Sunday, September 7, 2014
Sunday, August 31, 2014
By Miriam Chacko
Photo credits: Malaysian Nature Society Miri
Photo credits: Malaysian Nature Society Miri
SINCE A WRITE-UP on the wetlands of Sarawak would call for writing a book, I have decided to delve into an important component; the Peat Swamp Forest (PSF).
PSFs are said to cover 1.54 million hectares in Malaysia and according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) approximately 70% of it lies in Sarawak. A prime peatland is Loagan Bunut National Park, located 130kms from Miri on the periphery of Bunut Lake. Bunut Lake is the largest natural lake in Sarawak refueled by the Bunut, Baram and Tinjar rivers.
Living in Miri, we sometimes encounter birds and reptiles typical of wetlands while taking a stroll, peering through the window or even while waiting at a traffic light. They have adapted to perching on telephone wires, drinking out of open water drains, nesting in ceiling corners and slithering along tame lawns. It goes without saying that trekking through a protected wetland outside the city offers many more visual treats in terms of biodiversity. Along with Loagan Bunut National Park, Maludam and Kuching Wetland National Park are other gazetted areas rich in peat soil.
PSFs in Sarawak were traditionally unattractive to the local communities due to inaccessibility and unfavourable physical conditions. Evidence suggests that these forests have been used only for the last 200 years. However, those who gained access practiced more sustainable and conservative methods in tapping its resources. For example, the Tapang tree found in Loagan Bunut is traditionally popular amongst the indigenous people for making quality blowpipes. But in honoring the tree’s cultural importance, they used the trees that had fallen from natural causes instead of logging them.
Also, the tree is of more value to them standing as it attracts the Asian Giant Honeybee and is therefore a reliable source of wild honey. Yet another example of sustainable and traditional practice is Berawan fishing. The Berawan people of Loagan Bunut place their nets strategically to collect the migrating fish as the water level drops during the dry season. This technique is known as Selambau and continues till date.
With improved access to the wetlands, today, the locals are more interested in the agricultural use of peatlands as it generates revenue and provides direct value to them. Oil palm, coconut, pineapple, sago palm and rubber are the main smallholder crops.
Between 2005 and 2010, Sarawak lost 33% of its peatlands and 10% of its total forest cover due to logging and land conversion. Land conversion is an umbrella threat as it involves draining, burning, polluting, land reclamation, introducing non-native species and so on. The long and short-term detrimental effect of these actions on the wetlands and its surrounding environment is understood when realising the ecosystem services they provide.
For instance, a regulating ecosystem service wetlands provide is carbon sequestration. Wetlands sequester significant amounts of carbon through natural processes in plants and in sediments. Upon burning this ecosystem, the carbon that has accumulated over centuries is released as CO2 into the atmosphere in the matter of a few decades. Emissions from peatland drainage and peat fires account for nearly 6 per cent of global anthropogenic carbon emissions and about 25 per cent of carbon emissions from the land use sector.
Peat fires contribute to the haze that pervades the air around us during dry months. Slash and burn practices continue because the local stakeholders such as smallholders and estate managers view it as a tamable component of peatland use. The international conservation community, however, views the fires to be a threat due to its periodic and uncontrollable nature.
Ideally, these ideological differences can be reduced by increasing awareness, which in turn will improve the synergy amongst the different stakeholders. “…campaigns are needed that educate the global community about the situation faced by peatland users on the ground, and the local stakeholders about the wider and less tangible values of peatlands” (Cole et al, 2012).
Malaysia is involved in international efforts to promote the sustainable use of wetlands and has set up in-house management bodies to ensure the same. Such efforts include the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which is an international agreement aiming to advocate sustainable development by promoting all aspects of biological diversity including genetic resources, species, and ecosystems. The Malaysian government was one of the 150 that signed the agreement at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. In response to CBD, Malaysia set up a National Biodiversity Committee in 1994 to protect and manage the country’s biological resources and to ensure its fair and equitable use.
Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (1971) is another international effort which focuses on wetland ecosystems. The Ramsar mission defines itself as “the conservation and wise use of all wetlands through local, regional and national actions and international cooperation, as a contribution towards achieving sustainable development throughout the world.”
The Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance (including Kuching Wetlands National Park among 5 other Malaysian sites) identifies wetlands from different geographical locations on account of their significance in terms of ecology, botany, zoology or hydrology. Once they are on the list they are considered significant not only to the countries in which they are located, but for humanity as a whole.
These international conventions create opportunities for discussions and increasing awareness amongst the various stakeholders including government, management bodies and NGOs and can cumulate support (monitoring, funding and research) for the conservation and restoration of the ecosystem in question.
UNDP in 2002 in trying to meet the objectives of CBD and the Ramsar Convention funded projects in Malaysia including one in Loagan Bunut which focused on promoting integrated PSF management. The project faced challenges such as staff shortage, administrative delays and wavering commitment from stakeholders. Nevertheless, the 5 year effort was successful in raising awareness and providing training required for stakeholders to carry out the project activities.
The shortage of research on ecosystem service processes of Sarawakian wetlands currently limits the scope of converting international conservation interest into action. Challenges of monitoring and funding also come in the way of realising the scope for effective conservation. On paper, the solution is a multi-sectoral integrated management approach but on the ground, it struggles to become a reality. These truths reveal the state of wetlands in the region and also reveal the trends that challenge conservation efforts country wide.
Appreciating the wetlands of Sarawak and acknowledging that its health affects our well-being is important in garnering support to protect it.
By Patricia Hului
THEY ARE CHARISMATIC and playful. Yet their friendly and fun nature has been exploited for marine tourism all over the world.
Tourist-packages like dolphin-watching and swimming with dolphins are among the tourism activities revolving around these highly intelligent animals.
Here in Sarawak, we are the only state in Malaysia that has commercial dolphin watching as a tourism activity.
In Kuching, dolphins can be found in Kuching Bay which encompasses the area from Telaga Air to the west and the Bako peninsula to the east, as well as the rivers that connect these areas, Sungai Sibu Laut, Sungai Salak and Sungai Santubong.
The Malaysian Nature Society Kuching Branch (MNSKB) held a guided dolphin watching trip on Aug 24.
This lead-up activity to the Santubong Nature Festival (November 8 – 9) was jointly organised with Permai Rainforest Resort and supported by Kuching City North Hall and Sarawak Museum.
Over a dozen members of MNSKB, members of the public and media boarded two boats heading to the mouth of Santubong and Salak rivers.
As the boats stopped hundreds of meters away from Pulau Kera at Kuching Bay, all of the dolphin watchers managed to catch sight of at least four Irrawaddy dolphins riding the waves.
It could have been beginner’s luck; due to the behaviour of these dolphins, the participants were warned of the possibility of not seeing any dolphinsat all.
The educational boat ride was cut short due to rain and choppy waves splashing everyone on board.
Unfortunately, we only managed to catch blurry images of these dark Irrawaddy dolphins as the choppy waves made the boats unsteady and the Irrawaddy dolphins were too swift.
Still, everybody who signed up for the trip did not leave empty handed as during this trip to educate the participants on these lovely cetaceans was Cindy Peter, a research fellow from Institute of Biodiversity and Environmental Conversation (IBEC) University Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas).
“The opportunity came back in 2008 when I finished my degree. I wanted to do something about wildlife again because I studied wildlife management for my degree,” said Cindy as she remembered how she got involved with dolphins studies in Sarawak.
The opportunity was as a research assistant for Sarawak Dolphin Project (SDP) which was launched in May 2008.
SDP was a project founded through a MoU between Unimas, Sarawak Forestry Corporation and Sarawak Shell Berhad where they focused on the four dolphin species most commonly found in Sarawak waters, Irrawaddy dolphins (Orcaella brevirostris), finless porpoises (Neophocaena phocaenoides), Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins (Sousa chinensis) and bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus).
Through this project Cindy was able to continue her master research in 2009 to study Irrawaddy dolphins in Kuching bay.
Cindy shared that for her studies, “I looked at the habitat preferences, how far from the river mouth they prefer and as well as the population number.”
She pointed out that through her masters studies there are about 150 to 200 Irrawaddy dolphins in Kuching Bay and Bako-Buntal area and about 150 finless porpoises in that area.
A question was raised to Cindy whether this population of dolphins in Kuching was growing or not.
Cindy shared, “It is hard to say whether the population is increasing or not because last time back in 2008 no one knew how many dolphins there were.
“Only now that we have the number,” she said “we have to continue monitoring. Only then we knew the number increasing or decreasing.”
What does the future hold for dolphins in Sarawak? Cindy hoped that she could study the morphometric and genetic makeup of Irrawaddy dolphins for her PhD, believing that the gene pool for the population here could be different from the ones they found in Australia and Indo-China.
“And another thing we are hopefully looking into is acoustics. Acoustics is the study of dolphins and whales’ sounds,” Cindy stated.
So far, the study of dolphins in Kuching bay has been restricted due to the dry season from March until October and daytime for safety precautions.
Little is known about what the dolphins do during the wet season.
She explained, “Using acoustics, we want to deploy equipment in certain areas and we want to see at what time they were there and they are doing.”
Currently there are no dolphin studies using boat surveys being done.
“We are now looking into the economic value of dolphin watch here in Kuching because we know it is a blooming interest, an economic importance but no one knows how much profit it is bringing to the state,” Cindy said.
“It is hard to say if it is affecting the population here. That is why everyone emphasised Safe Dolphin Watch, not only is it safe for us humans but also safe for the dolphins.”
According to Cindy, there is always risk when there is wildlife and human interaction anywhere even on the lands.
“If it is done responsibly, it is safe for the animals.” Cindy emphasised on not feeding or touching the dolphins as we do not know what disease they might have.
Boaters are highly advised to drive their boats in a predictable manner and avoid sudden changes of direction.
Cindy also shared that any complaints on irresponsible dolphin watching by any tour operators can be made to the Sarawak Tourism Board.
These dolphins are protected under several laws here in Sarawak; Fisheries Act 1985, Fisheries (Control of Endangered Species) Regulation 1999 and Wildlife Protection Ordinance 1998.
Unlike their land counterparts, it is hard to know what these marine mammals are doing underwater.
Hence for Cindy, studying dolphins has always been intriguing for her as dolphins are mysterious.
The Irrawaddy dolphin is only one of the animals that call the vast spread of Santubong offshore home. Back on the dry land of Santubong Peninsula, many more animals are waiting to be discovered.
One of the ways to discover Santubong is by joining SNF where MNSKB are giving environmental awareness on both the natural and cultural values of the Santubong peninsula.