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  National Geographic 17 Nov 06
Orangutans Displaced, Killed by Indonesian Forest Fires

John Roach

PlanetArk 14 Nov 06
El Nino May Spell Trouble for Indonesian Orangutans

Story by Achmad Sukarsono

Yahoo News 8 Nov 06
Orangutans flee Indonesia forest fires

By NINIEK KARMINI, Associated Press

Yahoo News 3 Nov 06
Indonesia forest fires, attacks kill 1,000 orangutans

JAKARTA (Reuters) - About 1,000 orangutans are estimated to have died in Indonesia during the dry season this year in which raging forest fires have produced thick smoke across huge areas of Southeast Asia, a conservationist said on Monday.

The fires in the Indonesian part of Borneo have deprived orangutans of food and forced them to encroach on human settlements, where they are often attacked for damaging crops, the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation said.

"Orangutans are starving. They are sick and many of those we are treating were injured after being attacked by machetes," Willie Smits, an ecologist at the foundation told Reuters, adding that many also suffered from respiratory problems.

He said 120 sick orangutans had been treated in three conservation centers over the past three months, and 10 to 15 of them had died.

He estimated that in all 1,000 orangutans had died over this year's dry season.

Orangutans live on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, but encroachment on their habitats by humans and massive destruction of forests is threatening their existence. In 2002, it was estimated there were 56,000 orangutans in the wild but the population has dwindled at a rate of 6,000 a year, conservationists say.

Heavy rain brought a respite to fires in Borneo's Kota Waringin Barat where about 6,000 orangutans live at the Tanjung Puting national park, the park's director Bambang Darmaji said.

"The weather here is all clear," he told Reuters. But the airport in Palangkaraya, the capital of Central Kalimantan province, remained closed due to poor visibility, its director Jamaluddin Hasibuan said.

Most of the annual dry season fires are deliberately lit by farmers or at the behest of timber and oil palm plantation companies.

Indonesia's neighbors, Singapore and Malaysia have grown increasingly frustrated by the fires which triggered fears of a repeat of the choking situation that hit the region in 1997-98.

Yahoo News 8 Nov 06
Orangutans flee Indonesia forest fires

By NINIEK KARMINI, Associated Press

MANTANGAI, Indonesia - Dozens of endangered orangutans have been driven from their dwindling jungle habitat in Borneo by months of land-clearing fires that have shrouded parts of the region in a choking haze, conservationists said Monday.

Around 43 orangutans have been taken for medical treatment to centers in the Indonesian provinces of Central and West Kalimantan, said Anand Ramanathan, an emergency relief worker with the Washington-based International Fund for Animal Welfare, or IFAW.

Most were beaten by humans after fleeing from the burning jungle to nearby plantations in recent weeks, but several are being treated for respiratory problems and burns, he said.

Farmers and plantation companies set hundreds of land-clearing fires on Borneo and Sumatra each year, sending thick smoke into surrounding areas and neighboring Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei. It has caused billions of dollars in business losses and in some cases health problems.

"Pristine jungle areas are being burnt," said Jennifer Miller, a relief worker with IFAW, which is helping Indonesia's Borneo Orangutan Survival group to recover and treat wounded orangutans.

"It's extremely, extremely threatening. "There is nothing worse than seeing an animal with a burnt face, blind and fleeing," she said ahead of a 9-day trip to Borneo.

Monsoon rains have dowsed some of the fires--the worst in a decade--but blazes continue to cause problems in Kalimantan where visibility was less than 330 feet on Monday, forcing drivers to use their headlights in the daytime.

The Indonesian government has been criticized for failing to act against those responsible for the fires. Jakarta, which has been pressured by its Southeast Asian neighbors to sign a regional anti-haze treaty, says it is doing all it can.

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

Fewer that 60,000 orangutans remain in the wild in Indonesia--nearly 90 percent of their habitat has been destroyed by illegal logging, poaching and cut-and-burn farming practices. If the rate of deforestation continues, orangutans will disappear from the wild in around a decade, experts say.

The fires came within months of the release of 42 orangutans into nearby forests, forcing many animals back to shelters and undermining years of costly rehabilitation work.

The smog, which triggered health warnings in Singapore and Malaysia this year, has plagued Southeast Asia since the 1990s.

PlanetArk 14 Nov 06
El Nino May Spell Trouble for Indonesian Orangutans

Story by Achmad Sukarsono

JAKARTA - Indonesia's orangutan population, under threat from smog-producing forest fires this year, could be in graver danger in 2007 when dry El Nino conditions are expected to intensify in the region, an ecologist said on Monday.

About 1,000 orangutans are estimated to have died in Indonesia during the dry season this year in which raging forest fires produced thick smoke across huge areas of Southeast Asia.

Willie Smits, founder of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, said if intentional burning of forest was not prevented, Indonesia would face a terrible haze season next year.

"If we are looking at an El Nino which has a cooling in the Indian Ocean and a warming up in the Pacific Ocean, these are exactly the conditions that occurred in 1982-83 and 1997-98. Those were the two worst El Nino disasters. Next year we could look at a new world record," he said.

"Having a rainy season is not going to solve it. We could look at new problems as early as April next year," he said. "If these orangutans are to survive, we better deal with the fire situation in the coming years."

The annual fires are often deliberately lit by timber and palm oil plantation firms or farmers in Borneo and Indonesia's Sumatra island to clear land for cultivation, many of them in the same forests where the orangutans live.

The worst fires in recent years occurred in 1997-98 during an intense El Nino that caused drought in parts of Southeast Asia, drying out forests and farmlands. Vast areas burned for months, blanketing a large part of the region in thick haze and costing economies billions of dollars.


Jakarta said around 90 percent of this year's fires have been extinguished, but Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelar said he feared they could flare again should dry El Nino conditions intensify.

El Nino is a weather pattern caused by the warming of Pacific waters off South America and can disrupt global weather patterns, leading to drought in Southeast Asia and Australia and floods in parts of South America.

In 2002, it was estimated there were 56,000 orangutans left in Borneo and 7,000 in Sumatra, but conservationists say the population has dwindled at a rate of 6,000 a year.

Smits told a group of foreign journalists the mortality rate could be higher because of increased trafficking of the apes and other factors that are forcing orangutans to encroach upon human settlements.

"The (orangutan) populations are all extremely threatened because of the fragmentation of the forest," said Smits, who leads the Gibbon Foundation, a group dedicated to animal conservation in Indonesia, including its orangutans. "The forest has to be intact in one big piece for a population as a total to survive."

Most of the fires disappeared after rains started in recent weeks and some of them were put out after two leased Russian water-bombers flew into action.

National Geographic 17 Nov 06
Orangutans Displaced, Killed by Indonesian Forest Fires

John Roach

Intentionally lit forest fires on the island of Borneo are killing Southeast Asia's endangered orangutans, conservationists warn. (See Indonesia map.) The fires are lit annually to clear land for oil palm plantations and agricultural fields. Many of the blazes quickly rage out of control.

The orangutans are forced to flee the forests and often end up on nearby plantations, where they are beaten and sometimes killed as pests, according to Michael Booth, a spokesperson with the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Mexico City, Mexico.

"Apart from losing precious land they use to survive, they're forced into conflict with the human element," Booth said in an interview for today's National Geographic News podcast.

Booth, who recently returned from a trip to Borneo to help rescue stranded orangutans, says unusually dry conditions have made for the worst fire season there in a decade. Rains usually arrive by the beginning of October to douse the flames. This year the rains didn't start until November, leaving Southeast Asia cloaked in a thick haze.

And conservationists fear strengthening El Niņo conditions in the region could make next year even worse. El Niņo is a periodic warming of the tropical Pacific Ocean that disrupts weather patterns around the world. In Southeast Asia the phenomenon is associated with drought.

"There's a big fear that next year will be an even drier season and the fires will be even stronger," Booth said.

Extinct Within a Decade?

Wild orangutans are only found on the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Borneo. Borneo is shared by Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei.

Conservationists believe approximately 60,000 of the great apes remain on the islands. According to Booth, close to a thousand orangutans died this year, mostly due to the forest fires.

If the pace of destruction continues, the animals may be extinct within a decade.

Cheryl Knott is an anthropologist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who studies orangutans and promotes their conservation. She says rampant illegal logging dries out the forests, which exacerbates the fires. "The real wet primary forest areas don't burn," she said. "But illegal logging opens up the forest canopy, and there's lots of dry wood on the ground from the remnants of the big trees."

When fires are intentionally lit to clear fields, the flames spread to the degraded forests. "A lot of the areas that have been somewhat degraded if left alone will come back," she added. "But once they're burned, they're cleared further and then they're totally gone."

The combination, she says, amounts to a no-win situation for the orangutans. They can stay in their burned-out habitat and starve to death or move into habitat already occupied by other orangutans.

Though orangutans are not territorial, their natural population densities are quite low, she explains. "Eventually you have animals that die because the habitat can't support the increase in density," Knott said.

Orangutan Conservation Booth says he was surprised at the scant local awareness of the problem the forest fires pose to the orangutans. "It's hard to understand why people don't relate these huge forest fires to an immediate threat to the wildlife that lives in these sanctuaries," he said.

From conversations with locals, Booth says he learned that many people consider orangutans to be pests, even though research has found them to be highly intelligent, social animals.

"It takes just a few minutes of interacting with them to realize there is not a lot of difference between you and them," he said.

The local indifference to the plight of the orangutans, Booth adds, is reflected in the limited effort to fight the fires. "It's a fight that is almost lost from the get-go, because the resources put into it and the extent of the fire are so opposite," he said.

Knott, the Harvard University anthropologist, holds out hope that conservation efforts will help protect the orangutans. She directs a conservation program that educates local schoolchildren about the plight of the orangutans, teaches village leaders about the pros and cons of the oil palm industry, and supports anti-logging and firefighting efforts in the national parks. (Knott's program receives funding from the National Geographic Society's Conservation Trust. National Geographic News is part of the National Geographic Society.)

"We're working on different fronts to try to address these issues," she said. "But the fire one is tough," she added. "People forget about it. The frustrating problem with fire is it takes one person to light a fire, and it can impact a huge area."

Peter Standring contributed to this report.

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