Photos: Indonesia’s Rampant Fires Threaten Rare Orangutans

The worst fire season since 1997 has destroyed orangutans’ habitat and made them more vulnerable to poachers. 

Indonesia’s endangered orangutans are fighting for survival as wildfires destroy forests and send dangerous heat and smoke across the country.

Spurred by drought and the effects of El Niño, Indonesia is suffering through its worst fire season since 1997. At least 19 people have died and half a million have been sickened by poor air quality as a result of thousands of blazes. More than 8,000 square miles of forest have burned; that’s larger than the state of New Jersey.

The fires are also taking an environmental toll, emitting more carbon dioxide each day than the entire U.S. economy.

National Geographic photographer Tim Laman recently spent 10 days documenting the impact of fires on local people and the iconic orangutans in interior Borneo. Laman wore a mask throughout his trip but still suffers lung irritation.

“A thick, smoky haze covers much of the island, which is really unhealthy for the people there,” says Laman. (See Laman’s photos of birds of paradise.)

Many of the fires were intentionally started by farmers seeking to clean their fields of last year’s waste crop material after harvest. Some of those have raged out of control.  Many fires also burn in the lands licensed to large oil palm and other agricultural interest, despite burning of such plots being illegal according to Indonesian law.  In many cases, the peaty soil of the forest has ignited. That can burn for days and can result in collapse of trees.

As a result of the heat and disruption, orangutans are being driven out of the forest, toward rivers and other bodies of water. This can put them in increased danger from poachers or mean they may have trouble finding enough food, since they are used to roaming over large territories looking for fruits.

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