From: Achmad Sukarsono, Reuters
Published November 13, 2006 12:00 AM

El Nino May Spell Trouble for Indonesian Orangutans

JAKARTA — Indonesia's orangutan population, under threat from smog-producing forest fires this year, could be in graver danger in 2007 when dry El Nino conditions are expected to intensify in the region, an ecologist said on Monday.


About 1,000 orangutans are estimated to have died in Indonesia during the dry season this year in which raging forest fires produced thick smoke across huge areas of Southeast Asia.


Willie Smits, founder of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, said if intentional burning of forest was not prevented, Indonesia would face a terrible haze season next year.


"If we are looking at an El Nino which has a cooling in the Indian Ocean and a warming up in the Pacific Ocean, these are exactly the conditions that occurred in 1982-83 and 1997-98. Those were the two worst El Nino disasters. Next year we could look at a new world record," he said.


"Having a rainy season is not going to solve it. We could look at new problems as early as April next year," he said. "If these orangutans are to survive, we better deal with the fire situation in the coming years."


The annual fires are often deliberately lit by timber and palm oil plantation firms or farmers in Borneo and Indonesia's Sumatra island to clear land for cultivation, many of them in the same forests where the orangutans live.


The worst fires in recent years occurred in 1997-98 during an intense El Nino that caused drought in parts of Southeast Asia, drying out forests and farmlands.


Vast areas burned for months, blanketing a large part of the region in thick haze and costing economies billions of dollars.


NUMBERS DROPPING SHARPLY


Jakarta said around 90 percent of this year's fires have been extinguished, but Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelar said he feared they could flare again should dry El Nino conditions intensify.


El Nino is a weather pattern caused by the warming of Pacific waters off South America and can disrupt global weather patterns, leading to drought in Southeast Asia and Australia and floods in parts of South America.


In 2002, it was estimated there were 56,000 orangutans left in Borneo and 7,000 in Sumatra, but conservationists say the population has dwindled at a rate of 6,000 a year.


Smits told a group of foreign journalists the mortality rate could be higher because of increased trafficking of the apes and other factors that are forcing orangutans to encroach upon human settlements.


"The (orangutan) populations are all extremely threatened because of the fragmentation of the forest," said Smits, who leads the Gibbon Foundation, a group dedicated to animal conservation in Indonesia, including its orangutans.


"The forest has to be intact in one big piece for a population as a total to survive."


Most of the fires disappeared after rains started in recent weeks and some of them were put out after two leased Russian water-bombers flew into action.


Source: Reuters


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