Orangs in the smoke
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 1997:
JAKARTA, Indonesia– – Unidenti-
fied creatures and species long believed extinct
are among the beasts fleeing forest fires that
have ravaged an estimated 4.2 million acres of
Sumatra, Borneo, and Java since mid-July.
Scientific enthusiasm over possible
discoveries and rediscoveries of species is
sobered by the certainty that much and perhaps
all of the rare animals’ habitat may be lost.
“Burning fields and forests is an
annual occurence in Indonesia,” Pat Bell of the
Ottawa Citizen reported on October 8. “But
this year plantations and forestry firms
increased the number of fires in an apparent
attempt to clear as much as they could before
the government was able to enforce a ban,”
which was imposed after fires in 1982-1983 and
1994 destroyed 15.8 million acres of forest.
Environmental law enforcement is
traditionally lax in Indonesia, recently rated the
most corrupt nation among 46 assessed by the
public interest group Transparency International.
In 1994, for instance, after the Forest
Ministry fined two timber firms a combined
total of more than $2 million, and denied
extensions of 43 logging leases, President
Suharto ordered the ministry to make an interest-free
loan of $185 million to the aircraft
maker Industri Pesawat Terbang Negara. The
money was diverted from a reforestation fund.
Indonesia does occasionally crack
down on habitat destruction and wildlife trafficking––if
prospects are good for thereby gaining
either foreign aid or investment––as in the
two years preceding the 1990 Earth Summit in
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, when the Forest
Ministry revoked 70 timber leases to demonstrate
sincerity about saving rain forest.
Indonesia in June 1997 won the right
to host the 1999 meeting of the Convention on
International Trade in Endangered Species.
Already anticipating hundreds of influential foreign
guests, Indonesia hit members of the
Society of Environmental Journalists with a
first round of media kits in August.
Anticipating another two-year environmental
enforcement drive seemed like a very
good bet to loggers and planters.
By mid-August the fires they started––and
others set by indigenous tribes trying
to burn out invaders, the Suharto government
alleged––had thrown up a pall of smoke that in
satellite photos covered the Strait of Malacca,
between Sumatra and Malaya, hiding most of
Java. Meteorologists speculated on the possible
effect the plume might have on the El Nino
weather phenomenon underway off Mexico and
southern California, especially after it joined in
the upper atmosphere with smoke and ash from
other rain forest fires raging in the Amazon
region of Brazil, where fire damage was up
28% from 1996.
Yet tight travel budgets, the
Indonesian reputation for censorship, and preoccupation
with other parts of the world kept
most western environmental and investigative
reporters off the story until after
234 passengers died in a September 26
airliner crash on Sumatra. The same day
an oil supertanker and a cargo ship collision
in the Strait of Malacca killed 29
sailors aboard the cargo ship. Poor visibility
contributed to both accidents.
Coverage picked up when on
September 28 Colorado freelance reporter
and SEJ online discussion coordinator
Amy Gahran began seeking and sharing
electronic information sources on the fires.
Seventeen Indonesian national
parks suffered fire damage, according to the World Wildlife Fund. The harm
was magnified by the fragility of some of the sites. Many of the 13,677 volcanic
islands comprising Indonesia have unique native wildlife. About 500
mammal species inhabit Sumatra; Borneo has more than 3,000 indigenous tree
The fires often hit already stressed remnant habitat. “About 18 million
acres of Indonesian rain forest have been claimed in the past 14 years for
rubber, pulp, and palm plantations, and for resettlement of families relocated
from more populated areas,” reported Cecil Morella of Agence France-Press.
WILDLIFE AT RISK
Among the animals the fires imperiled were sun bears, tigers, Asian
elephants, Javan and Sumatran rhinos, monkeys, and orangutans.
Even before the fires, Bornean orangutans subsisted on just 2% of
their habitat of 50 years ago. “Their number has fallen by 50% in the last 10 to
15 years,” WWF official Ed Matthews told London Daily Telegraph correspondent
Alex Spillius. On October 7, Spillius disclosed that WWF
researchers “found 29 orphaned orangutans in villages in Kalimantan province,
part of Borneo,” who “escaped the fires with their mothers, but the mothers
were killed so the babies could be sold” to smugglers for as little as $50 each.
Soldiers and police took the orphaned orangs to Dutch-born rehabilitator
Willie Smits, whose facility currently houses about 100 orangs in all.
His plan was to return as many as possible to the wild, but there may be little
wild habitat left for orangutans of marginal survival skills.
Indonesian authorities repeatedly warned villagers against harming
displaced wildlife, especially after monkey hoardes invaded farms in central
Java, about 1,800 hungry elephants were said to be roving Sumatra, and tigers
on September 25 killed their fourth human victim since the fires began.
Indonesia once had three native tiger subspecies, unique to Bali,
Java, and Sumatra, but the Balian tigers were reportedly hunted to extinction
before 1950, and the Javan variety was pronounced extinct circa 1980. The
Indonesian government news agency Antara, however, reported on October 7
that firefighters had seen four animals who appeared to be Javan tigers, with
two cubs, near the bank of the Babon river.
In Britain, veterinary anatomist David Chivers and biological
anthropologist Phyllis Lee of Cambridge University took the opportunity of
Indonesian endangered wildlife being in the news to seek funds for more
extensive DNA study of hair and droppings said to be those of the orang pendek,
an upright-walking possible cousin of the orangutan, which villagers say
inhabits 13,000-foot Mount Kerinci in Sumatra, feeding on ginger roots.
The orang pendek was reported but not formally described in 1924
by a Dutch explorer named Van Herwaarden, who raised his rifle to shoot a
specimen before deciding that killing one would amount to murder.
Primatologist Debbie Martyr, photographer Jeremy Holden, and
anthropologist Yanuar Achmad claim to have seen the orang pendek on
September 30, 1994, after a five-year search. They picked up the hair and
dung samples now at Cambridge, but the strong pigmentation of the hair
thwarted genetic investigation by Malcolm Hall of Liverpool University.
More advanced testing by geneticist Mike Bruford of the Institute of Zoology
at the London Zoo will cost an estimated $45,000.
Mount Kerinci is within an Indonesian national park. However, the
London Sunday Times reported on October 12 that Kerinci, too, was threatened
by the fires, and that some orangutans there had been killed by smoke.