Well, unfortunately this time of year is upon us again. The end of the dry season always comes with news reports of heavy smoke and countless fire “hotspots” across Kalimantan, and year after year the causes are the same : slash and burn agriculture, palm oil companies, and the odd accidental fire that gets out of control. With 2014 being a mild El Nino year, there is the additional potential for major fires because the soil is so dry. I can count the number of heavy rainstorms we’ve had here in Ketapang since I arrived in July on one hand- not good for the forests, especially the peatlands that are so critical to the continued survival of orangutans and mitigating climate change. Recent news reports say that there have been about 200 hotspots in Central Kalimantan alone. In Palangkaraya (home base for OuTrop, where I used to work), people are being warned not to leave their houses unless absolutely necessary and to wear hospital masks whenever they go outside, because in addition to having devastating ecological effects, the fires and smoke are also a threat to human health. The smoke can spread as far as Malaysia and Singapore, shutting down airports and raising air pollution levels as it moves.
Aside from all of that, the fires that rage in Kalimantan and Sumatra every year eat away at the remaining (and ever-shrinking) orangutan habitat on these two islands. The most severe fires occur in peatlands, which when dry provide seemingly endless fuel for forest fires. These forested peatlands also happen to be prime orangutan habitat, with the kinds of fruits and trees that orangutans like the most. Research indicates that the highest densities of orangutans are found in this forest type, but as it gets eaten away by fires and illegal land clearing, the orangutans are continuously restricted to smaller and smaller patches of forest. As their habitats and sources of food disappear, the orangutans try to look for sustenance in community gardens and agricultural land, and then they are captured or killed when they destroy the crops that people depend on for their livelihoods. It’s not a good situation for anyone, although conservation organizations like mine (GPOCP) are able to mitigate some of this human-wildlife conflict through environmental education and conservation awareness campaigns.
So what’s the solution? There are many suggestions: Legal enforcement of environmental laws. Providing alternatives or incentives to avoid slash-and-burn agriculture. More funding for fire-fighting teams. Better protection for critical peat swamp forests. Conservationists and land managers have a handy new tool in the Global Forest Watch-Fires platform that was launched this year and monitoring tools like this are hugely important in addressing fires once they’ve started. Ultimately preventing forest fires will be more cost-effective (and ecologically sound!) than simply mitigating them once they’ve started, but this requires an environmentally-minded government and cooperation from all of the players- local people, large companies, and various government agencies. It remains to be seen how the new Indonesian president will address this issue; for this year we can only wait until the rainy season really begins and keep an eye on hotspots in our area. So far so good in Ketapang and near Gunung Palung, and fingers crossed it stays that way! Regardless, this is an important and recurring conservation issue that needs to be addressed, for the health of both orangutans and humans across Southeast Asia.