‘At Least 1,000 Orangutans’ Killed in Fires

JAKARTA ~ At least 1,000 orangutans are estimated to have been killed by fires and land clearing in Indonesia this year, a wildlife expert said here this wee.

Willie Smits from the Gibbon Foundation said the fires that swept Borneo during the dry season and the intensive drive to create palm oil plantations have either killed the orangutans or driven them closer to human settlement, where they are killed as pests.

“A thousand is a minimum estimate,” said Smits, a founder of the Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS) project that operates in Kalimantan.

Trafficking of Orangutans also presents a continuing threat, with animals from Borneo being smuggled to various parts of the globe, Smits said.

Orangutans are a protected species, the only great apes living outside of Africa, and can only be found on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra.

In 2002 a study estimated that just 56,000 orangutans lived on Borneo and 7,000 in Sumatra.

Only one in three orangutan young are estimated to live, lessening the long-term chance of survival for the species.

“If they are to survive, we have to deal with this forest fires and palm oil plantations,” Smits said.

BOS says it rescued 137 injured orangutans in Central Kalimantan region alone during the fire season, and found the remains of scores of others.

“It’s only a small fraction. We’re not looking at all other areas where BOS is not operating,” said Smits.

Large parts of Sumatra and Borneo have been set ablaze in recent months, an ecological disaster caused by illegal land-clearing fires ahead of the upcoming planting season. Weak enforcement of the law has allowed the practice to continue.

Smoldering underground fires in peatbogs and in subterranean coal veins are particularly hard to extinguish and can burn undetected for months.

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