Albion Monitor /News

Indonesia Fires Drive Endangered Orangutans Into Arms Of Wildlife Traders

by Sunny Lewis

on this topic
(ENS) -- Many endangered species, including the orangutan, are being driven straight into the arms of illegal wildlife traders by the forest fires that are raging across Indonesia, according to zoologist Victor Watkins of the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA).

Thousands of animals in Borneo and Sumatra have already died in the fires and over a million and a half acres of prime forest habitat has been destroyed. An animal rescue team from the WSPA offices in London and Boston is now on standby to assist with the rescue of orangutans from the fires.

Watkins, WSPA's director of wildlife, said, "Sadly, much of the forest has been destroyed by the fire, driving orangutans straight into the arms of hunters and wildlife traders. Efforts to control the fires have come too late to prevent them from wreaking havoc on Indonesia's wildlife."

Although once spread throughout South East Asia, orangutans are now only found on Sumatra and Borneo with an estimated 30,000 left in the wild
Orangutans are being killed as they come out of the burning forests seeking safety from the fires. Any orphan babies that are found are usually taken and sold on to animal dealers. Some end up as exotic pets, but most die of stress and disease.

Watkins recently took part in a raid to confiscate one such victim, a baby orangutan which had been taken by a farmer in a small village north of Samarinda, East Kalimantan. The farmer was planning to sell it to an animal dealer, having killed its mother with a machete when she fled the flames and entered his land.

The WSPA team was able to help confiscate the orangutan before it was sold and take it to the Wanariset Orangutan Rescue Centre.

WSPA funds the Wanariset Orangutan rescue and re-introduction project in Balikpapan, East Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo. There orphaned young apes are cared for and prepared for eventual release into 100,000 acres of protected forest in the south of the island. Run by Willi Smits, the well-known animal rescue specialist, the centre is currently taking in new casualties from the fires every week, including sun bears and gibbons as well as orangutans.

The Wanariset Orangutan center has been operating for the past four years. Now, to help deal with the fire emergency, WSPA is sending urgent supplies of veterinary materials to the rescue centre.

Although once spread throughout South East Asia, orangutans are now only found on Sumatra and Borneo. There are estimated to be around 30,000 orangutans left in the wild. This endangered species is already threatened with habitat loss due to deforestation from the logging and mining industries. In addition, hundreds are taken each year for the illegal wildlife trade.

Watkins says satellite images he has seen indicate very clearly the precise locations of the Indonesian fires. By overlaying the satellite images on maps of logging concessions and farmlands, the government of Indonesia now has proof that the fires are right in the middle of the logging and farming operations.

Fires are set every year by local farmers clearing areas of forest for their own croplands, and large logging concessions also burn debris every year. They are not supposed to, but usually they get away with it, Watkins says. Normal weather conditions would have put out the fires before now, but the Pacific Ocean warming known as El Nino has withheld the rains this year. The government of Indonesia has been using El Nino as a scapegoat for the haze lingering over much of southeast Asia.

Because of prevailing wind patterns in southeast Asia, Indonesia's neighbors are getting the worst of the smog and haze from the fires. Many people have now seen the satellite images, and the pressure on the Indonesian government to prosecute the logging concessionaires and farmers responsible for the fires is increasing both within the country and from its choking neighbors.

© 1997 The EnviroLink Network
Reprinted with permission

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Albion Monitor October 13, 1997 (

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