intentionally set in Indonesia to clear forestland for agriculture before the rainy season begins in November. This year's fires are the worst in a decade due to drier than normal conditions.

The fires now have nearly reached the level they did in 1997-98, when they cost the region an estimated US$9 billion in disruptions to air travel and other business activities, and wiped out a third of the existing population of orangutans.

orangutan

Fewer than 60,000 orangutans remain in the wild in Indonesia and IFAW estimates that they could face extinction from the wild in 10 years due to habitat destruction. (Photo courtesy Wisconsin Primate Research Center)
This year, the fires have destroyed orangutan habitat and forced the animals out of the rainforest. Orangutans flee the burning forest in search of food and safety, often into nearby palm oil plantations, where they are beaten by humans.

IFAW is in Indonesia to rescue the displaced orangutans, give them medical treatment, and relocate them to safer habitats.

IFAW's Jennifer Miller writes today from the Kapuas River in Central Kalimantan on the island of Borneo, "To see the forests burning, the birds flying above looking for a safe place to land, villagers walking around with masks over their mouths 24/7 all combined with the number of orangutans in rehab is heartwrenching."

The Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation says the area where their Nyaru Menteng orangutan project is located, is ablaze. More than 2.5 million acres of peatland is on fire, and visibility is down to less than 30 meters.

The reports from the field are "horrendous," the foundation said, and their rescue teams have been working non-stop.

"The area where we released 42 wild orangutans in March is now on fire, as well as parts of the Mawas Reserve," the foundation said, contemplating the ruin of its years of costly conservation work.

fire

Fires set to clear land for palm oil plantations are wiping out Indonesia's orangutans. (Photo courtesy IFAW)
Hardi, the assistant manager at Nyaru Menteng, wrote, “There is a big forest fire in the Agro Bukit concession. We believe that it burn by workers under the order of plantation management. Orangutans run burning forest to plantation and many of them killed! Our rescue team works hard to save them by translocate to another area. We got four orphaned babies.”

Other orangutans have been found with burned feet, or with limbs cut off by plantation workers.

Indonesia has the highest number of threatened species of mammals in the world, around 146, according to IUCN-World Conservation Union.

Among these is the Asian elephant, with an estimated 50,000 remaining in the wild, plus another 10,000 in captivity. Their habitat is in danger from widespread human encroachment, and now from the wildfires as well.

A ministerial meeting on transboundary haze pollution was held in Pekanbaru on October 13 under the auspices of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Ministers and environmental officials from Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand attended.

The participants urged Indonesia to "urgently finalize" the ratification of the 2002 ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution in accordance with its national law.

For its part, Indonesia urged ASEAN member countries to contribute to and utilize the fund established under the transboundary haze agreement to finance prevention and mitigation measures.

Indonesia is the only country in the 10 member ASEAN that has not ratified the Agreement, which would result in the establishment of a regional co-ordinating center capable of reacting quickly to the smoke. Under the Agreement signatories gain access to a fund to help them with fighting fires and the seeding of clouds to precipitate rain.

However, even without ratification, Indonesia was offered help to put out the fires, but assistance has not been accepted.

The meeting agreed to hold a regional workshop in Indonesia this month to look into new measures to tackle the haze problem. The ASEAN countries may seek international expertise to develop a comprehensive plan of action with an effective monitoring and reporting mechanism.

A ministerial steering committee comprised of the environment ministers of Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand will be established to oversee the implementation of short and long-term plans to tackle the haze problem.