The devastating effects of last years El Niño


2015 was a catastrophic year for the tropical rainforest in Indonesia, as more than 125,000 dry-season fires, exacerbated by El Ni ño and climate change, burned a rainforest area the size of Wales. On Borneo, home to the endangered orangutan, more than 800,000 Ha of pristine rainforests was lost in the flames. 

If one were to visit the insular Southeast Asia last fall, the thick amount of smog hanging in the air would not have gone unnoticed. In some places you wouldn´t even be able to see across the street. As a result public schools and cultural events were cancelled across South East Asia in order to minimize human health risks. Even so, 19 people died, more than 500,000 people suffered from haze-related respiratory problems, and millions more are likely to be affected in the longer run. In total it is estimated that more than 40 million people have been affected by the air pollution (World Resources Institute, 2015). The reason for this hazard: the burning of the Indonesian rainforest.

The climatic event El Niño

In the fall of 2015, the rainforest of Indonesia was particularly sensitive to the spreading of fires, due to the climatic event El Niño. El Niño occurs every two to six years, when the warm surface waters at the coast of South America retain their positions, instead of their normal movement towards Australia and Indonesia. As a result, the South American coast receives intense rainfall, whereas Indonesia and the pacific region experience heavily reduced rainfall, drying up vegetation, making fires spread more easily. It has been estimated that more than 125,000 fires swept across Indonesia last fall, some days emitting more CO2 per day than the entire U.S. Economy. In total, the fires have emitted 1.75 billion metric tons of CO2, exceeding the annual emission of Russia (Global Carbon Atlas, 2015).

Loss of orangutan lives

The burning of tropical rainforest on Borneo is affecting one of the most bio-diverse ecosystems on the planet. It is home to more than 300,000 wildlife species representing more than 17 per cent of total world wildlife (even though Indonesia only represents 1.3 per cent of the world area). One of these animals is the only anthropoid found outside of Africa, the great orangutan. The habitat of this great ape continues to be threatened by the loss of Borneo´s rainforest, and 80 per cent of the natural orangutan habitat in Indonesia and Malaysia is thought to have been lost during the last 20 years. More than 3,000 orangutans die each year due to habitat loss and land conversion (National Geographic, 2014), making the population particular vulnerable to such widespread fire-events seen last fall. It is estimated that 1/3 of the orangutan population died as a consequence of the El Nino fires of 1997-98 (BOS, 2012). How many orangutan lives there were lost in fires of 2015 is yet to be established, but our Indonesian partner, BOS Foundation, worked day and night to rescue orangutans from the life-threatening fires, relocating nearly 100 individuals.

How can you help?

Save the Orangutan deployed fire-squads during the catastrophic fire event of 2015, and continue our rescuing efforts to save orangutans caught in the aftermaths of the fires, and restore the destroyed rainforest. Read here how you can help make a difference by supporting Save the Orangutans rainforest program SOS Borneo. 

Support the planting of new trees by signing up as a SOS Borneo partner here >>

Read more about SOS Borneo here >>

Written by: Maja Rosendahl Rosenmark

Facts about the 2015 El Niño consequences for Indonesia:

Number of fires: Over 127,000

Human deaths: 19 people

BOS Foundation translocation of orangutans: 89 orangutans

Number of haze-related respiratory illnesses: 500,000 incidents

Total population affected: 40 million people

Total area burned: 2,000,000 Ha (size of Wales)

Total CO2 emissions: 1.75 billion metric tons of CO2

Total economic cost: 16,000,000,000 US dollars