Kalimantan, Indonesia — Haze from Indonesian forest fires has disturbed orangutans living in a natural reserve on Borneo island, a park official said on Monday, blaming deer hunters for intentionally torching protected areas.
The fires have been burning for weeks, creating the smoke that has spread over much of Southeast Asia, triggering fears of a repeat of the months of choking haze in 1997-98 that cost the region billions in economic losses.
Saut Manalu, a senior official at the Tanjung Puting national park where 6,000 orangutans live, told Reuters by telephone that animals are even more affected by the smoke than humans.
“We can hear them scream late at night,” he said, adding fires had been found inside the reserve that occupies a large swathe of land in Central Kalimantan province on Indonesia’s side of Borneo island.
“The fires are at the rim while the orangutans live deeper inside. We are focusing on how to put out the fires. If they go out of control, we will take care of the animals. We may need to evacuate them,” said the park official.
Some of those fires were lit by hunters, Manalu said.
“In order to lure deer, hunters often set ablaze certain areas so that fresh grass could grow on the burnt land. Deer would graze there because they like young leaves,” he said.
Environment and other ministers from Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Brunei failed to reach a detailed attack plan when they gathered on Friday in Indonesia’s haze-affected Riau province on Sumatra island to discuss the crisis.
Indonesia’s neighbours are growing increasingly frustrated with Jakarta’s failure to tackle the annual dry season fires, most of which are deliberately lit by farmers or at the direction of timber and oil palm plantation companies.
Indonesian officials have said forces of nature and the country’s social conditions severely limit the effectiveness of government’s fire suppression measures, and have called for ASEAN aid.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar said a collective fund was needed to battle the problem.
“We need to have a fund where everybody contributes because we are all affected,” he told reporters.
Asked whether Malaysia would press for compensation from Indonesia, he said: “we have not thought of the question”.
“I don’t think it will be fair for any country like Malaysia (to) spend on our own. It’s too big, it’s too much. The source is in Indonesia,” Syed Hamid said.
Indonesian officials have said Malaysian- and Singaporean-owned timber and plantation companies bear a large part of the responsibility for the fires.
Neighbours want Jakarta to ratify an Association of South East Asian Nations haze treaty before expecting major funding.
Regional countries signed the 2002 ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution. Indonesia last week pledged to ratify the pact soon but that is unlikely to happen this month as parliament begins a one-month recess on Thursday.
Indonesian Forestry Minister Malam Sambat Kaban said more than 75 percent of the fires were not in government forests but on plantations and farms of private companies and local people.
He said Central Kalimantan was the worst hit, with around 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres) of peat land in one area on fire. Peat fires are hard to put out and can burn for months.
Indonesia bans slash-and-burn practices by farmers and plantations. But prosecutions take time and few have stuck.