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