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Fires threaten Indonesian Borneo

Posted by on November 16, 2012

Forest fire in Borneo, Palangka Raya, Central KalimantanSusan Cheyne is Director of Gibbon and Field Research and Conservation Orang-utan Tropical Peatland Project (OuTrop)

This is my first blog for the Society of Biology and I write it with a heavy heart. Indonesian Borneo, where I have spent the last 10 years working, was on fire again this year. While the rains have now started and the feared long dry season has not come, this only postpones the fires to 2013. So I would like to take this chance not to discuss wild orang-utans nor Borneo’s largest predator, the clouded leopard, but the ecosystem which sustains them and the threats facing it.

Owing to large-scale peat drainage, dry-season fires are now the most serious threat to tropical peat swamp forests (PSF). Not only do fires release carbon but increase degradation of the forest, causing health issues among humans and animals alike. Work by the Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project (OuTrop) has proved that we are not aware of all the repercussions of these fires.

Through 10 years of working in this habitat our data have shown that gibbons sang less during the smoke season. A striking observation particularly as gibbons generally sing more when rainfall is reduced.

Also litter fall rates were significantly higher during smoke season suggesting that the reduction in sunlight and increase in atmospheric CO2 may have impacts on forest productivity. It is likely that the effects of smoke on forest dynamics and wildlife are not limited to the two examples discussed here, and that their effects could therefore be widespread, and even more serious for the forest as a whole.

This issue is not generally featured on the global radar but is an increasing phenomenon. There are ways to mitigate the effects of fire but more awareness and action is needed.

Prevention is better than the cure and OuTrop is working with Indonesian NGO’s and local people to make available increased resources to prevent and fight these fires. Readiness is key. But the fires recur and without changes in government policy and increased financial aid to tackle the fire problem the situation will not improve and fires will continue to burn each year. Solving this yearly problem will require an increase in international cooperation and public awareness to protect the remaining forest and wildlife.

For more information on fire-fighting activities please visit our project site.

For more general information on the conservation and research activities of OuTrop please visit our website.

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