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article imageMan-caused fires in Indonesia leading to loss of orangutans

By Karen Graham     Oct 27, 2015 in Environment
One of our greatest environmental disasters is being played out in Indonesia. Fires started by humans with a lack of regard for the environment or for the health of millions of people have devastated thousands of acres and put orangutans at risk.
Indonesia's yearly fires, started by palm oil companies and lumber manufacturers to clear land, have been a regular occurrence despite international opposition; and despite the fact that they put thousands of Indonesians at risk of respiratory illness.
But this year's fires are probably the worst the planet has seen in decades, made worse by a very strong El Nino weather system that has created extremely dry conditions across Southeast Asia and Australia. Over half of the fires are burning on peatland, and these fires are very difficult to put out.
Activists are in a race against time to rescue endangered orangutans from forest fires ravaging the ...
Activists are in a race against time to rescue endangered orangutans from forest fires ravaging the Indonesian island of Kalimantan.
Associated Press
Satellite imagery shows that since July, over 100,000 fires have burned in Indonesia's carbon-rich peatlands. But this year, instead of the fires being confined to farms and plantations like in most years, several thousand fires have spread deep into primary forests and national parks, threatening the remaining habitat of wild orangutans and other endangered species.
The Sabangau Forest in Borneo is home to the world's largest population of orangutans, nearly 7,000. But more than 350 fires have been detected within the forest. Fires are also raging in the Tanjung Puting national park, home to 6,000 wild apes, the Katingan forest with 3,000 and the Mawas reserve, where there are 3,500 orangutans.
Mark Harrison, the director of the UK-based research and conservation organization Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project (OuTrop), has been studying the tropical peat swamp forests since 1999. The Guardian quotes Harrison as saying: “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. 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."
The effects of prolonged smoke inhalation
Even though very little is known about the precise effects of smoke on the lungs of animals, it can be assumed that like humans, they are at serious risk from smoke inhalation, making them ill and unable to feed. To date this year, the smoke from the fires has caused over 500,000 cases of respiratory infections in humans, and six provinces have declared a state of emergency. Imagine how many orangutans are sick.
You can barely see the orangutan hanging from the tree in this smoke-filled photo. Rescuers will let...
You can barely see the orangutan hanging from the tree in this smoke-filled photo. Rescuers will let him drop into a net and then treat him for smoke-inhalation.
For thousands of orangutans, who share 97 percent of our DNA, the fires this year have been devastating, and a real sickening environmental disaster.
Lis Key is with International Animal Rescue, a UK-based non-governmental organization that works to rescue animals in the region. Many baby orangutans have needed rescue because their mothers have died in the fires. Rescuers are finding malnourished and sick adults and babies, barely alive.
She told the Associated Press that an area of rainforest the size of 300 soccer fields is being destroyed by the fires every hour.
“It’s happening at an absolutely breathtaking rate,” Key said. “If this goes on, this could have a serious impact in extinction and bring it closer.”
Richard Zimmerman, the executive director of Orangutan Outreach, a conservation group that is funding a firefighter program for people in the region, described the consequences of the fires on orangutan habitats as "staggering."
"They are the homes of the biggest remaining populations of orangutans," he said. "The estimate is about 3,000 orangutans are lost each year; every loss is critical.”
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