Orangutan Crisis Continues As Bushfires Devastate Borneo, Indonesia

05/11/2015 1:43 PM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:50 PM AEST

For almost two months, the people of of Borneo and Indonesia have woken to the smell of smoke.

High in the canopy above patches of rainforest, endangered orangutans smell the smoke too.

Smarter than a pig or dolphin, these gentle apes are critically endangered, and the uncontrollable fires sweeping across their habitat threaten to push the species to extinction.

fire orang

An orangutan can be seen through the smoke.

Not-for-profit organisation The Orangutan Project president Leif Cocks said these creatures were so affected by disasters because they had the slowest mammal birth rate in the world.

"They will have one baby every nine years, which means they simply can't bounce back," Cocks said.

"What we’re seeing is a fast, steady decline of orangutan numbers over the years and these significant fire events sadly, greatly accelerate their rate of extinction."

A former zookeeper, Cocks set up the project in 1999 and had seen several fire seasons.


An orangutan and its young in Sabangau, where fires are burning. Picture: Bernat Ripoll Capilla / OuTrop

"Unfortunately this is the worst ever, we thought 1997 was the worst it had ever been but this year has been far more devastating, and there's fears that what they're calling the 'Godzilla El Niño' will create a second dry spell which will start up the fires again," Cocks said.

As the fires continue to rage across Kalimantan, the stories of the innocent victims are truly heart breaking. This is...

Posted by The Orangutan Project on Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Orangutans in the smoke. Photo by @TimLaman on assignment for @NatGeo in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, island of Borneo. I photographed this mother and juvenile orangutan along the Mengkutup River a couple days ago. The forest behind them has burned, like so much forest here in Borneo right now. We saw many orangutans like these forced out to narrow unburned strips of forest along the river. Most will probably not survive because of the small area of forest left. Many orangutan conservation areas are also under threat from fire right now. I have just visited one of the important long-term research sites for orangutans in Central Kalimantan called Tuanan. Fires have penetrated the reserve, and researchers there are desperately fighting the forest fires and trying to protect wild orangutan habitat. Please do what you can to help the many groups trying to help fight the fires and save orangutan habitat across Borneo and Sumatra, such as the team at Tuanan: https://www.gofundme.com/tuananorangutans, #orangutan, #Indonesia, #Kalimantan, #fire, #Borneo, #AsianHaze, #smoke, @NatGeoCreative, @thephotosociety.

A photo posted by Tim Laman (@timlaman) on

The Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project managing director Mark Harrison said the fires were worse this year because of drought, forest clearing and the draining of areas that were originally swamps -- especially in an area called Sabangau.

“We’ve have been part of a huge effort since the mid 1990s, working together with hundreds of people from many local and international organisations, to conserve this special forest, stop illegal logging, prevent conversion into oil palm and protect it for future generations,” Harrison said in a statement.


All hands are on deck to fight fires.

“To see all this hard work under threat of destruction within a matter of weeks is a tragedy, both for the communities we work with and the forest’s wonderful biodiversity.

"As for what it will mean for Sabangau’s orangutans, I dread to think.”


Drone footage shows the extent of devastation in Sabangau.

Cocks is currently preparing to return to the region next week and said there was always one thing he kept in mind:

"They're sentient, highly intelligent creatures and helping them by protecting the rainforest is also helping future generations from global warming.

"It's protecting Indonesia from ecological decline.

"It's helping Australia’s long term security by making sure our close neighbors don't go into economic and biological decline."


The future of orangutans is tied to the future of the region.

"It's all connected and we can put everything into putting these fires out but the real gain we need now is to bring people along to support us to prevent the drivers that makes it happen again next year.

"Orangutans are self aware, intelligent persons that deserve to be free in the wild, and they deserved to not be driven to extinction in most horrible way possible."

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