Burnt Alive!

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The month is Oct, the year is 2015. For the past weeks, we have been shocked with images of orange flames reaching into the skies. Our town’s skyline is a faint outline of nearby buildings. We wake up to dry throats, runny noses and a smoky taste in our mouth. The papers are full of what ministers are saying, how neighbouring countries are sending fire engines, water bomber aircraft from here to there, and back again. Emergency laws are being passed in several countries, and the blame-game is in full throttle. It is that time of year again… Borneo’s forests are on fire. Again!

Like a hugely popular stage performance, it happens year after year. Some insist that burning forests is cultural, and its been done for ages, while others are shouting furiously at plantation companies who clear vast landscapes of forests to grow lucrative crops like oil palm and acacia trees for paper.

Two centuries ago, a heretic or a witch would be tied to a stake in the middle of the town square, and burnt alive for his or her sins. It was a hugely popular public event, with townsfolk being told of a burning days before so they could plan their time, and not miss the event. It was entertainment for all. Gruesomely horrific, but accepted as entertainment.

Two centuries later, this is unacceptable in civil society. But…. While we shop in the local air-conditioned pharmacy for a facemask to protect ourselves from the haze, a deer shudders in the forest. It has been running for the past two days, its lungs are burning, and it is exhausted. It hasn’t had a drop of water to drink. The heat is intense, and it stands gasping in smoke so thick it doesn’t know where it is any longer. The deer’s panic and fear ripples like waves through its body.

Suddenly, crack! The tree next to it bursts into flame. It bolts left and runs wildly straight into another wall of searing fire. Its fur catches fire, its feet land on molten soil and its flesh starts to dissolve. Its eyes melt, its lungs drag in its last gulps of pure fire… mercifully. The deer stops running, and drops to a crouch, a heap of burning flesh. Finally, it is over. The deer has no more fear. To ashes it has returned, forever again part of the earth of Borneo.

The fate of this deer is the same fate of thousands and thousands of living animals, birds, lizards, snakes and insects on Borneo. Monkeys climb trees and are burnt alive like the witches of old. Porcupines hide and are burnt alive in their burrows. All this happens without any spectators to gawk at their fear, searing pain and death. This is happening this year. It happened last year too, the year before and before and before that.

Thoughts drift to the city of Naples, on the southern coast of Italy. Here, two thousand years ago, volcanic fire swept through the ancient city of Pompeii, wiping all life before it. The preserved bodies of the citizens of Pompeii, incinerated alive in their homes, are one of the most poignant sights in the world. Visitors stand silently in the museums of Pompeii, awestruck by the power of nature, and in their hearts, say silent prayers for the victims of the brutal volcano that is Vesuvius.

It is not the same sentiment for Borneo’s wildlife. Their annual mass death is not a result of a natural phenomenon. It is our doing. It is murder. And it is murder most cruel. And it happens year after year. We may not gather and cheer their deaths, but our indifference asks many questions.

Without going into the technical and political debates about why Borneo burns every year, there is a simpler contemplation of this horrible situation. Is there really nothing that can be done to stop this annual mass murder of wildlife? Should each and every one of us, hiding our children indoors to guard them against the smoke, spare a thought for the animals being burnt alive? Many of us support animal welfare organisations striving to instil empathy and conscience amongst our society to the plight of our animals, domestic pets and farmed animals.

Should we not speak up now? If we do not speak, those bears and deer certainly will not. They can’t.

Here’s speaking for those who do not have a voice in our newspapers, who can’t send you a message on facebook asking for help. They do not die in silence, away from our conscience and knowledge. Know this. They die in fear, and in pain. They are burnt alive.

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