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30 Oct 2015, Petaling Jaya: Uncontrolled fires across Indonesia, particularly within peatlands, have caused large amounts of smoke and haze to drift into neighbouring countries on almost an annual basis for 40 years. The haze is known to have negative effects on human health, climate, the economy and environment and yet, the perils of the haze have not been studied extensively and its impacts, especially on wildlife, remain unrealised or poorly understood. The haze caused by forest fires in Indonesia is likely to incur negative impacts on wildlife in Malaysia.
Specific study on the effect of haze has not been made and the phenomenon also does not occur throughout the year for us to form detailed conclusions. In fact, the effects could likely be only realised over the long term but nevertheless, one can draw parallels to studies that have similar causal conditions as the haze, mainly in which smoke blocks out the sunlight penetration and flow, and increases concentrations of carbon dioxide, chemicals and pollutants in the air. This causes decreased photosynthesis and transpiration in plants, which in turn affects the food chain for wildlife and influences animal health and behaviour.
Acid rain is precipitation containing harmful amounts of nitric and sulfuric acids, which originate from major components of haze such as nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide. Acid rain damages trees and causes soils and water bodies to acidify, making the water unsuitable for some fish and marine life as a more acidic environment could detrimentally affect calcifying species such as clams, oyster, sea urchins, shallow water corals and calcareous plankton.
In addition to this, animals, like humans, can experience health problems if they are exposed to sufficient concentrations of airborne toxins over time. For example, a wildlife rescue centre in Borneo recently reported that upper respiratory tract infection, dehydration and malnourishment are among the major problems faced by the orang utans in their facilities, and so depending on the level of pollutants in the air, this may also contribute to birth defects, reproductive failure and disease in animals. The singing behaviour and communication of gibbons is also known to be disrupted by the thick haze, in which long term effects are also linked to reduced reproductive capacity.
In the honey collection industry – both wild and farmed – smoke is used to disrupt communication between bees, in order to minimise bee attacks and to ease the honey collection process. Prolonged haze has been known to reduce the colonies of bees settling on trees, thereby likely causing massive declines in bee populations over the long term which would then have a trickling effect on tree and fruit pollination in the forest ecosystem. As sunlight penetration is affected, trees and flowering plant reproduction will also likely be altered. As such, fruit-eating mammals and birds will be affected most, since these tree resources take many years to mature, flower and produce fruit. Primates and hornbills are in this category, and both are already under extreme pressure due to habitat loss and hunting.
Haze also affects the fireflies, the ecotourism icons of Southeast Asia. It is well recognised that most firefly species emit lights at night primarily for mate selection and to serve as a warning signal to predators. In the thickhaze, it is hard for tourists to see the fireflies’ signals but it is even harder for fireflies to be seen by potential mates, thus, affecting the survival of their population in mangrove forests. As the lights produced by each species are species-specific, the haze may interrupt the communication between species and as a result, the males would not be able to locate females. A real risk is that the fireflies would not be able to produce lights (survive) at all due to the smoke haze effects. This is due to the essential chemical reaction in which light is produced in fireflies known as bioluminescence, and is unlikely to occur with the absence of oxygen. Moreover, with less oxygen available in the smoky air, the fireflies, like other tiny insects, might be killed or expected to be less energetic than usual.
Furthermore, when shelled organisms are at risk from acidification of the ocean, the entire marine food chain is at risk. Today, more than a billion people worldwide rely on food from the ocean as their primary source of protein, not to mention the jobs and economies around the world dependent upon the fish and shellfish in our oceans.
Bees, birds, bats, beetles and butterflies are pollinators. Pollinators transfer pollen and seeds from one flower to another, fertilizing the plant so they can grow and produce food. Cross-pollination helps at least 30 percent of the world’s crops and 90 percent of our wild plants to thrive. Without bees to spread seeds, many plants—including food crops—would die off.
The different trophic level effects on the food chain are bound to affect wildlife feeding ecology over the long term, but may not be immediately obvious since the haze phenomenon is not continuous throughout the year. Nevertheless we are fully aware that the haze phenomenon is not likely to stop immediately and that the prolonged effects of the haze have already likely impacted our wildlife and will continue to do so as long as the issue persists.
WWF Malaysia urges the relevant governments in Southeast Asia, including the Malaysian government to treat this as a major threat not only to our natural heritage, but also to ourselves, and to work towards reducing forest fires that are causing the annual haze phenomenon.
Dato’ Dr Dionysius Sharma
Executive Director/CEO WWF-Malaysia