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Indonesian Fires Threaten Orangutans and other Wildlife

The endangered orangutan, elephants and other wildlife are facing the destruction of their habitats as fires - started by big companies and small farmers as a cheap way to clear land - burn out of control in Indonesia.

The orangutan reserve in Indonesian Borneo and elephants on the island of Sumatra are under threat from fires that have sent a choking haze across much of Southeast Asia.

The fires are started each year by farmers and large companies, because they provide an easy way to clear land. The smoke usually spreads from Indonesia to the entire region, prompting health warnings and causing flight cancellations.

Stephen Brend, program director of the Orangutan Foundation at Tanjung Puting National Park in Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo, says illegal logging has contributed to making the fires difficult to control.

"It's madness that people are still lighting fires, but they are, and they're loosing control of them because it's so dry," Brend says. "The situation has been made worse by the amount of illegal logging that's happened in the park, which has left a lot more combustible debris and dried out the peaty swamps so the place is more vulnerable to fire. The impact's massive."

The orangutans at the Tanjung Puting reserve are thought to number between four thousand and six thousand. Even at the lower number, this is one of the largest orangutan populations in the world.

Brend says the fires have reached the core of the reserve. He says the situation threatens the survival of orangutans not just in Indonesia, but globally.

"If we are going to prevent extinction, these populations have to be saved," Brend says. "The loss of one of these populations would have an impact on the overall survival chances of the species. They're considered a critically important population."

Meanwhile, officials in Riau province on Sumatra say elephants may need to be moved out of a national park, after the fires destroyed nearly 100 hectares of land there.

Indonesia's neighbors, Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, sent officials to an emergency meeting in Indonesia last week, and urged Jakarta to quickly ratify a treaty that calls for regional cooperation to stop the burning.

Indonesian Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelar said on Monday that his country's legislators would "soon" ratify the agreement.

But the only way to stop the fires already raging, officials say, is to wait for the annual rains, which are expected to arrive within the next few weeks.