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Forest fires threaten world’s largest remaining population of orangutans

Raging fires have broken out in the peat-swamp forests of Central Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo, threatening the largest population of orangutans in the world. The fires were started by people but have spread uncontrollably due to the extreme drought that Borneo is currently experiencing, caused by El Niño. 

‘These fires have started as a result of human actions.’ says Dr. Suwido Limin, Director of the Indonesian peatland conservation organization CIMTROP. ‘Newcomers to the area have attempted to follow traditional Dayak farming methods for land clearance but they lack the experience to control the fires they start. When peat dries out it burns very easily and at great temperatures. Once these fires take hold, they burn and burn and can be almost impossible to put out until the rains come again. In that time huge areas of forest and irreplaceable peat deposits may be lost.’ Peat fires can smolder for years below the surface.

Borneo is currently in the grips of severe El Niño drought, making this an ‘exceptionally worrying’ time for the fires to break out. Previous El Niño years have seen hundreds of thousands of hectares of primary forest go up in flames, home to endangered plants and wildlife including orangutans. The reduced rainfall and stronger southeasterly winds that El Niño also creates provides favorable conditions for larger scale smoke haze pollution. 

The area currently at risk, the peat-swamp forests of Sabangau National Park and surrounding areas, houses an estimated 8,000 orangutans as well as eight other primate species, clouded leopards, sun bears, flying squirrels and 154 species of bird. The Sabangau forest is the largest area of lowland rainforest remaining in Borneo.

 Orangutan sleeping nests can be seen in trees shrouded in smoke and rhinoceros hornbills fly through the haze overhead.’ was the scene described in a press release issued by OuTrop (Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project). OuTrop is an independent research and conservation project carrying out research into the biodiversity of the Sabangau Forest, with a focus on the area’s orangutans.

The health of local people is also at risk as they breathe smoke from the fires, while on a national scale millions of dollars of revenue has been lost through disruption of air and sea traffic; great black clouds of smoke have blocked out the sun. Globally, clearance of peatlands is one of the largest sources of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases – an estimated 10% of global emissions – which contribute significantly to climate change.

A dedicated rapid-response fire-fighting team, known locally as TSA (Tim Serbu Api), is currently working around the clock to tackle the fires. The team of 30 local people is trained and equipped by CIMTROP. Their job is extremely hazardous, as Dr. Limin explains;  ‘Peat fires are unique as they spread below the surface, on average 20-30cm below ground but sometimes as deep as 60cm, which makes fighting them both dangerous and unpredictable. You can put out fire in one place and then flames suddenly shoot up behind you.’

The team are constructing fire breaks and suppressing the fires with water pumped from nearby canals and bore-holes. These holes can take three or four people up to six hours to dig, as they often need to be over twenty meters deep to access enough water. Just one square metre of burning peat can take two to three hundred litres of water to be extinguished. 

The fires are expected to continue until the rains arrive at the end of October, but the team is struggling to cope with a lack of resources. ‘We need more water pumps, lots more hose and permanent bore-hole sites so we can channel water to burning areas more easily.’ said TSA team member Alim.

Major fires occur in the area every three to four years but are not easily predictable. ‘We need to … have funds permanently available for immediate use when fire hits.’ says Dr Limin. ‘Disasters do not wait while mitigation strategies are discussed and put in place; they hit hard and fast, with little warning. We rely on donations, and are very grateful for the financial support we receive, but at the moment we simply don’t have the resources we need to tackle all the fires that are starting.”

Peat forms when organic matter remains only partially decomposed due to heavily waterlogged, acidic conditions. The deposits at Sabangau are up to fifteen metres deep and took 20,000 years to form. They can store huge amounts of carbon but this is released into the atmosphere as CO2 when they are burnt. Indonesia houses over 20 million hectares of peatlands, acting as a store for billions of tons of carbon.

Earlier this year Indonesia revealed plans to convert millions of hectares of peatland across Kalimantan, Sumatra and Papua, despite warnings from environmentalists. Recent research has shown that destruction of rainforests and peatlands is making Indonesia more susceptible to devastating forest fires, especially in dry El Niño years. During the 1997—1998 El Niño, fires released more than 2 billion tons of C02 into the atmosphere and caused billions of dollars to the regional economy. Conversion of peatlands worldwide accounts for more than 3 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions every year.


Published on, August 2009.