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Feathers in Flames: the species being snuffed out by forest fires

A provocative new art exhibition, provided thanks to Saatchi, shows the true cost of the man-made forest fires in Indonesia.

By Alex Dale

Indonesia’s rainforests are some of the oldest in the world, and some of the most diverse, too. Despite the archipelago occupying just 1% of the world’s land area, over 10% of the world’s plant and bird species can be found here, and it has more types of mammals than any other country (Brazil, in second place, is a very distant runner-up).

The region’s rich biodiversity has its roots in the Ice Age when sea levels were lower, allowing fauna to move freely between modern-day Asia and Australia. This created an evolutionary melting pot that came to the boil when sea levels rose again, stranding animals on islands and facilitating the evolution
of countless endemic species. Indonesia’s forests are a national and global treasure, then, yet every year, come the dry season, landowners deliberately set fire to them. Why?

It is, as ever, a matter of economics. Farmers and agricultural companies working in the region wish to clear forested land in order to make way for palm oil and rubber plantations, and the quickest and most cost-effective way to do this is to simply set the whole thing ablaze. It’s a crude technique called “slash and burn”, and it regularly leads to wild fires when the flames spread to carbon-rich drained peatlands.

Predictably, the effect on the region’s avian life has been devastating: BirdLife estimates that over 1,000 species – including over 50 that are at risk of global extinction – have been negatively affected by the annual fires – and not just through habitat loss. As we have previously explored, many Indonesian songbirds are being trapped to extinction to fuel demand for the local cage bird trade, and the clearance of forests makes it easier for poachers and hunters to access their last strongholds.

The negative effects of these fires aren’t just for the birds, either – it is also very much a human tragedy. The fires cause a smothering haze to blanket parts of Indonesia, and on a bad year, they can stretch as far afield as Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. The human cost makes for sobering reading: 19 deaths were attributed to the fires in 2015, but researchers from Harvard and Columbia Universities in the US estimate the effects could be responsible for up to 100,000 premature deaths per year in the region.

The issue of forest burning is an intractable threat, but one that both the Indonesian Government (who have tightened the law on slash and burning, and are increasing their investment in enforcing it) and BirdLife and its Partners are motivated to solve. “There is a strong need to support positive initiatives not only for biodiversity but for the sustainable livelihood of local people, as well as climate change mitigation”, said Agus B. Utomo, Executive Director of Burung Indonesia (BirdLife in Indonesia). “We need to bring people’s attention to find solutions to prevent the fires from starting rather than investing only in fire control and management.”

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Below, these stunning creations, provided thanks to Saatchi, are a stark reminder of the rare and beautiful birds whose flames are being extinguished by these man-made fires. If we don’t act, they could soon go up in smoke, permanently.

 

PLAIN-BACKED KINGFISHER

Actenoides regalis

Red List Status: Vulnerable

 

This montane forest-dwelling kingfisher, which until 2014 was considered a sub-species of the Scaly-breasted Kingfisher Actenoides princeps, is confined to south-eastern Sulawesi, an island that has seen extensive forest destruction since the turn of the millennium. Until now, the Plain-backed
Kingfisher has escaped the worst of the carnage as primary forest below 1,000 m has sustained the brunt of the damage – below the elevation range of this high-living kingfisher. But with most of that habitat reduced to patches it is likely attentions will be turned to the island’s montane forest.

 

YELLOW-CRESTED COCKATOO

Cacatua sulphurea

Red List Status: Critically Endangered

Cockatoos are popular and instantly-recognisable cage birds, and this has led to the downfall of this once-common member of the family. Unsustainable trapping has blighted the species for decades, and it is now extinct on many of the islands it once called home.

SIAU SCOPS-OWL

Otus siaoensis

Red List Status: Critically Endangered

The tiny volcanic island of Siau didn’t have too much vegetation to begin with; unsustainable logging of what little there was means it’s probably already curtains for this diminutive owl. It is known only from a single specimen from the 19th century; extensive searches in 2006 and 2009 failed to uncover any evidence of its continued existence, but unexplained, haunting owl-like calls are still reported from the island’s forest fragments.

JAVAN HAWK-EAGLE

Nisaetus bartelsi

Red List Status: Endangered

If you were to think of species likely to be affected by the Indonesian bird trade, hulking birds of prey wouldn’t exactly rocket to the top of the list. Yet the Javan Hawk-eagle’s downfall hastened in 1993 when this impressive raptor became Indonesia’s national bird. It was an attempt to raise awareness and sympathy for the species’ rapid declines, which were driven by deforestation. It backfired: demand among bird owners soared, and numbers continue to divebomb.

 

HELMETED HORNBILL

Rhinoplax vigil

Red List Status: Critically Endangered

The hornbill family is distinguished by the striking “casques” on the upper mandible of their bill. The exact purpose of these eye-catching features is unknown, but it could play a role in sexual selection. In most hornbill species’ case, the casque is hollow. But the Helmeted Hornbill’s is comprised of solid keratin, putting it in the crosshairs of poachers who look to sell the ground-up casques as medicine.  Forest fires are adding further pressure tot his tree-nesting species, which now finds itself under seemingly impossible pressure.

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