Mar 29

Fires raging in an Indonesian swamp forest are severely threatening the rare Sumatran orangutan that occurs there, and may have already contributed to the deaths of around a third of individuals in the population.

Photo of Sumatran orangutan male, female and infant

Sumatran orangutan male, female and infant

Fire hazard

The Tripa forest in Aceh province, Indonesia, provides crucial habitat for the world’s densest population of the Critically Endangered Sumatran orangutan. However, according to conservationists, a third of the orangutans in the forest may already have died as a result of the fires, while the rest of the population remains seriously at risk.

Habitat loss driving declines

In the past twenty years, 80% of orangutan habitat in Indonesia has been lost to illegal logging, gold mining and conversion to permanent agriculture, notably palm oil plantations.

In the Tripa forest, palm oil companies have drained large areas of peat swamp which, in addition to severely fragmenting and degrading the orangutan’s forest habitat, has created fire ‘hot spots’ at many of the palm oil plantations.

A total of 92 fire hot spots were recorded between 19 and 25 March 2012, and recent images show that only just over 12,000 hectares of the original 60,000 hectare forest now remain.

Photo of male Sumatran orangutan swinging through trees

Male Sumatran orangutan swinging through trees

The frequency and severity of these fires have had a huge impact on the wildlife in the region. The scale of the problem is reminiscent of the 1997 and 1998 forest fires which raged through much of Borneo, during which time it was estimated that around one third of the island’s orangutan population was killed.

Graham Usher, of the Foundation for a Sustainable Ecosystem, said that, “If there is a prolonged drought and the fire continues … then orangutans, tigers and sun bears within it will be exterminated before the end of 2012.

Photo of Sumatran orangutan mother and infant feeding

Sumatran orangutan mother and infant feeding

A global tragedy

Tripa used to be home to around 3,000 Sumatran orangutans in the 1990s. Today, fewer than 200 individuals are thought to survive there. According to Ian Singleton, conservation director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme, “It is no longer several years away, but just a few months or even weeks before this iconic creature disappears. We are currently watching a global tragedy.

Between 2009 and 2011, 100 orangutans died, and estimates suggest that a further 100 individuals have been killed in recent months, either in the conversion of the forest to palm oil plantations or by starvation and malnutrition.

Read the article in the Guardian: Rare Sumatran orangutans dying as fires rage in Indonesian swamp forest.

Find out more about the Sumatran orangutan on ARKive.

Helen Roddis, ARKive Species Text Author