Witnessing death is a paralyzing event. Standing and staring at charred bodies, those with whom you have spent so many loving hours, gone. The pain is numbing. Karmele and Gail stood motionless in the small boat almost as if the scene before them was a freakish nightmare that wasn’t real — peatland fires and devastating deforestation — but one from which they couldn’t wake. And then Karmele’s eyes glassed over and the death was real.
In an International Animal Rescue (IAR) Indonesia media release on the eve of the COP21 in Paris, Program Director Karmele Llano Sanchez said, “There is no words to express how we feel about this; all the efforts put in to protect orang-utans and their habitat are in vain when fires destroy everything in an instant” but with clear-eyed conviction she went on to say, “But we are determined to save this forest, its unique biodiversity and this important peat swamp ecosystem”. IAR Indonesia has been working in this area for the last three years and has established an eco-tourism project in this community forest, and is working with communities to reduce carbon emissions and to find sustainable sources of income.
Heartbreaking fire devastation to a forest home alive with Bornean orang-utans.
Gail Campbell-Smith and I would stay in the forest camp that night Karmele would return down river to Ketapang. Gail would say to me that evening, “Karmele has put her heart and soul into this for seven years, this is her baby” to see that today was devastating. Next year may be even more devastating, the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back, with up to 70% reduced rainfall predicted for early 2016 in eastern Borneo and central Indonesia triggering a dry season start months early and extending again late into October.
The next day I travelled, or waded, through the water soaked peat swamp tropical rainforest with Gail and her Human-Orang-utan Conflict mitigation team. A chance to see first-hand what I witnessed devastated the day before. After a short trip up the Kepulu River we ducked into a hint of a gap in the riverine pandanus choking the river’s edge, and motored the longboats in another hundred meters—there the wading began.
Second overboard I found tea-colored water rising to mid-thigh, and quickly hoisted my camerbag a bit higher on my back. The water was refreshingly cool in the dense shade of the peat swamp forest. Snakes I wondered? (Studies have show temperatures inside forests like this to be 8-10C (14-18F) cooler than adjacent landscapes cleared of their forest. Considering in 2014 Indonesia alone had a total area of oil palm plantations estimated at a record 10.8 million hectares, with 90% originating from primary forest loss, it doesn’t take a meteorological mathematician to calculate there has to be global climate impact?)
While we couldn’t navigate the boat into the forest any further there was an obvious path, a void of trees 2 meters wide that penetrated beyond sight. Beneath my aquatic footfalls were planks, some eventually surfaced. And scattered rafts of 2, 3, and 4 rounded trunks a fist-size in diameter and just over a meter long. We were wading up a logging road. This was an illegal logging operation flooded to a halt in its tracks. Much of the credit for terminating the poaching is due the young men wading with me from the local village of Pematang Gadung. This is their community forest.
This is not your picture-perfect National Geographic special rainforest. Peat swamp forests are messy places, where few care to wade. But the biodiversity in here is beyond imagination — life piled upon life, life oozing and sprouting out of life just lived. Frankly, we really don’t know what we are destroying here, we haven’t seriously begun to look. And beneath it all are meters upon meters of stored CO2— the stuff of lives lived—peat. In this swamp forest the peat is 10 to 12 meters deep! 140 million years of life entombed in a dense mass of chocolate-colored sawdust-looking stuff.
They will talk about climate models and CO2 reduction limits, we will hear ad nauseum 2degreesC, and endless pledges will be made in Paris over the coming days, and in a brief post-COP21 bit of “we are the world” euphoria the media will proclaim humankind has at last come together. But I wonder if, until we all feel the loss of a loved one, the way Karmele did staring out at the chaos of ashy-charred trunks and limbs, will we ever feel enough pain to truly sacrifice and act?
Notes & Sources
Personal travel notes and interviews
Yayasan IAR media release 29 November 2015
2015-2016 Global research and reporting on great apes made possible in part through the generous financial support of the Philadelphia Zoo