While orangutans may be found in numerous habitat types across Borneo, they all have one thing in common: their importance to the natural world, and to humans. The complexities of many ecosystems still escape researchers to a degree, but we do know that if we protect these ecosystems, allowing them to function regularly, they return the favour.
Forests around the world, but especially those in Indonesia, play a critical role in climate regulation. At the most basic level, the huge diversity of plants helps to uptake carbon from our atmosphere and provide us with fresh air. Beyond that, vegetation also helps to regulate the water cycle and mitigate runoff, ultimately maintaining the water table and preventing flooding. So, as areas are deforested, they slowly dry out which, at the same time, increases the likelihood of dangerous floods. This drying also puts them at risk for another disaster: wildfires.
Fires in healthy forests are a perfectly normal part of their lifecycle as they naturally burn out. The issue arises when degraded forests catch fire as these burns quickly grow out of control. This is especially dangerous when peatlands burn. As peat is made up of decomposing organic matter, it stores an incredibly high portion of carbon per metre; this means it burns slower, can burn underground, and can burn multiple times, all while emitting dangerous haze and vast quantities of carbon. In 2015, when historic fires burned nearly 2.6 million ha of forest in Indonesia, estimates of carbon dioxide equivalent emitted are upwards of 1,750,000,000 metric tons, almost triple the regular annual emissions for all of Indonesia. Carbon emissions on this scale further drive global climate change, putting us all at risk for more natural disasters, and perpetuating a vicious cycle.
With the loss of these forests, we also lose precious natural resources that, if managed sustainably, would provide for humans for countless generations to come. Local communities reap the immediate rewards, from the food sources, such as fish and fruits, to clean drinking water. Beyond just the neighbouring communities, these forests are important sources of timber for development, plant materials for weaving and crafting, medicinal compounds, natural honey, raw material for rubber, and agarwood, which is the base for luxury perfumes.
These forests don’t only provide for humans, but are home to countless species, and we do mean that quite literally. We are currently in the sixth mass extinction, known as the Anthropocene Extinction. While the estimates vary, there is overwhelming evidence that the modern rates of extinction are exponentially higher than what they would be naturally. Conservative estimates put the current extinction rate at 100 times more than that of the background (or expected) rate and the more critical approaches put it as high as 1,000 times the background rate. Today, of the species evaluated by the IUCN (128,918 sp.), nearly 28% are threatened with extinction (35,765 sp.). Tropical forests, as diversity hotspots, are strongholds for many of these species. Borneo is part of Sundaland, one of 36 biodiversity hotspots in the world, and is home to over 16,000 species of plants and animals. But across Indonesia, nearly half of its endemic mammal species (132 of 295) are threatened with extinction, including the orangutan.
As we drive wildlife out of their homes, the chances increase for them to come into contact with humans, and while this may seem trivial for those who live far from forests, that is simply not the case. It is estimated that over 70% of modern infectious diseases originated in wildlife and 31% of emerging diseases have been linked directly to deforestation. This is because forests and other wild habitats act as a natural buffer between species that don’t regularly co-exist. And it is when disease pathogens jump between host species, that the chances for mutations increase and we discover a benign disease in one species can be lethal in another. So, if we do not want to discover what the next HIV, rabies, or COVID-19 will be, it is best we protect our natural world.