Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Wetlands

By Miriam Chacko
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.

Swallow at LBNP.
Swallow at LBNP.

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.

Loagan Bunut National Park.
Loagan Bunut National Park.

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.”

Stork Billed Kingfisher.
Stork Billed Kingfisher.

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.

Whiskered Tern at LBNP.
Whiskered Tern at LBNP.

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.

A glimpse of the mysterious Irrawaddy dolphin

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.

GOODBYE SHORE: One of the two boats we rode on during the dolphin watch.
GOODBYE SHORE: One of the two boats we rode on during the dolphin watch.

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.

A windy, choppy day to be out dolphin watching.
A windy, choppy day to be out dolphin watching.

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.
For more information on Santubong Nature Festival email to or visit

The Red-bearded Bee-eaters by Jannie Tan

A male Red-bearded Bee-eater catches its prey.
WITH a descending “ka-ka-ka-ka” call, the green bird sat on its perch, waiting for its mate. “Ka-ka-ka-ka,” came the reply from above. The birds were taking turns to feed their young.
The male swooped down into its nest in the ground and within a few seconds out it came. It perched on the same branch. Then came the female’s turn. She entered the nest and came out again. With a final “ka-ka-ka-ka” the pair flew off.
Click! Click! Click! Click! Click! The cameras fired away. For a moment there was silence then chatter was heard as the birders relaxed and started chit-chatting while they waited for the return of the green bird.
Bee-eaters are members of the Meropidae family, of which there are 26 species worldwide. Of these only three are found in Borneo — one of which is the Red-bearded Bee-eater (Nyctyornis amictus), which is a locally common resident of primary and old secondary forests in Borneo’s lowland forests. It ranges from Borneo to Sumatra through the Malay peninsula and into Myanmar.
Red-bearded Bee-eaters are called this because of their vermilion throat feathers, which look like a beard when they are puffed out.
Unlike the elegant looking Blue-throated Bee-eaters, the Red-bearded are more robust in appearance. They grow to a size of 27 to 31 centimetres.
The male has a pinkish lilac forehead and crown with a narrow fringe of blue feathers at the base of the bill and around the eyes. Their lores (spot between the eye and start of the beak), chin and throat are red.
The female’s forehead is vermilion and forecrown lilac. The bill is dark and curves downwards at the tip. As it calls, the bird stretches forward, puffs its long throat feathers out, and bobs its head up and down with each note. It may also jump a few steps sideways along the perch, then turn around to face the other way. When making the rattling call, it wags its tail backwards and forwards.
Red-bearded Bee-eaters hunt for food alone or with mates, chasing after insects from a perch. They eat a variety of invertebrates in flight, preying not just on bees but also beetles, wasps and ants. They rest quietly hidden on a chosen branch, waiting for their prey to come within range, and then fly fast with great agility to capture it.
Unlike most bee-eaters, the Red-bearded are not colonial breeders and nest either solitarily or in pairs. They build their nests on perpendicular earth banks or road cuttings. The nest burrow is about 1.2 metres long and while many may be excavated, only one is actually used. Both the male and female guard the nest.
I have seen the Red-bearded Bee-eater chasing off a shrew that invaded the nesting area and the fight went on for a couple of minutes with the shrew running off into the forest. It was amazing! No matter how many times you see these birds, they can still make a day special and cause excitement.
For more information about Red-bearded Bee-eaters or other birds of Sarawak read ‘Phillipps’ Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo’ by Quentin Phillipps and Karan Phillipps.
The female Red-bearded Bee-eater’s forehead is vermilion and forecrown lilac.
The Malaysian Nature Society

Read more:

Monday, August 25, 2014

Medicinal plants around us

Getimang is a small tree about five metres tall. — Photos from Sarawak Biodiversity Centre
BORNEO abounds in medicinal plants.
From the earliest days through to today, village folk have used them to treat ailments.
They are also part of Chinese traditional medicine, surviving hundreds of years. The Dayak community also have their own catalogue of plants to treat illnesses.
Science has been interested in these plants but only recently has there been serious study.
The first applications were for the study of cancer, the possibility of a cure, or at least a breakthrough treatment.
Plants are a fickle bunch to study. They are different morning, noon and night. The time of year, either rainy season or not, and the soil conditions are factors examined in the studies.
One cannot simply dig up a plant and move it to England and expect it to have the same chemical composition as it has in Borneo.
The village herbalist or traditional healer is the person who has acquired the knowledge of plant life.
He/she knows when to harvest and when to let the plant lie fallow.
The herbalist is aware of the subtle changes in the weather, which allows medicinal properties to reach their peak.
However, the village herbalist or traditional healer will not give up this knowledge easily, having spent years acquiring the secrets, passing down the unpublished materials from one generation to the next. The herbalist holds on to this expertise.
Savithri Galappathie from Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia and his colleagues, have made an attempt to summarise what little knowledge exists on the subject of traditional remedies.
They have studied some of the plants that are recorded under the Sarawak Biodiversity Centre’s Traditional Knowledge Documentation Programme.
The plants they studied were possible cures or treatments for bacteria or fungus-related diseases and their affects on the microbes were measured.
The following six plants were the subject of their study:
Lepso (Baccaurea lanceolata)
This tree, a member of the Euphorbiaceae family, grows to a height of 21 metres, has a thick skin and bears a sour white fruit.
In 1989, the plant was found to have alkaloids, a nitrogen-based chemical.
Alkaloids have been found to have an effect on the human body. Examples are nicotine, anti-malaria drug quinine and others.
In 2010, an electron microscope identified three unknown and four known compounds.
The Lepeso tree has a thick skin and bears a sour white fruit.
Fibraurea tinctoria
This has several common names, including Uwar Birar, Akar Badi, Akar Kinching Kerbau, Akar Kuning, Akar Kunyit, Akar Penawar, and Sekunyit.
It is a large, woody, dye producing plant. It can grow up to 40 metres in height and has a stem diameter of five centimetres. It was found to have anti-tumour properties.
Getimang (Goniothalamus tapisoides)
This is a small tree about five metres tall. It is a member of the Annonaceae family along with the next two plants Goniothalamus velutinus and Polyalthia hookeriana.
Kayu Hujan Panas (Goniothalamus velutinus)
This plant is about three metres in height and with a stem of about three centimetres in diameter.
Sinai (Polyalthia hookeriana)
This tree grows to between 15 and 25 metres tall with hanging branches and dark green leaves and has a yellowish red flower.
It is found mainly in lowland and submontane forests. There is little information available about this plant.
Kayuh Lilui (Pyrenaria sp)
This species generally grows worldwide and has no known chemical properties. It belongs to the Theaceae family. Members of this genus are generally small trees or shrubs.
The studied followed scientific procedures. The effectiveness of the extracts from the six species mentioned in inhibiting or stopping the spread of six types of bacteria and one fungi were measured and recorded.
All of the plants tested were shown to have an effect on the bacteria, but Baccaurea lanceolata showed an ability to be a strong killer of all six types of bacteria used in the study.
Polyalthia hookeriana also had an effect on four of the six bacteria tested. Pyrenaria sp was an effective fungicide.
The plants seem promising. There are some diseases which have mutated beyond common antibiotics and these plants seem to be excellent candidates for their treatment. However, more rigorous testing needs to be carried out – a long process indeed.
The above was adapted from: ‘Comparative antimicrobial activity of South East Asian plants used in Bornean folkloric medicine’ by Galappathie G, Palombo EA, Yeo TC, Lim DSL, Tu CL, Malherbe FM, and Mahon PJ (2014); J. Herb Med. 4: 96-105.
Kayu Hujan Panas grows to about three metres in height.
The Malaysian Nature Society

Read more: