Fires pose threat to the jungle animals of Borneo

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The Independent Online
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."