Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Goodbye, we hardly even knew you

Here's something to temper the rhapsodic atmosphere brought about by yesterday's momentous events (finally, after years of tearful, agonized waiting, Britney Spears is once again on the market!): Orangutans flee Indonesia forest fires.
MANTANGAI, Indonesia - Dozens of endangered orangutans have been driven from their dwindling jungle habitat in Borneo by months of land-clearing fires that have shrouded parts of the region in a choking haze, conservationists said Monday.

Around 43 orangutans have been taken for medical treatment to centers in the Indonesian provinces of Central and West Kalimantan, said Anand Ramanathan, an emergency relief worker with the Washington-based International Fund for Animal Welfare, or IFAW.

Most were beaten by humans after fleeing from the burning jungle to nearby plantations in recent weeks, but several are being treated for respiratory problems and burns, he said.

Farmers and plantation companies set hundreds of land-clearing fires on Borneo and Sumatra each year, sending thick smoke into surrounding areas and neighboring Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei. It has caused billions of dollars in business losses and in some cases health problems.

"Pristine jungle areas are being burnt," said Jennifer Miller, a relief worker with IFAW, which is helping Indonesia's Borneo Orangutan Survival group to recover and treat wounded orangutans. "It's extremely, extremely threatening.

"There is nothing worse than seeing an animal with a burnt face, blind and fleeing," she said ahead of a 9-day trip to Borneo.

Monsoon rains have dowsed some of the fires — the worst in a decade — but blazes continue to cause problems in Kalimantan where visibility was less than 330 feet on Monday, forcing drivers to use their headlights in the daytime.

The Indonesian government has been criticized for failing to act against those responsible for the fires. Jakarta, which has been pressured by its Southeast Asian neighbors to sign a regional anti-haze treaty, says it is doing all it can.

Indonesia has the highest number of threatened species of mammals in the world, around 146, according to the World Conservation Union.

Fewer that [sic] 60,000 orangutans remain in the wild in Indonesia — nearly 90 percent of their habitat has been destroyed by illegal logging, poaching and cut-and-burn farming practices. If the rate of deforestation continues, orangutans will disappear from the wild in around a decade, experts say.

The fires came within months of the release of 42 orangutans into nearby forests, forcing many animals back to shelters and undermining years of costly rehabilitation work.

The smog, which triggered health warnings in Singapore and Malaysia this year, has plagued Southeast Asia since the 1990s.
Gone in a decade. I don't even want to contemplate that scenario! This weekend, I think I'll go to the San Diego Zoo and tell my primate friends that I'm sorry for the miriad ways that we humans find to make their lives more dangerous and horrific. I can't help but fear that, decades from now, people will look back with great remorse at how we uncaringly waived goodbye as we pushed our closest relatives in the animal kingdom over the brink.

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