How are Orangutans affected by forest fires?

I am currently completing a Masters By Research at the University of Exeter in collaboration with Borneo Nature Foundation (BNF) and the Center for International Cooperation in Sustainable Management of Tropical Peatland (CIMTROP), University of Palangka Raya. After being a part of a research expedition with BNF in the summer of 2017, I knew I had to go back to contribute to the protection of probably the most famous animal in Borneo; the orang-utan. So, I have devised a research project to find out how one of the least-studied but most imminently threatening hazards is affecting orang-utans in Central Kalimantan.

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The greatest threat affecting the survival of the orang-utan is habitat loss. On the island of Borneo, it is estimated that forest cover has decreased by 39% between 1973 and 2010. The Bornean orang-utan has experienced an 86% population decline in just 52 years with the primary cause being loss of habitat. This has caused the Bornean orang-utan to be categorised as 'Critically Endangered' by the IUCN in 2016.

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One of the most devastating forms of habitat loss is fire. In 2015, Indonesia was devastated by fires that destroyed an estimated 800,000ha of forest. These fires have fragmented remaining orangutan habitats, which were already irregularly distributed, causing isolation of populations now in extreme danger of dying out. Therefore studying how the behaviour, ranging and health patterns of orangutans are affected by these fires is extremely important in order to implement correct conservation strategies and save this species.

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The purpose of my study is to identify how orang-utans have been affected by the 2015 forest fires in Sabangau peat-swamp forest. My main objectives are to investigate changes in orang-utan behaviour and health. Between March and December 2019 I conducted fieldwork in the Laboratorium Alam Hutan Gambut research site in Sabangau forest. I searched for a located habituated orang-utans who I then followed to gather information on their daily activities and collected urine and faecal samples for analysis. I established a fully in-field parasite monitoring project to analyse faecal samples for gastrointestinal parasites without having to export samples to external laboratories.

I hope this project will be beneficial in understanding how a catastrophic environmental event such as fire is affecting this critically endangered primate. Sabangau National Park holds one of the largest remaining orang-utan populations in the world, thus is a critical area to protect if we are to ensure the survival of the species.

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I have now completed the fieldwork in Borneo and am in the process of writing my thesis. I aim to submit this thesis at the end of July 2020 and hope to publish my results in peer-reviewed journals in the near future.