This year, Orangutan Awareness Week arrives as long awaited rains begin to douse the fires that have been raging across orangutan habitat in Kalimantan and Sumatra since late June. People and wildlife alike are facing significant health risks as the smoke haze resulting from the destruction of more than 4.2 million acres of forest and peatlands pollutes the Indonesian air and wafts into neighboring countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Southern Thailand, and Vietnam.
“Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, a spokesman for Indonesia’s disaster management agency, characterized the disaster as “a crime against humanity of extraordinary proportions.” He said more than 500,000 people have developed respiratory problems since agricultural fires and peatland hotspots began to burn through Indonesia’s hinterlands in June.”
Every year, fires are intentionally set in order to prepare land quickly and cheaply primarily for the planting of oil palm. Slash and burn techniques are used to clear the forests while peat swamps – prime habitat for orangutans - are drained. In addition to destroying habitat, these practices accelerate the risk of fire, especially during drier years. Fires have grown even further out of control this year because of extended drought conditions brought on by the effects of El Niño.
Philadelphia Zoo conservation partner Gerry Ellis has been in Kalimantan for the past two weeks meeting with orangutan researchers and witnessing firsthand the devastating impact of the fires.
“Fires in Indonesia have threatened countless rainforest species, none more arboreal than orangutans. As isolated patches of forest are spared, orangutans are trapped with no shelter and no food in what is often times only a few trees — the only option is rescue. Here a young male Bornean orangutan has been isolated by the Yayasan IR (International Animal Rescue) team in preparation for darting and transfer the next day. The frustrated orangutan could only do what comes naturally in such situations — break branches from what little trees remained and toss them down at the perceived threat. The next day the rescue was a success.”
“Tanjung Puting NP in Central Kalimantan, Borneo has been hit hard by noxious air pollution over the past couple of months. Dense "haze" has prevented many tourists from reaching the region and impacting the ecotourism economy associated with the National Park. Recent rains have begun to have a clearing effect, however air quality remains problematic. In addition to the lingering haze is the lingering question of what impact will these fires have on short- & long-term respiratory health of orangutans and other wildlife?”
“Just left Tanjung Puting NP where smoke from fires burning across Kalimantan is pretty intense. Female and young orangutans gleaning caterpillars in tree top over Sekonyer River in Central Kalimantan during peak of fire season 2015: Visibility 150m. Orangutans in so-called buffer zone between palm oil plantations and river, opposite side of river from Tanjung Puting NP.”
“I guess when I drove to the Pangkalanbun airport through this brown goo in the air I should have known the flight to Ketapang would be canceled – for the fourth day in a row. Will look for a vehicle to make the overland 8-hour trek tomorrow. Despite the calls for action to halt the fires burning across Kalimantan they continue to burn and create greater ‘haze’ problems. Many are calculating this season of fires may stretch into 2016 before there is any respite — creating the worst fire season since 1997/98 when an estimated 20% of Kalimantan was burnt.”
As of early November…
Many areas in Indonesia continue to burn, but the rain is improving air quality and emissions are down after 1.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide were released since the beginning of the year. In the past two alone months, the rate of emissions from fires has outpaced emissions from the entire US economy, when measured on a daily basis.
Meanwhile, Indonesian president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is working on a “legally binding presidential decree” to ban all new peatland developments and to revoke licenses to operate on peat from palm oil concessions that have not yet started draining. He’s also pledging to restore the “peatland ecosystem” by damming some drainage canals already in place. While these pledges are very promising, it remains to be seen whether they will in fact become legal binding and, even more importantly, are enforceable.
Our role as decision makers…
Companies across the globe have committed to use palm oil that doesn’t destroy habitat for wildlife. These “deforestation-free” commitments have been driven by advocates like you who care about animals and the planet. As fires set to make way for palm oil begin to die down, send a message asking companies to share their progress towards realizing these important policies, many of which include “no burning” commitments. Let them know you’re counting on them to follow through and that your choices are influenced by their actions.