Fires pose threat to the jungle animals of Borneo

Borneo's forest fires are wreaking havoc on the local wildlife. our correspondent in the Kutai National Park says the blazes threaten to turn the jungle into an ecological desert.

When it comes to the local wildlife, Pak Poniman is anything but sentimental, though even he becomes a little pensive when you ask him about the orang utans. "They got on my nerves because they used to eat the plants," he says, pointing up at a cocoa tree in his small plantation, "but now that they're gone, it's not the same ... In the morning, you could hear them calling and playing together, and they would come with their babies and teach them to climb around the small trees on the plantation.

"Some of them weren't afraid of humans - you could almost touch them. But I haven't seen or heard them for a month, and I feel very sad."

Twenty feet above his head among the branches of the cocoa trees is a rough nest of sticks which, until the beginning of January, was the daily haunt of a family of Borneo's most famous and best loved ape. Clearly visible on the next hillside a few miles beyond is the reason why the nest has been deserted - columns of grey smoke rising from the brush and forest fires which are burning all along this stretch of road in the Indonesian province of East Kalimantan.

"We used to get hornbills and parrots here," says Poniman, "and normally at this time of year you see cobras and other snakes. But they have all gone."

Of all the victims of the forest fires in Borneo, none have been hit so directly as the island's unique wildlife. Apart from the orang utan, the Kutai National Park, on whose fringes Poniman lives, is home to gibbons, long-tailed macaques, proboscis monkeys, sun bears and countless amphibians, insects and birds.

Many were already threatened by the steady incursion into their jungle habitat of hunters and farmers. But the forest fires, which began last summer and resumed in the new year after a brief respite, threaten to accelerate the process dramatically. Apart from causing irreparable damage to the jungle's delicate eco-system, they represent a potential holocaust for some of the world's most vulnerable species.

"Only birds and the larger mammals can escape from fires like these," says Ron Lilley of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Jakarta. "Everything else gets burned to a crisp. We've put out insect traps in areas that have been burned and there's nothing, even in areas that went up 15 or 20 years ago. Once an area of primary forest has gone, that's it. It's not coming back."

"Population sizes are going to decrease and it's certainly going to have an impact on endangered species," says a spokeswoman for the WWF in Samarinda, the capital of East Kalimantan. "It was bad enough last year, but this has the potential to be the same again or worse."

In the Kutai National Park, home to about 2,500 orang utans, 1,500 of the park's 200,000 hectares are ablaze or burned out. Rangers of the Forestry Protection and Natural Preservation Department believe some of the apes must have died. The rest have fled into untouched primary forest in the centre of the park. Their concentration in one area puts pressure on its food resources. After last year's fires in the Tanjung Puting park in Central Kalimantan, the river margins became refugee camps of displaced apes. Those who wander into human settlements face the risk of being killed or captured for sale.

The fires have indirect effects which will be felt long after the blaze is extinguished, as an internal WWF report, prepared by an scientists in its office in East Kalimantan and obtained by The Independent, points out. Trauma and starvation can cause females to miscarry or become infertile. Smoke haze reduces the temperature and the amount of sunlight, effecting plant growth and the abundance of forest food. The absence of birds, bats and insects makes it less likely that flowers and plants will be pollinated and that seeds will be dispersed. In several spots in Borneo underground peat has caught fire, destroying not just the jungle but the very soil in which it grows.

"We are talking about hundreds of hectares reduced to biological desert," says the author of the WWF report. "Fire which destroy trees upstream, can cause soil to slip into rivers and even have an impact on coral reefs tens of kilometres away. Nothing like this works in isolation."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Annuities / Pensions Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: You will be the first point of contact for all...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee CAD Technician

£12800 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Trainee CAD Technician is req...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000+

£15600 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This renewable energy installat...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst - Liverpool - up to £28,000

£22000 - £28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: This is a large multi-site operation...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss