Last Stand of the Orangutan

Forests on Fire


Insular Southeast Asia endures months of smoke-filled air every year during the dry season.  Farmers and plantation developers deliberately and illegally set fire to the forest to clear the way for crops, and in logged-over forest, fire spreads rapidly. When peat swamp forests catch alight, the peat burns as well as the trees. These fires can spread underground, and persist for long periods, destroying natural habitats and releasing substantial volumes of greenhouse gases.

Figure 18: Fire and smoke over Borneo and Sumatra, late September to October 2006 (© Jesse Allen, Earth Observatory/MODIS Rapid Response team).

The annual burning in Southeast Asia is usually worst in El Niño years, which are exceptionally dry. The worst recorded so far, in 1997–8, destroyed 95% of the forest in Kutai National Park: this protected area had previously been subject to high levels of logging, and may no longer be viable (Rautner et al. 2005). In 2006, fire levels peaked again in what is thought to be the start of an El Niño season that could continue through March 2007 (Figure 18; CPC/NCEP 2007).

The expansion of oil palm plantations is thought to be a major driver of this fire peak. In 2006, the leaders of Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, and Thailand urged Indonesia to do more to stop the annual fires because the regions’ citizens suffer both economic losses and health problems from the resultant haze. It is worth noting, however, that several of these countries are also recipients for illegally logged products from Indonesia.

Figure 19: Fire density in southern Borneo.

In central Kalimantan, hundreds of orangutans may have died in the fires (Sastrawan 2006).  If they can, orangutans flee the flames, but if they reach cultivated areas, they are often attacked by residents out of fear, for meat or to protect crops. The most fortunate individuals are taken in by rescue centres and, when possible, are released into the wild. In 2006, at least 120 Bornean orangutans were rescued suffering from dehydration, smoke inhalation or wounds inflicted by villagers; a number of others had to be translocated from a release site because it was on fire (Sastrawan 2006).

Protected areas including national parks are not immune from fire. As the number of plantations increase adjacent to and even within national parks, so do the numbers of wildfires. Table 2 shows that in 2002 and 2004, more than 50% of all recorded burnt area was in conservation forest (mainly in national parks and nature reserves).

Table 2: Estimated forest fire occurrences, 2000 to 2005.

Area burnt (hectares)
Forest categories 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005
Conservation forest 1 216.85
1 927.45 19 938.96 267.95 2 422.56 1 251.35
Protection forest 117.65 4.25 160.50 0.50 20.43 4 002.12
Production forest 1 682.00 12 397.80 15 396.77 3 277.00 886.00 82.00
Other forest 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 15.00 167.00
Total burnt area 3 016.50 14 329.50 35 496.73 3 545.45 3 343.99 5 502.47

Source: Ministry of Forestry 2005, 2006.