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Borneo Is Burning, and Humans and Orangutans Are in Danger

On September 16, 2015, just over a month ago, I began my journey into Gunung Palung National Park in West Kalimantan, Indonesia. I was finally starting my project studying the lives of orangutans, supported by a National Geographic Young Explorers grant. The trek began two hours south of Gunung Palung, in the town of Ketapang. Early...

On September 16, 2015, just over a month ago, I began my journey into Gunung Palung National Park in West Kalimantan, Indonesia. I was finally starting my project studying the lives of orangutans, supported by a National Geographic Young Explorers grant.

The trek began two hours south of Gunung Palung, in the town of Ketapang. Early in the morning, after dropping of my trusted research assistant Evan at the bus terminal, I returned to my homestay and began loading up my motorbike, Babieca (named after the horse of El Cid, the legendary Spanish medieval hero), with several boxes of food and supplies that I needed to transport up to the field site.

Pictured (left to right: My motorcycle Babieca, me, and my research assistant Evan Sloan).
At the Bus Terminal in Ketapang on Sep 16th, 2015. Pictured (left to right): My motorcycle “Babieca”, me, and my research assistant Evan Sloan. (Photo by Kat Scott)

I promptly hit the road, driving north about 45 miles (70 km) to the village outside the national park. By 11:00 a.m. I’d made it. The day before, I had organized a group of porters to help me carry the supplies on the four-plus-hour hike to Cabang Panti Research Station. I met them at the end of the village where the trailhead to Gunung Palung began, unloaded the supplies, and we all began preparing for the hike ahead.

The first part of the hike is through degraded peatland on the periphery of the national park. I had hiked up three weeks earlier for a different occasion, and the peatlands were as green as I’d ever seen them. But since then, we’d heard rumors of fire, and we were aware that the conditions were extremely dry. Even so, I didn’t expect to see the devastation that we encountered that day.

The peatlands were now a barren wasteland. It had caught fire somehow, and the greenery that was present just three weeks earlier had been turned into piles of ash on the ground. It was a depressing sight indeed, and my first personal experience with the humanitarian, environmental, and health crisis that Indonesia is currently facing.

Right now, the fires blazing in Borneo are so large and widespread that they can be seen from space. The smoke and haze is causing devastation not only in Indonesia, but in other nations as well. So far, 19 people have died from the smoke/fire in Indonesia, and hundreds are experiencing respiratory illnesses. (Read about the worldwide health issues resulting from wildfires.)

To make things worse, several rainforests in Kalimantan are now in danger of burning down, threatening the lives of up to 20,000 wild orangutans and thousands of other species of plants and animals.

Watch a clip from our journey into Gunung Palung in the video above.

Thankfully, the fires in Gunung Palung are confined to the degraded peatlands in the periphery of the national park, and the flames have not spread to the interior, primary rainforest. However, other field sites in Borneo have not been so fortunate. Two sites in Central Kalimantan, Sabangau and Tuanan, are perhaps facing the toughest challenge. Sabangau is home to the world’s largest population of wild orangutans; if the fires are not put out in time and the forest burns, up to 7,000 orangutans may die.  The situation at Tuanan is dire as well, and the fires have been creeping up so close to their campsite that workers have had to evacuate.

Could It Have Been Prevented?

As I begin my research project here in Borneo, the hotspot of this environmental disaster, I have to ask myself if all of this could have been avoided. Some may say that because of the free reign that palm oil corporations have had in clearing land for plantations, we were doomed from the beginning. Peatlands, which contain large amounts of flammable organic material, are not meant to be drained of their water. But that is exactly what has been done in order to pave the way for palm oil plantations. As a result, these huge tracts of land are now incredibly vulnerable to fire. Every year they ignite, and cover Indonesia and neighboring nations in smoke and haze. But this year, because of prolonged drought due to a strong El Niño, the fires have grown out of control.

It is now obvious that Indonesia is facing a huge crisis. The truth is, we should have seen it coming. Niccolo Machiavelli had it right: “ … by recognizing from afar the diseases that are spreading in the state (which is a gift given only to a prudent ruler), they can be cured quickly; but when they are not recognized and are left to grow to the extent that everyone recognizes them, there is no longer any cure.”

Early Warnings

Looking back at 1997, the last strong El Niño year (which also caused similar destruction in Indonesia), the danger should have been obvious. After suffering through that crisis, the exposed peatlands should have been rewetted, and a ban on further peatland development should have been enforced. But the government failed to foresee the fires as a big problem, and now it may be too late.

Worse still is the lack of foresight this year alone. It was long ago predicted that this year would likely be the worst El Niño year since 1997. Why was a national fire ban not implemented? The blame is not entirely on oil palm corporations. Many small scale farmers and locals purposefully or accidentally start fires. There need to be more educational campaigns in place to prevent this from happening.

Now we are now forced to take reactionary measures, rather than the preventative ones that could have saved us from the beginning. I hate to be cynical, but perhaps Hegel was correct in saying, “The only thing we learn from history, is that we learn nothing from history.”

Dealing With the Problem

Fortunately, local authorities have stepped up to deal with the fires. The national parks, in collaboration with the Indonesian army and local and international organizations, have been working hard to fight the fires in Tuanan and Sabangau. More aid is hopefully coming soon from the international governments and the central Indonesian government. I love Indonesia, and want to see its forests survive.

Please help out in any way you can by sharing this post and spreading the word about this crisis. It is not getting the news coverage a catastrophe of this nature deserves. (Related Story: Smoke From Wildfires Is Killing Hundreds of Thousands of People)

The researchers at Tuanan and Sabangau could use your help as well, and they are raising funds to fight the fire on gofundme.com and redapes.org.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Robert Rodriguez Suro
Robert Rodriguez Suro is a photographer and explorer from Isla Verde, Puerto Rico. After spending a year studying orangutans in the rainforests of Borneo, learning about their behavior, crafting his skills at wildlife photography, and becoming a semi-pro orangutan urine catcher (in the name of science), Robert will be returning to Indonesia to commence his Young Explorer’s project, "The Lives of Orangutans." He will be tracking male orangutans outside the borders of research sites in order to discover the true size of their home ranges. Throughout the expedition, Robert will be documenting the trials and adventures of living and surviving in the wild, and the wildy interesting cultural behaviors of orangutans, through photos, videos, and writings. Robert graduated from Boston University, with a double major in Biology and Anthropology, in 2013.