Updated: Feb 18, 2021
We woke up this morning to find the atmosphere filled with smoke from the forest fires which are burning across Borneo. The fires have a number of causes, natural, small holder farmers clearing forest and land, hunters and large scale deforestation for crops like palm oil.
More that 4000 fires or ‘hot spots’ have been recorded with the majority in Central Kalimantan where we are with the Orangutan Foundation deep in the Lamandau wildlife reserve.
The fires threaten everything, schools are now closed across the area, the government are handing out face-masks as pollution levels caused by the smoke are well above the level deemed safe which is set at 100 or below but the pollution is now at level 500.
There is no fire in Lamandau that I am aware of as the smoke is drifting in from areas a few hours away but the entire forest here is a peat rainforest and peat burns if it ignites. Charred leaves periodically drift down out of the hand, clumps of destroyed rainforest literally falling from the sky.
The sun is obliterated as it rises due to the thick smoke but appears as a red circle in the sky as it climbs higher.
The fires are destroying a very fragile habitat and if Lamandau is put in danger where can wildlife be sure of a secure future?
Over half of Borneo’s rainforest has already been destroyed with around 850,000 hectares lost every year. The majority cleared for palm oil production. When the price of palm oil peaks the following year deforestation peaks.
Martha-Lilly and I have seen and learnt so much during our time with the Orangutan Foundation and I have a lot of memories and photographs that will inspire future paintings. The orangutans are extraordinary, and their personal stories are deeply moving as they have all been rescued from very difficult life threatening situations. Lamandau is literally their safe haven and to see the smoke billowing across their last safe piece of planet earth is heart breaking. They are ‘critically endangered’ the next classification is ‘extinct’ so the work the Orangutan Foundation is doing is literally the last chance to save this important and extraordinary species of great ape that is 97% genetically the same as us.
Due to tiredness, the forest fires and the fact we have experienced the best of the orangutans already we have brought our departure forward by 24hrs and the team quickly arranged a long boat and speed boat for us to head back to Pangkalan Bun where we can organise a flight back to Java if the smoke hasn’t delayed the flights too badly.
We head down the river which is visually stunning with wetland plants and fruits overhanging the dark peat coloured river. Rainforest trees and palm silhouette against the sky and the red sun glows in the smoke filled sky.
A mother orangutan with her baby appear around one corner, she is quietly crouched on the shore line eating fruit that floats down the river, a timeless scene of the harmony, love and natural balance drastically contrasted by the devastation that is going on all around her on the world’s third largest island of Borneo.
Watch our latest ‘live’ video diary report at 9am today UK time to see our journey, the smoke and the conditions in Pangkalan Bun.