Recent dry-season fires that raged across Indonesia in September and October have taken a toll on forests, even in protected areas. Fires were particularly destructive in southern Sumatra, burning around 8 percent of Sembilang National Park, according to satellite data and local observers.
The fires, along with illegal logging in the area and the conversion of secondary forest and shrub land to oil palm plantations, continue to threaten critically endangered wildlife such as the Sumatran elephant, a subspecies of the Asian elephant, and the Sumatran tiger. Endangered Malay tapir, as well as several common primate species, are also known to inhabit the park area.
Until recently no known elephant populations existed in Sembilang National Park, but a study published in May in the journal Biovalentia: Biological Research uncovered four individual elephants in the park over six days of observation early early 2019.
The study estimates that there are between six and 10 individual elephants in the park area, ranging from north of the Sembilang River to south of the Bungin River and inland toward the west where the park borders the PT Raja Palma oil palm plantation.
Donny Gunaryadi, elephant conservation coordinator at the Wildlife Conservation Society Indonesia, told Mongabay that the government is currently in the process of finalizing a new 10-year action plan for Sumatran elephant protection that is expected to start next year.
The plan will likely concentrate on preserving populations in the provinces of Aceh at the northern tip of Sumatra, Riau in the island’s center, and Jambi, which lies south of Riau and north of the South Sumatra province that is home to Sembilang National Park.
“The population is decreasing,” said Gunaryadi, who has been advising on the draft of the policy, estimating that there are now 1,400 elephants in Sumatra, down from 2,400 a decade ago.
In the 1980s, when Indonesia launched its massive transmigration program to resettle people from more populous areas of Java to other islands in the archipelago such as Sumatra, there were estimated to be as many as 4,000 elephants still on the island. However, conflicts between humans and elephants over land increased with the influx of settlers, and elephants have been on the decline ever since.
“This is a very serious decrease within 10 years,” Gunaryadi said. “Some of the problems are from poaching, but also [the elephant] doesn’t have a secure habitat in many areas.”
Tiger, elephant habitat likely affected by recent fires
Just how Sembilang’s tiger populations fared during the fires is not exactly known just yet. The Zoological Society of London has staff that follow tiger populations in the region, but they were not prepared to accept an interview at this time.
“Though we work on the ground and were impacted by the forest fires like many others, [the staff there] haven’t conducted any specific analysis or monitoring on the forest fires in Berbak Sembilang,” Emma Ackerley, a press officer with ZSL, told Mongabay.
However, satellite data and imagery indicate the fires may have had a big impact on tigers in the park. In total, approximately 20,000 hectares (49,400 acres) — around 30 percent — of tiger habitat in Sembilang burned between August and September, according to data from the University of Maryland, NASA, and NGOs WWF and RESOLVE, and imagery from Planet Labs.
The Berbak Sembilang National Park Authority did not respond to several requests to comment on the situation.
Yoga Travolindra, one of the researchers for the study that identified elephants in the park from the conservation group Forum Konservasi Gajah, has been on the ground near the park in recent weeks. He told Mongabay that the fires were unlikely to have killed any elephants since they mostly occurred in mangrove areas, which is not the elephants’ primary habitat.
Travolindra said that while tigers did use the mangrove area there was no evidence of deaths in recent field observations of that animal either.
“The [primary] problem for the Sumatran elephant today is that their habitat and ecosystems are disturbed from the conversion of land from secondary forests and shrubs into oil palm plantations by several companies located around the national park,” Travolindra said.
“At the moment the problems in the national park are mainly area encroachment, illegal logging, and use of large trawlers in fishing,” he said.
However, satellite data show that while fires were concentrated in and around mangroves earlier in the year, later burns moved into inland forests — including an area that the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations considers elephant habitat.
Drier than usual and getting drier still
Travolindra said the fires likely stemmed from fires set intentionally to open up land for farming. Propelled by a drier-than-usual dry season and underground peat reserves, these fires spread out of control, affecting areas much larger than was intended.
“In general this year had been much drier compared to the past few years,” Arief Wijaya from World Resources Institute Indonesia told Mongabay. “These areas in South Sumatra host a vast amount of peatlands and are very susceptible to fires, and both [Sembilang and Berbak National Park to the north] are quite dominated by peatlands.”
Indonesia has vast unground stores of peat, which have built up over hundreds to thousands of years as vegetation died. Normally waterlogged and restricted to swamps, countrywide efforts to drain swamps and make them suitable for farming and logging has dried out many of Indonesia’s peatlands. And when it’s dry, peat is extremely combustible — and peat fires are very hard to control. Indonesia’s 2015 fire crisis that contributed to the premature deaths of more than 100,000 people is largely blamed on wildfires on drained peatlands caused by slash-and-burn agriculture.
Bukti Bagja, a land-use accountability manager at World Resources Institute Indonesia, said there was a strong correlation between the recent fires and illegal deforestation activity in and near Sembilang National Park.
“The pattern for these fire cases in that area is that it usually happens one or two months before the peak rainy season comes,” Bagja said. “To me this shows that people are preparing the land for the rainy season [when it wouldn’t be possible to clear].”
Bagja said the government had been trying to restore those peatlands after the devastating 2015 fires that burned throughout Indonesia, but that restoration has proven difficult. Blocking of drainage canals that had been dug throughout the area had not restored water levels sufficiently due to the particularly intense dry season, and some peatlands had already been claimed and cleared by locals for agriculture and other uses, Bagja said.
continuous decrease in the water table,” Bagja said. “When the area faces a long dry season, then the water table decreases 1 or 2 cm per day, and with the current canal system, the question is how to keep the peat area and the cultivation area moist.”
Vital habitat corridors under threat
Fires have also reportedly ravaged elephant habitat in Padang Sugihan Sebokor Wildlife Reserve, which lies southeast of Sembilang and serves as a corridor for wild elephants in South Sumatra.
One report estimates that half of the reserve has suffered fire damage. Since elephants in South Sumatra have such wide ranges it can be difficult to determine exactly how populations were impacted by the most recent fires.
As with Sembilang, Padang Sugihan is experiencing issues related to peatland draining and forest encroachment by industry and communities. In the past it has been well protected for the most part, even with limited budgets for conservation, according to Michael Allen Brady, principal scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).
This protection, however, has not helped prevent this year’s damaging fires.
“We’re able to confirm there has been a lot of burning in the [Padang Sugihan] reserve the past two months,” Brady said.
“One of the reasons it is burning frequently is that they dug canals through it, seven major canals, and hundreds of tertiary canals,” he said. “It was logged over in the 70s and converted to transmigration lands and then they decided not to develop it and turned it back to the forestry ministry. Unfortunately they drained it but they had not cleared the forest, so it was essentially a timebomb, a standing peat forest that had been drained.”
Once the area was designated a wildlife reserve, the military herded elephants into the area in the early 1980s and the government recognized the reserve as elephant habitat. Brady said that following this, the government designated an elephant management unit, built an office complex on the border of the park and encouraged public visitation, but the situation “has deteriorated” in recent years to the point where the unit is non-functioning.
“Unfortunately there’s been no systematic monitoring of the [elephant] population in the reserve, but clearly it has gone from a population of about 400 to around a dozen,” Brady said.
Yusuf Samsudin, an elephant specialist with CIFOR, agrees: “Local rangers say there are only 12 left now.”
Two potential steps forward, one definite step back
Regulations enacted after the 2015 fire crisis broadly protected carbon-rich peatlands in the hopes of stopping it from happening again. But these were revised in April this year, limiting protection to “peat domes,” or areas where peat layers protrude higher topographically than the edges of the surrounding peatland. Sources say peatland exploitation and fires intensified after the policy rollback.
According to Wijaya, longer-term land-use governance issues need to be addressed in areas affected by fires, including increasing clarity about access to protected lands, resolving issues involving overlapping claims, and strengthening spatial planning policies.
Bagja recommends educational outreach. He says local communities and law enforcement have been slow to adapt to changing conditions, and need to be more aware that the peatlands are much drier now than they were just two or three years ago.
“Our hope in Indonesia is to bring awareness and knowledge about avoiding fires, to bring it to every household all over the country,” Bagja said. “They should understand it and the cost of using fires is much higher than the intangible cost, the externalities are much higher. The fact is that there are still big gaps in that understanding and knowledge.
“They think they can control it but this statement is not valid because the situation has changed.”