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Fears grow for Orangutans struggling under toxic Indonesian haze

Nicola Smith
An orangutan sits in the toxic haze blanketing Kalimantan, Indonesia - AFP

A toxic haze caused by raging forest fires in Indonesia is now starting to affect the health of endangered orangutans in Borneo, an animal welfare group has warned. 

The fires, usually started by illegal burning to clear land for farming, have spread air pollution across the region, causing hundreds of schools to close in Malaysian states bordering Indonesia and prompting concerns ahead of Singapore’s Formula One race this weekend. 

A four-month-old baby and a 59-year-old plantation worker are reported to have died from respiratory problems and Jakarta has deployed thousands of troops and water-bombing aircraft to help control the fires across Sumatra and Borneo islands. 

On Tuesday, the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation said that “as many as 37 young orangutans are suspected to have contracted a mild respiratory infection,” in its rehabilitation centre in Nyaru Menteng, near Palangkaraya, the capital city of Central Kalimantan. 

“The thick smoke does not only endanger the health of our staff at Nyaru Menteng, but also it affects the 355 orangutans we currently care for in the rehabilitation centre and the surrounding pre-release islands,” the foundation said in a statement. 

Orangutans at the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Nyaru Menten are believed to have contracted mild respiratory infections Credit: BORNEO ORANGUTAN SURVIVAL FOUNDATION / AFP

To combat the hazardous air, orangutans in its rescue centres and wildlife reintroduction shelters are being given a daily dose of milk and multivitamins and their outdoor activities in at least one facility have been curtailed to a few hours a day. Enclosures are being sprayed with water to keep them cool. 

Orangutans are found in the rainforests of Borneo, which Indonesia shares with Malaysia and Brunei, and have become endangered due to land clearances and the dramatic shrinking of their habitat. 

The population of orangutans in Borneo has plummeted from about 288,500 in 1973 to about 100,000 today, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

This year’s forest fires in Indonesia have been worsened by particularly dry weather.  Local environmental organisations have demanded that the government of Indonesian President Joko Widodo reveal a full list of companies where plantations have been spotted and to provide emergency assistance for choking residents.