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In Indonesia, human-initiated fires are responsible for massive losses of rainforest

Fire-damaged forest, Indonesia, © Tris Allinson.

In Indonesia during 1997–1998, fires caused by humans damaged or destroyed almost 50,000 km2 of forest in Borneo and Sumatra. Research shows that the density of hornbill species decreased because of sparse canopy and scarcity of fruit.


In rainforest, natural fires are extremely rare, and birds and other biodiversity suffer greatly when human-initiated fires occur. Burnt forest may take hundreds or possibly thousands of years to return to its original state (Chambers et al. 1998). Human activity worsens the risk of fire and its negative impacts for a variety of reasons. For example:

  • fragmentation of forests increases their edge-to-area ratio, making them less humid and more susceptible to fire, while logging or mining roads allow access to areas previously protected by their remoteness
  • fires from slash-and-burn cultivation often spread into areas of primary forest
  • smouldering underground coal seams or layers of peat can re-ignite forest fires during the dry season, and can burn for decades as they are difficult to extinguish. In 2003, it was estimated that as many as 1,000 underground coal fires were burning in Indonesia alone (Bhattacharya 2003).

In Indonesia during 1997–1998, fires damaged or destroyed almost 50,000 km2 of forest in Borneo and Sumatra (an area larger than Switzerland) (Liew et al. 1998). Although made worse by a drought induced by El Niño, these fires were caused by humans. The 1997 fires released as much carbon into the atmosphere as the total annual carbon intake of the world’s vegetation, equivalent to Europe’s current annual carbon emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels (Page et al. 2002). Research at Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park, Sumatra, showed that the density of hornbill species decreased by 28–63% in fire-damaged forest, because of the sparse canopy and scarcity of fruit (Anggraini et al. 2000).



References

Anggraini, K., Kinnaird, M. and O’Brien, T. (2000) The effects of fruit availability and habitat disturbance on an assemblage of Sumatran hornbills. Bird Conserv. Int. 10: 189–202.

Bhattacharya, S. (2003) Wild coal fires are a ‘global catastrophe’. http://www.newscientist.com/news/news.jsp?id=ns99993390.

Chambers, J. Q., Higuchi, N. and Schimel, J. P. (1998) Ancient trees in Amazonia. Nature 391: 135–136.
 
Liew, S. C., Lim, O. K., Kwoh, L. K. and Lim, H. (1998) Proc. 1998 Internatn. Geosci. Remote Sens. Symposium 2: 879–881.
 
Page, S. E., Siegert, F., O. Rieley, J., Boehm, H.-D. V., Jayak, A. and Limin, S. (2002) The amount of carbon released from peat and forest fires in Indonesia during 1997. Nature 420: 61–65.

Compiled 2004

Recommended Citation:
BirdLife International (2004) In Indonesia, human-initiated fires are responsible for massive losses of rainforest . Presented as part of the BirdLife State of the world's birds website. Available from: http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/sowb/casestudy/124. Checked: 20/09/2014