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Friday, 10 March, 2000, 19:28 GMT
Indonesia: A smoky Eden
orang-utan and infant
The fires are bad news for Sumatra's orang-utans
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby

Indonesia boasts a huge bio-diversity. Of the world's known fish species, 37% are found in Indonesia, and about 17% of all birds.

But, as the country tries to cope with the twin pressures of economic growth and population increase, it has acquired an unenviable new distinction.

Indonesia is now home to the greatest number of endangered species in the world.

tiger and cub
Few Sumatran tigers survive in the wild
Dr Norman Myers, fellow of Green College, Oxford, told BBC News Online: "There are many species there that are found nowhere else.

"We don't know how many may be affected by the burning. But it's certainly a grave threat, because it means further stress to many already stressed populations."

Dr Myers led a team which recently identified Indonesia among 25 global "hotspots" - places which contain such a wealth of bio-diversity that they deserve to be the focus of conservation efforts.

The effects of the fires, if they do prove as bad as 1997's, will be felt beyond Indonesia's borders.

Rainfall patterns

Dr Myers said: "All that smoke in the atmosphere could well disrupt rainfall patterns on a local or regional level.

man spraying fire
The human impact may be less than in 1997
"Three years ago, the soot and other pollutants from the fires came down some way away, in Malaysia and Singapore.

"If that happens again, there could be a sizeable impact on people, especially the aggravation of respiratory problems.

"With the burning of fossil fuels, one hazard that's recently been identified is the tiny particles that are left after combustion, and I'd be very surprised if there are no particulates in the soot."

Rain lends a hand

But South East Asia may be luckier than it was in 1997. The rainy season is proving unusually wet, raising hopes that the fires may be damped down.

Latest reports from Riau province, the heart of the fires, say overnight rain has eased the problem.

But Indonesia's Environment Minister, Soni Keraf, who said earlier the situation warranted "emergency" measures, has called it "a national disaster".

Satellites have detected at least 400 separate fires, though some blazes have not shown up. And officials say some are burning underground, making them harder to detect and harder to extinguish.

Ed Matthew, of the World Wide Fund for Nature, told BBC News Online: "In our experience, once the forests have burnt they're not very likely to regenerate themselves."

"A lot of the burning is done deliberately, to circumvent the law and convert the forest to agricultural land. So it may well have gone for good."

Animals at risk

WWF is still waiting for detailed reports from Riau about the species at risk from the fires. It believes the orang-utans are certainly in danger, and several species of monkey and deer.

And it is concerned that the habitat of the very rare Sumatran tiger may also be in the path of the fires. There are believed to be no more than 400 of the animals left in the wild.

Damage beyond South East Asia looks unlikely at the moment. The eruption of the Philippines volcano, Mount Pinatubo, in 1992, showed how environmental impacts can spread far from their origin.

But the Indonesian fires, serious as they are, are hardly on that scale.

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