Rutgers University anthropologists are leading an effort to stop the destruction of an internationally recognized orangutan research site in Indonesia from forest fires which are threatening the lives of humans and wildlife.“At this point we are not doing any research, all the research has stopped,” said Erin Vogel, assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology, Center for Human Evolutionary Studies. ”The fires have been going for two to three weeks, and we’re doing all we can to make certain they don’t get worse.”
The fires – referred to as slash-and-burn – are often used as clearing techniques by palm oil, paper and agriculture industries and are deliberately set said Vogel, co-director at the Tuanan Orangutan Research Project (TORP), which is run by Rutgers, Universitas Nasional Jakarta, University of Zurich, and the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation.
Rutgers graduate student, Didik Prasetyo, and postdoc, Wendy Erb, have been working around the clock over the past two weeks with the TORP team to get hoses, tarps, water pumps as well as gas, food and medical supplies to those fighting the fires in Central Kalimatan, the largest province in Kalimantan, Borneo.
“They are fighting fires from both the south and the north, and while the southern fires seem to be controlled at the moment, this can change very rapidly so daily monitoring is essential,” said Vogel, who spends several weeks every year at the center, part of the Mawas Conservation Program. The program, operated by Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, has one of the largest remaining orangutan populations in the world.
The Tuanan Orangutan Research Project in Mawas includes a research laboratory, meeting room, dining area and dormitory for up to 30 students and researchers. In 2010, the project received a grant from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s Great Apes Program for environmental education, long-term research and to increase conservation awareness in surrounding communities. This education program is now supported by an additional grant from the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund.What is making the situation even worse, Vogel said, is that an El Niño weather pattern is creating higher temperatures, drought and dry conditions. The fires are cited as the causing the largest source of carbon pollution in the world today.
“They are out there boring holes into the peat, going down 20 to 30 feet and building hydrants in the forest,” Vogel said. “It is taking everything they have to fight these fires. They are facing falling trees, high winds and other dangerous conditions as well as unhealthy levels of carbon pollution.”
To help fund this emergency, Vogel recently started a GoFundMe page which has received $30,000 in donations mostly from family, friends and conservation advocates. It is being used for supplies and to pay villagers in the area to help researchers, assistants and others fight the fires. The loss of habitat is considered the greatest threat to the endangered orangutans.
“I knew how critical this was and that I needed to do something really fast,” said Vogel. “I had heard of these crowd-sourcing sites, but I never did anything like this before and I didn’t know what would happen.”
“This money is critical, she said. “We had the Indonesian army sending us 30 soldiers to help put out fires but we had to pay for food and travel expenses because the government is strapped. All of Indonesia is on fire. The most important thing is keeping everyone safe and healthy- and that means well fed and hydrated.”