When There are No Words

Fire threatens to destroy a dream
fire deforestation Borneo

When There are No Words

fire deforestation Borneo

Dr Karmele Llano Sanchez and Gail Campbell-Smith of Yayasan IAR view tropical rainforest peat swamp devastation in Pematang Gadung Community Forest caused by uncontrolled 2015 fires, West Kalimantan, Borneo Indonesia.

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.

fire deforestation Borneo

tropical rainforest peat swamp devastation to Pematang Gadung Community Forest caused by uncontrolled 2015 fires, West Kalimantan, Borneo Indonesia

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.

mangrove seedling in fire deforestation

mangrove seedling that survived fires – tropical rainforest peat swamp devastation in Pematang Gadung Community Forest caused by uncontrolled 2015 fires, West Kalimantan, Borneo Indonesia


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?)


peat swamp rainforest Borneo

Gail Campbell-Smith and HOCR team wading along abandoned illegal logging trail in peat swamp tropical rainforest, Pematang Gadung Community Forest, West Kalimantan, Borneo Indonesia

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.


illegal logging deforestation Borneo

abandoned illegal logging opreation in peat swamp tropical rainforest, Pematang Gadung Community Forest, West Kalimantan, Borneo Indonesia



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?












Wagler's pit viper Borneo

young Wagler’s pit viper (Tropidolaemus wagleri) a venomous green pit viper found throughout Borneo, West Kalimantan, Indonesia


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


Leave a Reply

You are donating to : GLOBIO

How much would you like to donate?
$20 $50 $100
Would you like to make regular donations? I would like to make donation(s)
How many times would you like this to recur? (including this payment) *
Name *
Last Name *
Email *
Additional Note