All posts by SL Wong

Sustainable Islands in the Sun

Sabah’s beautiful islands can be managed so that tourists, nature and local livelihoods co-exist. This is the second of a two-parter on ecotourism in Macaranga’s Taking Stock series. .

FOR YEARS now, mass tourism has been impacting the environmental health of coral islands off Sabah’s west coast. Among them is the Mantanani three-island group, located off the northwestern tip of Borneo.

But there are far fewer tourists now as the pandemic stifles travel. Some islanders are using the lull to try new businesses and better manage their environment.

(Photo: Sun, sea and surf have turned Mantanani into a major tourist draw. Pic by Reef Check Malaysia)

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When Covid Resets Ecotourism

The loss of international tourists due to the Covid-19 pandemic has shackled the ecotourism industry, but is it also bad for conservation? This is the first of a two-parter on ecotourism in Macaranga’s Taking Stock series.

TOUR GUIDE Ahmad Shah Amit had been looking forward to the summer holiday season in Europe. In any other year, European tourists, up to 1,000 a day, would flock to the wildlife-rich Kinabatangan region in Sabah.

There, they would pay locals like Ahmad, popularly know as Tapoh, to show them Bornean pygmy elephants and proboscis monkeys.

(Photo: The popularity of river safaris to catch sight of Borneo’s Big Five helps conserve wildlife. Pic by Cede Prudente)

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Orang Asli and Poverty

VIRTUALLY all the Orang Asli households in the peninsula are in the income bracket of the poorest 40% of Malaysians, says NGO the Center for Orang Asli Concerns.

The centre estimates that 54,600 or 99.29% of all Orang Asli households earn below RM4,000 a month, putting them in the B40 category.

The poverty trap is hard to get out of, according to a 2013 paper, ‘Orang Asli in Peninsular Malaysia: population, spatial distribution and socio-economic condition’ (Masron et al).

Customary land

The main reason is the dispossession of their native customary land, which has been the source of their livelihoods.

“Deprived of their land, they are increasingly pushed from a subsistence economy into the prevailing cash economy,” the paper reports.

Except for a very small number of groups who are semi-nomads, official reports estimate that around 60% of Orang Asli actually live in or close to urban centres and most are connected to contemporary economies.

According to Masron, some groups have actually done so for hundreds of years.

Economic activities

Currently, the communities’ main economic activities are harvesting and selling forest products such as petai, durian and rattan; managing and selling products from rubber, oil palm or fruit and vegetable smallholdings; and wage jobs in towns and cities.

Still, the majority is not integrated into mainstream society, either by choice or lack of choice due to discrimination and lack of education.

Because of malnutrition and poverty, Orang Asli are also vulnerable to diseases. Access to healthcare remains challenging.

No options

As a result, the government’s pandemic lockdown hit a lot of them hard. “With no income, no access to alternative avenues of income, and no natural food source, their hands are completely tied,” stated the COVID-19 Collective for Orang Asli, a group coordinating Orang Asli Covid-19 relief efforts.

Post MCO, the collective is continuing to raise funds for the Orang Asli. The site has a map with all the village locations and groups helping to provide relief.

Photo: Pos Lanai Orang Asli transport their forest durian to urban centres for sale. Revenues that Orang Asli earn from these activities are enough only to put them in the bottom income bracket. (Credit: Jeffry Hassan)


Ref: Masron, T. & Masami, F. & Ismail, Norhasimah. (2013). Orang Asli in Peninsular Malaysia: population, spatial distribution and socio-economic condition. J. Ritsumeikan Soc. Sci. Hum.. 6. 75-115.


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Back to the jungle? The myth of indigenous community resilience

Indigenous people in Malaysia and the world over isolated themselves from society to avoid Covid-19. But do they have enough food resilience to do so? Macaranga looks at the issue as part of its Taking Stock series.

WHEN MEDIA reported Orang Asli moving “back to the jungle” during the Covid-19 lockdown and blockading their villages against outsiders, the stories fed a prevailing romanticised myth that indigenous communities are self-sufficient.

But in reality, most Orang Asli cannot harvest all they need from the forest and have in addition, stopped subsistence farming. Instead, they are plugged into and rely on the modern economy for their livelihoods.

(Photo: In Pahang’s highlands, Muri a/p Jerhuk tends to her hill paddy plot. Pic by Jeffry Hassan)

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A Sustainable Model: Looking South

EVERYTHING is about funding, says wildlife biologist Dr Wong Siew Te bluntly. Wong started the Borneon Sun Bear Conservation Centre in Sandakan, Sabah in 2008.

Before that, he visited “too many zoos to count” over the space of 17 years, mainly in the US and Asia-Pacific.

His conclusion: the funding model that works is one where funds come from both visitors and government. And the best example of that is the Singapore Zoo, “the best-run zoo in Asia”.

Sun bear conservation

Dr Wong is clear that his centre is not a zoo—it is conservation focussed, and is indeed listed in the latest Malaysian national report on biodiversity as a success story for sun bear conservation.

It has rehabilitated and released seven animals back to the wild.

However, he based the centre’s financing model on that of the Singapore Zoo. Still short of achieving the same rate of success, he was caught overnight when the Covid-19 lockdown dried up visitors and funds for the centre.

But he is convinced the model works.

Startup funds

For starters, the Singapore government had pumped into the park “an astronomical amount of money”, says Dr Wong.

“They decided the whole zoo had to be a profit-making corporation. They need to do that to keep the standard of exhibits and experiences high enough to get people willing to come and pay.”

The Singapore Zoo is therefore able to raise the price of tickets.

“And there is a shop beside every single animal exhibit, so it’s buy-buy-buy everywhere you look. The restaurants are also very nice, so you want to eat there. It is a huge money spending experience.”

All that is necessary though.

Expanding

“With that money, it becomes not just about displaying wildlife, you can do education, which is actually relatively easy. But after that, you can do research and conservation. Conservation needs scientific data to back up actions.”

He says most large zoos in the developed world have a separate research and conservation department.

“But if you want to say, track a sun bear, a single satellite collar costs more than RM10,000. Without the money, without the mechanisms to generate revenue, everything is impossible.”

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Related Stories: Saving Zoos During Covid-19—Should We? (Part 2) I Aquaria and Conservation

Aquaria and Conservation

WHEN IT comes to aquaria, how effective can they be in conservation?

“As a place to do outreach, aquaria are fine, but it’s hard to make a case to confine marine creatures if ultimately, the aquaria does not contribute to species’ survival in the wild,” says marine biologist Quek Yew Aun.

“For example, if you wanted to breed sharks, (artificial) conditions are much more difficult to do so. Then where do you release it? We have yet to fully understand the breeding habits and life cycle of many marine species.”

A challenging realm

Quek, who holds an MSc in biodiversity, conservation and management, adds that the nature of the marine realm makes ex-situ conservation and public participation challenging.

“Compared to the terrestrial realm, we can’t deny that less public attention and subsequently funds, go to marine conservation.”

One of the two largest aquaria in the country, Aquaria KLCC, did for the first time last year, release 20 juvenile and baby brownbanded bamboo sharks (Chiloscyllium punctatum) off Port Dickson, Negeri Sembilan.

Berita Harian reported that they did this with the Negeri Sembilan Fisheries Department and it was part of the park’s 10-year captive breeding programme. The aquarium did not respond to enquiries for information.

Contradictory messaging?

At the same time, though, Aquaria KLCC depicts sharks in ways that local shark activists decry.

The facility is well-known for their seasonal Insta-friendly publicity events of dressing their shark tank divers in Chinese lion dance costumes during the Chinese New Year and Santa Claus during Christmas.

Meanwhile, its public cage-diving-with-sharks programme is called ‘Cage Rage’ and sports a logo featuring a fierce-looking shark bursting through a cage; its tagline is also ‘I Dare You!’

In the former case, sharks are relegated to adornments, and in the latter, they are depicted as terrifying, angry creatures.

Sustainably funded

Incidentally, neither of Malaysia’s two largest aquaria—the second is Underwater World Langkawi—appealed for donations during the Covid-19 lockdown.

They are both backed by public-listed corporations; Aquaria KLCC itself was even being considered for public listing (see A Sustainable Model—Looking South).

Notwithstanding the fact that the sea is even more inaccessible to urbanites than forests, Quek prefers more immersive experiences.

“For example, you can volunteer for organisations like the Universiti Malaysia Terengganu—Sea Turtle Research Unit.

“Participants sign up to spend an entire week in the Chagar Hutang Research Station (on Pulau Redang), where they will assist in the monitoring of sea turtle nesting, sea turtle measuring and tagging.

“Or join MareCet, who orgainses day trips for the public, where people can join dolphin researchers to spot marine mammals.” MareCet is a research and conservation non-profit focussed on marine mammals and the greater marine environment.

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Related Stories: Saving Zoos During Covid-19—Should We? (Part 1) I A Sustainable Model—Looking South

Saving zoos during Covid-19 crisis – should we? (Pt 2)

With huge income loss during the Covid-19 crisis, is it time to look at the role that Malaysian zoos play in wildlife conservation? This is the second of the two-parter on zoos and aquaria in Macaranga’s Taking Stock series.

WITH THE Covid-19 pandemic under control, zoos and aquaria in Malaysia might have averted a funding crisis for now. However, the question remains as to why wildlife is kept captive in the first place.

By definition, a zoo is a place where captive wild animals are exhibited. It is short for ‘zoological park or garden’. Meanwhile, marine animals are exhibited in aquaria.

(Photo: Endangered animals can get a lifeline in zoos, such as these Banteng Bos javanicus in Lok Kawi Zoo, Sabah. Pic by Cede Prudente)

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Saving zoos during Covid-19 crisis—should we? (Pt 1)

Malaysian zoos lost almost all their income due to the Covid-19 crisis but were kept afloat partly by public donations. Was it worth Malaysians giving them millions? This is the first of the two-parter on zoos and aquaria in Macaranga’s Taking Stock series.

IN APRIL, the horrific possibility of animals from elephants to slow lorises starving to death behind bars, shocked Malaysians.

As is the case world-over, zoos and aquaria in Malaysia are heavily dependent on income from visitors. This income vanished overnight when Malaysia implemented measures to contain Covid-19.

The strict movement control order (MCO) that began on March 18, 2020 shut down all public venues, indefinitely at the time.

(Photo: Zoos’ revenues were hit hard during the pandemic, spotlighting the role of these parks in wildlife education and conservation. Pic by Cede Prudente)

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Of Strikes and Science

Youth climate action groups in Malaysia have a raft of actions drawn up for 2020. How will they proceed in the face of the Covid-19 crisis? This is the second of the two-parter on climate activists in Macaranga’s Taking Stock series.

THE PLACARDS always take the cake. “You’ll die of old age, I’ll die of climate change”. “Rumah Banyak, Bumi Hanya 1” (Houses are plentiful, there is only one earth). And of course, “Skipping my juris class to strike. Sorry Mr Rabinder.”

Climate strikes are a powerful rallying call to action against global warming. But they are just one component in the arsenal of youth climate movements in Malaysia (read our first report here).

(Photo: Climate strikes are eye-catching but far from the only form of activism. – pic courtesy of KAMY)

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