NYARU MENTENG, Indonesia >> Katty, a docile, orange-haired preschooler, fell from a tree with a thump. Her teacher quickly picked her up, dusted off her bottom, refastened her white disposable diaper and placed her back on a branch more than seven feet off the ground.
Katty is an orangutan, about 9 months old, whose family is believed to have been killed by the huge fires last fall in the Indonesian regions of Borneo and Sumatra. The blazes are an annual occurrence, when farmers clear land by burning it, often for palm oil plantations. But last year’s fires were the worst on record, and scientists blamed a prolonged drought and the effects of El Niño.
The blazes destroyed more than 10,000 square miles of forests, blanketing large parts of Southeast Asia in a toxic haze for weeks, sickening hundreds of thousands of people and, according to the World Bank, causing $16 billion in economic losses.
They also killed at least nine orangutans, the endangered apes native to the rain forests of Borneo and Sumatra. More than 100, trapped by the loss of habitat or found wandering near villages, had to be relocated. Seven orphans, including five infants, were rescued and taken to rehabilitation centers here.
“This is the biggest in the world for primate rehabilitation, not just orangutans, but we’re not proud of it,” said Denny Kurniawan, the program director of the Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, who oversees the care of 480 orangutans at seven sites in Central Kalimantan province on the island of Borneo. “The number of orangutans here is an indicator of the mass forest destruction due to lack of law enforcement and the local government giving out palm oil concessions.”
The suffering of the wildlife is part of a larger story of corporate expansion in a developing economy crashing into environmental issues in an era of climate change.
Indonesia has approved palm oil concessions on nearly 15 million acres of peatlands over the last decade; burning peat emits high levels of carbon dioxide and is devilishly hard to extinguish.
Multinational palm oil companies, pulp and paper businesses, the plantations that sell to them, farmers and even day laborers all contribute to the problem. Groups like Greenpeace and the Indonesian Forum for the Environment put most of the blame for the blazes on the large plantations, which clear the most land.
While it is against Indonesian law to clear plantations by burning, enforcement is lax. Authorities have opened criminal investigations against at least eight companies in connection with last year’s fires, but there has yet to be a single high-profile case to get to court.
The government in Jakarta, the capital, has recently banned the draining and clearing of all peatland for agricultural use, and it has ordered provincial governments to adopt better fire suppression methods. But it has not publicly responded to calls for better prevention, such as cracking down on slash-and-burn operations by large palm oil companies.
“Investment is good, but so is the environment,” said Eman Supriyadi, the director of a satellite rehabilitation center where two orphaned orangutans — 6-month-old Oka and 3-year-old Otong — are bottle-fed human infant formula and sleep in bamboo cribs. “There has to be a balance.”
The government has admitted that it made a “mistake” in granting large strips of land to big corporate palm oil and pulp and paper companies over the past 10 years, said Luhut B. Pandjaitan, Indonesia’s coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs.
“The Indonesian government has taken serious measures to freeze any new land rights or concessions for those giant industries,” he said. “We are encouraging them to be more efficient, so productivity can grow without adding more land.”
However, he said the main cause of the 2015 fires was the previous environmental destruction combined with the El Nino climate cycle.
Katty, the roughly 9-month-old orangutan, was found in a charred forest by villagers in Central Kalimantan last October and eventually brought to the Nyaru Menteng center, which was established by the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation in 1999.
She now lives with 20 other infants in an old, one-story wooden house that was converted into an orangutan nursery, where they sleep side-by-side in colored plastic laundry baskets stuffed with leaves.
They will spend the next seven or more years learning from their human minders how to climb trees, make a nest of leaves, spot edible forest fruits and avoid snakes and other predators, before being released back into the wild as young adults.
At 7 a.m. each day, they are carted by wheelbarrow, three or four per load, to a fenced-off forest area more than 300 feet away for survival classes. They subsist on fruit, mainly bananas and rambutan, and on human infant formula.
The minders take pains not to be overly affectionate with their adorable charges: The orangutans need to learn to avoid humans and not be accustomed to their presence, in preparation for their return to the jungle.
Most of the center’s older orangutans are also orphans, found alone and rescued by conservationists or local villagers, or confiscated from people illegally keeping them as pets.
The center aims to release 68 young-adult animals per year. Each returned animal is tracked by a computer chip implanted near the base of the neck that sends signals to the center for about two years.
The release program has also been jeopardized by the fires, which have drastically reduced the potential orangutan habitat.
Over the years, thousands of square miles have been cleared for plantations, a majority in lowland areas that are the prime habitat for orangutans. The fires last year destroyed more than 1,650 square miles of forest in Central Kalimantan alone, or 16 percent of its total.
“Our challenge for now is, if we have information that orangutans should be rescued, we don’t know where we will relocate them because in Central Kalimantan there is no forest left,” Denny said. “Every day it’s estimated that we’re losing forests the size of a football field, and that’s orangutan habitat.”
Since 2012, his rehabilitation center has returned 158 orangutans into a 124-square-mile protected forest known as Batikap. But Batikap has reached its maximum recommended orangutan population, Denny said.
He said the center was negotiating with the federal government to establish a 288-square-mile preserve in Bukit Baka-Bukit Raya National Park, in Central Kalimantan and West Kalimantan provinces, for future releases.
Last year’s fires caused such an outcry that the provincial government and local district chiefs in Central Kalimantan have approved no new palm oil concessions this year.
But with dry conditions again this year, new fires have broken out already. Last month, the governor of Riau province in Sumatra declared a state of emergency because of fires, and the Indonesian Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency issued a warning about the increased risk of fire in Sumatra and Borneo through the end of April.