Indonesia’s forest fires take toll on wildlife, big and small – ‘This double-punch or triple-punch of drought, fire, and smoke is likely to be much more damaging to the biome than any one of these elements alone’Posted by Jim at Saturday, November 14, 2015
By Joe Cochrane
30 October 2015
JAKARTA (The New York Times) – A disoriented, pregnant orangutan, her treetop home in Indonesian Borneo reduced to charred wood, is rushed to a rehabilitation centre by conservationists, who dodged walls of fire and toxic smoke.
Veterinarians care for 16 abandoned baby orangutans already living at the centre. The babies had developed respiratory infections because of haze from the fire, delaying the conservationists’ continuing attempts to teach them how to live on their own in the wild.
Long-awaited heavy rains this week in the Indonesian regions of Sumatra and Kalimantan appeared to be the beginning of the end of the mass forest fires that have raged since late August, Indonesia’s worst such disaster in at least 20 years.
While plenty has been written about the economic costs of the fires and the human suffering they have caused — hundreds of thousands of people sickened by the haze in Indonesia and Southeast Asia, and a regional price tag that one expert estimated at more than US$14 billion (S$19.6 billion) — so far, scientists and environmentalists can only speculate about the extent of the damage to wildlife, including endangered species like the orangutan.
But the early signs are not good.
“We’re still not sure how many might have gotten sick or died,” said Ms Paulina Ela, a spokeswoman for the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, which runs two rescue and rehabilitation centres in the region.
“The impact is not really visible now, but maybe in the next two or three months,” she said. […]
But orangutans are far from the only species suffering. Indonesia’s fauna is among the world’s most diverse, and a broad spectrum of wildlife — including elephants, birds, snakes, and even insects — has been severely affected by the fires and choking haze, scientists say.
This month, Indonesia’s Forestry Ministry announced that more than 4.2 million acres of forest and open land had been destroyed by the fires. Each year, fires are intentionally set to clear land cheaply — for palm oil plantations, for pulp and paper mill operations, and for other agricultural uses — but they grew out of control this year because of prolonged drought and the effects of El Niño, scientists say. […]
Douglas Sheil, a professor at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, said that large forest fires in Indonesia were typically preceded by periods of intense drought that left both flora and fauna vulnerable. While drought can have a bigger impact on primary forests, he said, the fires that follow destroy seedlings.
“This ‘double punch’ or ‘triple punch’ of drought, fire, and smoke is likely to be much more damaging to the biome than any one of these elements alone, for trees, bees, and everything else,” Mr. Sheil said. [more]