Forest Fires Rage on Southeast Asian Peninsula

As Covid-19 grips the world, another crisis threatens

By: Gregory McCann

With much of Asia gripped by the Covid-19 pandemic that has infected 3.1 million people globally and killed more than 218,000 so far, another crisis rages in Southeast Asia—forest fires. While the 2019 wildfires of Australia received extensive global attention, with their torched koala bears and apocalyptic scenes of humans fleeing infernos, much of the world appears unaware of the blazes tearing through Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

In fact, NASA satellite imagery has produced maps portraying the spread, with a frightening amount of the region engulfed in flames (see here for a zoomable map). Drought has affected large areas of Southeast Asia, with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimating in late March that ongoing drought, water shortage and saltwater intrusion have so far affected 95,000 households with more than 38,000 hectares of agricultural land damaged or lost and five provinces declared disaster areas.

Smog born of agricultural fires and forest fires has long been a problem in northern Thailand, with Chiang Mai often having one of the highest particulate matter indexes (PMI) in the world during the dry season. But there are growing concerns that climate change is exacerbating drought and driving up temperatures.

it is late April, and the rains should have arrived, quelling fires that have been blazing since mid-March. But the skies are still dry and northern Thailand is blanketed in wildfire haze and fires rage all the way down to the Isthmus of Kra, tearing through some of the Kingdom’s most important wildlife sanctuaries, including the Western Forest Complex—home to one of the last two viable populations of Indochinese tigers and Leopards in the world.

In fact, experts estimate that 20 percent of the forests of northern Thailand have been incinerated by the current blaze, and ethnic Karen forest dwellers are saying these fires are the worst they’ve seen in their lifetime. Government spokeswoman Narumon Pinyosinwat told reporters in early April that drought, wind patterns that occasionally trap polluted air in the northern region, and possibly arson as plausible causes. Agribusiness, specifically slash-and-burn practices, could have also led to these fires, she said.

Across the border in Myanmar, the problem is even more pronounced. In fact, NASA fire maps for the nation are reminiscent of America’s CDC maps for the spread of Covid-19 in New York, with virtually the entire state dotted in overlapping and alarming red dots of contagion. The effects on people of smog from forest fires in Sumatra have been well documented, if dismally, over the years.

It is estimated that Myanmar probably has no more than two dozen Indochinese tigers remaining in the wild—and this is the second-largest population outside of neighboring Thailand. Tigers, along with leopards, elephants, bears and other mammals, will either go up in smoke like the koalas of Australia or they will be driven out of their jungle redoubts into sub-optimal edge habitats.

One look at NASA’s maps reveals a fire concentration that leaves little room outside of areas that are almost exclusively the domain of humans.

The situation appears equally as bad in Cambodia and Laos. Almost nothing is spared, with even the “flooded forests” on the Tonle Sap Lake in Siem Reap, Cambodia, going up in flames (and with them, cash for carbon credits), and northern Laos almost completely swallowed up by the inferno. The wildlife of these two once-heavily vegetated nations of jungles and rivers has already been hammered by poaching and logging in the past two decades, with Indochinese tigers hunted to extinction in both and the Indochinese leopard down to one handful of individuals in Cambodia’s Mondulkiri province. The wildlife that remains, which includes elephants, clouded leopards, sun bears, and other globally threatened species, will be driven into increasingly small forest pockets that are easy for poachers to access.

Vietnam has fared slightly better, but only relative to conditions of its neighbors. Fires still blanket large swaths of the country, including its biodiverse Annamite cordillera. The spread of fires will likely see species listed by the IUCN as Critically Endangered, such as the saola, the large-antlered muntjac, and the Francois Langur monkey, on a rapid descent into extinction. Furthermore, the current heatwave baking the nation is expected to exacerbate throughout 2020, and the effects of climate change, saline intrusion on the delta, droughts, and abnormal weather patterns are all expected to make this year an extremely trying one for Vietnam.

Laotian authorities, who are seeing hospitals threatened by the infernos and entire protected areas disintegrated, are fingering the usual suspects: slash-and-burn agriculturalists who denude small areas of hill forests for cultivation and then set fire to it so that the soil is enriched. They also point to hunters, who set fires to flush wild game out from their secret hiding places—a technique that is practiced by indigenous people across the region. Thailand has even threatened to “lock down the forests” to keep the Karen and other hill tribes out. After the fires subside, large game like Sambar deer and gaur then feed on the green shoots that emerge from the charred landscape, presenting an easy target for hunters in what is a second-round benefit to setting fires. That gaur and Sambar are protected across most of their range in Mainland Southeast Asia counts for little.

Thai authorities say that climate change is drying up streams that usually serve as fire barriers, but which no longer serve their function as they have gone bone dry. Slash-and-burn agriculture has been practiced for millennia, and it is doubtful that region-wide forest fires of the extent NASA is showing have occurred in the past. Climate change, then, is almost certainly exacerbating the problem.

Considering that Covid-19 derived from wildlife—either pangolins or bats—it is clear that humans should be backing off their constant intrusions into the final wildlife habitats of Asia. But that is not what is happening. In fact, the pandemic outbreak has actually spurred poaching across Southeast Asia.  In Cambodia, three critically endangered Giant Ibises were poached due to a lack of law enforcement thanks to coronavirus, as well as 100 Painted Stork chicks at another site. Glue made from tiger bones is being peddled in China for its alleged health benefits, while bear bile injections are also being recommended to treat Covid-19.

The drying Mekong is increasingly choked by dams, overfished, and evaporated by heatwaves and climate change, snaking its way down to the sea through an ashen landscape like a charred out circuit cable. The Anthropocene is beginning to look like The Age of Loss—and not only for humanity— and this seems to have really kicked off in 2020. Perhaps for wildlife, it always seemed that way, and fires are the bitter last chapter.

Gregory McCann is the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor. He is a former university lecturer in Taipei and a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel on environmental topics.