Fires across Indonesia this summer and fall, driven by a wet season cut short by drought, drained peatlands turned to tinder, and farmers conducting slash-and-burn forest clearing, have ravaged habitat for critically endangered Sumatran elephants and tigers.
The dry season fires were “particularly destructive in southern Sumatra, burning around 8% of Sembilang National Park” and endangering critical habitat for its resident elephants and tigers, Mongabay News reports.
Sumatra’s elephant population has been in decline since the 1980s, when Indonesia launched a massive resettlement project that moved more than two million people from the densely-populated island of Java to other islands in the archipelago. From an estimated pre-resettlement population of 4,000, the Sumatran elephant is now significantly endangered, with only 1,400 individuals remaining, down 1,000 in the last decade alone. Those losses owe significantly to human-elephant conflict, Mongabay writes.
While poaching and other direct attacks on the species are serious problems, the absence of “a secure habitat in many areas” is escalating the crisis, said Indonesia Elephant Forum Secretary Donny Gunaryadi.
Elephant researcher Yoga Travolindra agreed, telling Mongabay that “the [primary] problem for the Sumatran elephant today is that their habitat and ecosystems are disturbed from the conversion of land from secondary forests and shrubs into oil palm plantations by several companies located around the national park.” Satellite data show that while the September-October fires occurred largely in areas of mangrove, which are not prime elephant habitat, some of the forests frequented by elephants in Sembilang did burn.
Worse hit was the Padang Sugihan Sebokor Wildlife Reserve southeast of Sembilang, a critical corridor for wild elephants that was hit by fires across half of its territory.
Sembilang’s Sumatran tigers also suffered from fires that burned in the park in late summer and into fall, with satellite data showing about 30% of their habitat destroyed.
Travolindra said this year’s blazes likely began as intentional fires set to clear forest land, then spiraled out of control thanks to a “drier-than-usual dry season” that left Indonesia’s forests, but especially vast swaths of farmland that were once peat bog, tinderbox dry.
Waterlogged in their natural state, the nation’s peatlands have been significantly drained by farmers, and by loggers anxious for access to the timber that often grows there. Drained and dry, peatlands are “extremely combustible” and “very hard to control,” notes Mongabay, as Indonesia learned during devastating fires in 2015 that led to more than 100,000 premature deaths.
World Resources Institute land use accountability manager Bukti Bagja told Mongabay that while serious efforts are being made to rewater the peatlands, success has been elusive, with the typical remedy of blocking drainage canals so that water levels rise naturally failing due to a lack of rain.
Alongside those hydrological problems, the country faces socio-political ones, with ingrained attitudes to land use meaning that peatland exploitation continues despite the wildfires.
Arief Wijaya of World Resources Institute Indonesia told Mongabay that “longer-term land use governance issues need to be addressed in areas affected by fires, including increasing clarity about access to protected lands, resolving issues involving overlapping claims, and strengthening spatial planning policies.”
Educational outreach is also urgently needed, Baja added. “Local communities and law enforcement have been slow to adapt to changing conditions, and need to be more aware that the peatlands are much drier now than they were just two or three years ago,” he explained. “They think they can control [the fires they set], but this statement is not valid because the situation has changed.”