Malaysia’s biodiversity is exceptional – we’re ranked 12th in the world’s top 20 most biologically diverse countries. But we are in danger of losing our wild flora and fauna as the country continues to lose its forests.
One of the country’s leading botanists, Dr Saw Leng Guan, warns that the future of Malaysia’s biodiversity is in peril as wild habitats are lost when forests are converted to other land uses.
“Our biodiversity is amazingly rich,” he said in his plenary speech at the International Science and Nature Congress 2015 last week in Kuala Lumpur.
“As a biologist in this field for over 30 years, I still marvel at the things we find. We are right smack in the middle of biodiversity-rich areas in South-East Asia. Yet, most of us do not realise the kind of richness we sit on,” he added.
Data from the International Union for Conservation of Nature shows that 195 species of vertebrates in Malaysia are endangered. Already extinct are the Indian grey mongoose, Javan rhinoceros and banteng (wild jungle cattle). Some scientists recently declared the Sumatran rhinoceros to be extinct in the wild in Malaysia as only three captive individuals remain in Sabah.
As for plants, 421 species in Peninsular Malaysia are endangered. Four species are extinct: the Oreogrammitis crispatula fern, known only from Bukit Larut in Perak and last collected in 1952; the Oreogrammitis kunstleri fern from Gunung Ledang, last collected in 1880; Begonia eiromischa, known only from one site in Penang, now a farm; and hardwood tree Shorea kuantanensis, known only from Bukit Goh forest reserve near Kuantan, now an oil palm estate.
All that’s left of Shorea kuantanensis are the pressed specimens being kept by botanist Dr Saw Leng Guan in the herbarium at the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia. The extinct tree was known only in the Bukit Goh forest reserve near Kuantan, an area that is now cultivated with oil palm. – Filepic
Licuala sallehana is critically endangered as it grows only in a small area in Terengganu. Photo: The Star/Tan Cheng Li
Saw, director of the forest biodiversity division at the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia, says land-use change is a major component to deal with when tackling biodiversity conservation. He shares these statistics: in 1966, 70% of Peninsular Malaysia was covered by lowland forest. By 1990, the area shrunk to 38% and by 2006, to only 25%. The lowland forest had to make way for rubber and oil palm plantations as well as urban settlements and industrial sites.
Saw says by 2020, the only remaining forests in Sabah and Sarawak will be in the highlands. “Studies show that the richest areas of plant biodiversity in Sarawak is around Kuching, yet this is where the most development has taken place.”
While we have lost large tracts of lowland forest, Saw says areas of other forest types have remained consistent. “The key now is to keep as much of the remaining lowland forest as possible and maintain the other ecosystems we have,” he points out.
In Peninsular Malaysia, more forest is set aside for timber production than for conservation. Of the 5,674,128 hectares of forested areas, 56.2% or 3,185,830ha is designated as “production forest” – forest meant to be logged.
“Protection forest”, set aside to safeguard water resources, biodiversity and soil, take up 31.1% or 1,763,663ha. The remaining 12.8% or 724,635ha is “stateland forest” which state governments can clear for other land use. (These figures exclude national parks and wildlife reserves.)
Saw says there is little forest left that is unlogged. Almost 78% of all production forest has been exploited, with some having gone through two or three cycles of logging. He says after several logging cycles, the forest shows poor structure and species composition and may not be as productive.
“When you take timber out of the forest, it cannot remain the same. We will not get what the forest was formerly. The species composition will be skewed towards non-dipterocarps where the timber generally don’t sell well.” (Dipterocarp is a family of tropical hardwood trees which yield good quality timber.)
After two to three cycles of logging, the forest will be poorer in species composition.
Saw foresees that in the next five to 10 years, all remaining primary production forest (12% of the total forest cover) will be logged as it is where the most valuable timber can still be found. He points out that the impact of repeated cycles of logging is still poorly understood.
“It is unclear how understorey plants, animals and river ecosystems will respond to this. We don’t have enough data,” he says
To conserve our biodiversity, it is crucial to protect our biodiversity hotspots and vulnerable habitats. One such habitat is limestone hills, which are highly threatened by quarrying for the cement industry.
Limestone karsts are rich in flora, particularly orchids, begonias, palms, ferns and Gesneriaceae(a family of flowering plants). They occupy only 0.4% of the country’s land, yet harbour 1,216 (14%) of Peninsular Malaysia’s 8,500 plant species. A fifth of the limestone flora are endemic to the country.
Unique animal communities can be found on limestone hills. Some 80% of our land snail species live on karsts; many only on specific hills. Cave fauna are also very specialised, such as the troglobites, which are crabs, prawns, crayfish and fish adapted to living in dark cave chambers.
The Mulu caves of Sarawak harbour over 200 cave species and in one cave alone, there are over one million wrinkle-lipped bats.
Scientists also refer to limestone hills as “arks of biodiversity” as many are near developed areas, and so become a refuge for wild flora and fauna. Even outcrops close to urban areas have endemic species: the Maxburretia rupicola palm grows only in Batu Caves and Bukit Takun in Selangor; the Monophyllaea elongata is found only in Gua Tempurung, Perak; and Senyumia minutiflora is confined to Gua Senyum, Pahang.
Many limestone hills are being destroyed by quarrying. However, it has been argued that blasting these hills to get materials for making cement can be avoided. The alternative is to tap sub-surface reserves of limestone.
Saw equates limestone outcrops to icebergs – what you see is just the one-tenth that is above-ground, while the remaining nine parts is below-ground.
“There is a huge reserve of basement (sub-surface) limestone. Study shows 673sqkm of it in the Kinta Valley (in Perak), as thick as 3km. But we are quarrying limestone hills instead of exploiting the reserves underground as it is cheaper to do so,” he says.
The new National Policy On Biological Diversity aims to protect 10 of the country’s coastal and marine areas by 2025. Photo: Reef Check Malaysia
Seagrass beds are not protected at all under existing environmental laws, although they are crucial habitats for marine life. Photo: The Star/Lo Tern Chern
He urges for a change in policy which will shift the focus to underground limestone quarrying instead.
New green policy
To stem further losses of our wild heritage, strategies are being drafted under the new National Policy On Biological Diversity (2015-2025), expected to be launched next year.
The document outlines the means to reduce pressures on biodiversity, safeguard key ecosystems and species, as well as improve knowledge and capacity to conserve biodiversity.
Some of the targets to be achieved by 2025 are: streamline biodiversity conservation into development planning and policies; sustainable management of forests, agriculture and fisheries; protect at least 20% of terrestrial areas and inland water, and 10% of coastal and marine areas; protect vulnerable ecosystems and habitats, particularly limestone hills, forests on ultrabasic soils, wetlands, coral reefs and seagrass beds; remove threats to endangered species; and more funding for biodiversity conservation.
Saw says additional funding is essential to provide the means to implement the targets. “We are approaching tipping point in losing significant parts of our biological diversity … the National Policy must work.”
The straw-headed bulbul is no longer common in lowland forests due to intense trapping for the pet trade. – INGO WASCHKIES/Traffic
Due to intense poaching, the melodious sounds of one bird no longer ring through the forest.
WITH a rusty orange-coloured crown and black-streaked upper breast, the straw-headed bulbul is a rather pretty bird. But its appeal lies more in its calls, a varied repertoire ranging from melodious songs to rhythmic tunes which have made it a hot favourite among bird-lovers – and also the reason behind its “endangered” status.
The popularity of the bird has led to intense trapping for trade. Once common in lowland scrub and forests, occurring mostly near rivers and open water bodies, the straw-headed bulbul is a rare sight these days. The forest is now silent of its beautiful calls.
Its high sale value and poor legal protection in parts of its range are pushing the prized songbird towards extinction in the wild, according to a report Straw-headed Bulbul Pycnonotus zeylanicus: Legal Protection and Enforcement Action in Malaysia by Traffic South-East Asia, the wildlife trade monitoring body.
As recently as two decades ago, the straw-headed bulbul was common across much of its range but today, it is thought to be extinct in Thailand, and its status in Myanmar and Brunei is not known. In Indonesia, the species was extirpated from Java by the mid-20th century and possibly no longer exists in the wild in Sumatra. In Kalimantan, it is believed to survive only in remote areas.
Remaining populations in Malaysia and Singapore are believed to be in serious decline due to severe poaching for the caged-bird trade, stated the report written by Chris R. Shepherd, Loretta Ann Shepherd and Kaitlyn-Elizabeth Foley.
Trade in the species became controlled and subjected to licensing in 1997 when it was included in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). However, illicit trade continues.
In Peninsular Malaysia, straw-headed bulbuls (known as barau-barau locally) became totally protected only with the enactment of the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010, which makes it illegal to capture, trade and keep the species. Prior to that, individuals could apply for licences and permits from the Wildlife and National Parks Department (Perhilitan) to trade and keep this bird.
The 2010 annual report of Perhilitan showed a total of 874 straw-headed bulbuls kept in captivity by licence-holders as permitted by the previous law. Some legal export of the bird was permitted in the past, but involved very few birds. According to trade data, Malaysia exported 15 wild-caught straw-headed bulbuls to Singapore in 2000. The species is protected in Sabah under the Wildlife Conservation Enactment 1997, and totally protected in Sarawak, under the Wildlife Protection Ordinance 1998.
Despite legal protection in Malaysia, illegal capture and trade continues, with much of the demand coming from neighbouring countries, stated the report. During a spot check by Traffic in 2010, 10 straw-headed bulbuls were found for sale in a shop in Betong, Thailand, close to the Malaysian border, and all were said to have come from Peninsular Malaysia. Sources said the species was frequently sold there. In Singapore, bird dealers and bird enthusiasts claimed that straw-headed bulbuls were occasionally smuggled into the country from the peninsula.
The greatest demand for the species comes from Indonesia, where the birds are frequently sold in bird markets in Medan, Sumatra, and Jakarta, Java. Monthly surveys by Shepherd in 2000 and 2001 found 421 straw-headed bulbuls for sale. Dealers in both cities claimed that some of the birds had been captured in Kalimantan and Sumatra, and as the population declined in Indonesia, from Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah. The species remain unprotected in Indonesia. Therefore, unless smugglers are detected at entry points into the country (in violation of CITES), legal action is virtually impossible.
Straw-headed bulbuls are now rarely seen in bird shops in Malaysia as the trade has gone underground, facilitated by bird hobbyist forums, trading websites and social networking sites. As such, the extent and nature of the trade are unknown, according to the report.
In a random survey of five shops in Kuala Lumpur in April 2010, Traffic found no straw-headed bulbuls for sale. The following year, one shop (out of five surveyed) in Ipoh, Perak, offered four birds and last year, three birds were seen in one shop in Ipoh. Perhilitan has seized 42 straw-headed bulbuls between 2006 and 2011, the bulk of which was from Malacca.
“It is highly likely that more were seized but unfortunately, seizures have in the past sometimes not been reported to species level and very little information regarding the status of the cases is available in the public domain,” said the report.
As trapping of the bird for the caged-bird trade pushes the species closer to the brink, the authors called for more monitoring and enforcement.
There should also be an analysis to assess whether the species meets the criteria for a transfer from CITES Appendix II to Appendix I, where trade is banned. Also needed is research to identify collection sites and trade routes as well as a trade forensic study, and full protection for the species in Indonesia.
Also, penalties for offenders should be increased to serve as deterrent. In October 2010, Perhilitan raided a business premise in Kuala Lumpur and found 34 protected and totally protected animals, including two straw-headed bulbuls, palm cockatoos, yellow-crested cockatoos, a leopard cat and giant squirrels. At the time, the new legislation was not yet in force, therefore the two people who were arrested were liable to a fine of not more than RM3,000 or three years’ jail under the Protection of Wild Life Act 1972. However, they were also charged under the International Trade in Endangered Species Act 2008, where they faced a fine of RM100,000 for each animal (up to RM1mil) or imprisonment for up to seven years. The offenders were eventually fined a total of RM45,600.
The author urged the public to report incidents of trapping, trading and buying of this species to the Wildlife Crime Hotline by sending a text message or calling 019-356 4194, or by e-mail to email@example.com.
Photo shows a sun bear bile farm, where bile is cruelly extracted from these animals.
WORLD Animal Day, on Oct 4, is an internationally recognised Nature Watch Foundation (worldanimalday.org.uk) initiative, that aims to make us, the public, think about our treatment and relationship with animals.
On the surface, human-animal relations seem to be simple. We live in our world and they live in theirs, out in the jungle.
This is not true. With deeper thought we realise, that even on a personal basis, our relationship with animals is very complex. Some animals we love, and they could — such as dogs or cats — even be considered to be members of our family. We feed them, we take care of them when they are sick, they make us happy, and they guard our homes.
Some animals, for example chicken, cattle and fish, are thought of as sources of protein and a necessary part of our diet.
On the opposite end, there are some we just cannot stand — house rats or cockroaches. Thirty of the 4,600 cockroach species, insects that are members of the order Blattodea, are associated with human habitats and only four are pests.
The American, German Oriental and Asian cockroaches are perceived as disease-carrying disgusting horrifying creatures.
They do leave chemical trails in the form of faeces and airborne pheromones to food and water as well as exhibit swarm behaviour. However, despite leaving bacteria on surfaces that they travel across, researchers have linked only increased allergies to the presence of cockroaches.
Despite this, cockroaches have gotten a bad reputation. They are mostly portrayed as evil frightening creatures, but in essence they are ecologically important.
The four species mentioned are associated predominantly with human habitation and perhaps, like their wild counterparts, are important decomposers thus in camps and caves they could clean up the debris left behind.
In the wild they are key decomposers of plant materials that other animals cannot digest, part of the food web, and in the tropics they are pollinators. So do all cockroaches deserve the bad reputation that the four house species have earned?
Then there are some animals which are viewed as sacred beings. Cows are respected symbols of wealth and viewed as holy under Hinduism. They were considered auspicious in ancient Egypt and Greece.
The Hindu God, Lord Ganesh, has the head of an elephant. In Thailand, white elephants are sacred animals that are believed to carry the souls of the dead.
Animals feature in the Chinese zodiac calendar including the rat, which as I mentioned is hated.
Art imitates nature. Iridescent light shimmers off jewellery imitating the flickering colours of dragonflies and damselflies. They have inspired artists to imitate their natural beauty.
Nature photographers with infinite patience capture their essence of strength and flexibility in stunning images found in books and flying across computer screens. They inspire songs and have come to represent traits.
Animals, in some stories, for example ‘The Wind in the Willows’ and ‘Animal Farm’, take on human characteristics. They talk, express emotions, likes and dislikes. Animals are everywhere in our lives, including hidden places under floorboards, in books and movies.
Animals can be defined scientifically. Essentially an animal is a creature either with a vertebra (backbone) or without.
They are complex living organisms that can move on their own. Invertebrates include echinoderms such as starfish; annelids for example earthworms; molluscs such as octopuses; anthropods for example crabs, spiders and insects. Vertebrates include fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals.
Quite often when we think of animals, we think of mammals such as dogs and cats, but there are thousands and thousands of animal species with some being discovered and others going extinct.
A cat wears a pet cone — a protective medical device.
World Animal Day is an international event that embraces all animals, wild and domesticated, zoo animals, animals in captivity and in laboratories. It aims to create awareness of man’s cruelty to animals and to make the world a better place for these creatures. The organisers would like respect and compassion to be turned into legal reform.
It began in 2003, with 44 events in 13 countries. Now there is an estimated 1,000 events, including conferences, workshops, school activities and fundraisers, in over 100 countries.
In Mexico talks about animals are being organised for children. In Egypt, Animal Care will be neutering cats and dogs for free to reduce the number of strays on the streets.
In India, students from a public school will parade through the streets silently with placards that show their concern for animals.
A group of students from this school will also present a play highlighting the plight of animals and man’s inhumane treatment of them, in addition to wearing headbands and masks depicting some species of animals.
In Kuching, the Sarawak Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (www.sspca.sarawak.com.my) will hold the Asia for Animals (afaborneo2015.com) conference on Oct 6-10 to coincide with World Animal Day. The objectives of the conference are to provide a platform for those working in animal welfare and wildlife management, to build ideas and to share experiences and technology.
Keynote speakers include Animals Asia founder Jill Robinson. This internationally respected organisation has sanctuaries for bears rescued from bile (gastric fluids) farms in Vietnam and China. On some of these farms, bears are kept in cages so small that they cannot move and tubes are permanently attached to drain the bile — an excruciatingly painful process.
The Earl of Cranbrooke Dato Sri Dr Gathorne Gathorne-Hardy, in his keynote address will explore the past and present mammals of Borneo and their changing environment.
Discussion topics, workshops and lectures will cover the complexity of man’s relationship with the animal world and you can join via the website.
Our relationship with animals is complex and in these intricate web dependencies, animals can be tormented by humans.
World Animal Day is an opportunity to reflect on this and to encourage all animal lovers out there to take steps, such as through supporting local or international organisations, to reduce their suffering.
Niga Jenau (left) of Rumah Ngumbong, Ng Sumpa, Ulu Menyang, tells of how her grandfather Sambai was kidnapped by a giant orang-utan in the 1940’s. (Centre) Labang Buja of Rumah Liam, Rantau Kemayau Manis, Ulu Engkari relates the story of an encounter between a longboat builder and an orang-utan and Berunsai Ijau of Rumah Brown, Ng Stapang, Ulu Engkari, believes her grandfather died and was reincarnated as orang-utan. — Photos courtesy of WCS
LONG ago, while looking for game deep in the jungle, an Iban hunter saw a pair of orang-utans on top of a tall tree called perawan.
The female orang-utan was giving birth while the male was crushing the roots of some plants.
When the Iban hunter passed under the tree where the orang-utans were nesting, some chunks of roots fell on him.
“What are these things?” he asked.
He took a sniff but could not tell what the roots were.
The hunter was not put off, however. He took the roots back to his longhouse and planted them. And in time, the roots yielded what is known ginger.
When the hunter’s wife gave birth, he applied the ginger on her body — like he saw how the orang-utan was doing.
According to Kebong Manggum of Rumah David Ujan, Ng Sepaya (Ulu Engkari), that was how the Ibans learned about the medicinal values of ginger and the knowledge was passed down and is still being used to these days.
The story of how the Ibans learned to use ginger as a medicine is featured in one of the 37 folktales of Ulu Engkari and Ulu Menyang, collected in the book titled Ensera Mayas Enggau Bansa Iban — Orang-utan folklore and the Iban Communities.
The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), in its involvement with the Iban communities and conservation works at Batang Ai, discovered that not only the Iban communities in the two areas — Ulu Engkari and Ulu Menyang — are different, their folklores handed down the generations are also distinct from other Iban communities in Sarawak.
While the Ibans from the other areas may regard orang-utans, especially those encroaching onto their gardens, as food, their counterparts of Ulu Engkari and Ulu Menyang treat the primates as relatives and forefathers.
This is one of the reasons a significant number of the great apes is still found in the two areas.
The book Ensera Mayas Enggau Bansa Iban contains 37 folktales depicting the relationship between the orang-utans and the Iban communities in Ulu Menyang and Ulu Enkari.
Folktales in Iban
The book was produced after many interviews. All the 37 folktales, presented in Iban language, depict the close relationships between the orang-utans and the Iban communities of Ulu Menyang and Ulu Enkari, the two tributaries of Batang Ai.
According to the folktales, the Iban communities in these two places not only learned how to use ginger from the orang-utans, but also let their women folk give birth naturally.
Before this, husbands used to cut open the stomachs of their wives to deliver newborns. So for every new life, a mother had to pay with her life.
“There are also tales of orang-utans changing into men and women and married the local Iban folks. It is, thus, not surprising the Iban communities here regard orang-utans as relatives or ancestors.
“It is also the belief of the communities that whenever their ancestors passed on, they would reincarnate as orang-utans and come back to visit them as orang-utans.
“So unlike the Iban communities in other areas, those in Ulu Engkari and Ulu Menyang have for centuries lived side by side with the orang-utans. It is taboo for them to hurt or hunt orang-utans,” said Now Sidu, one of the four writers of the book.
The 29-year-old, who is a senior WCS researcher, said traditionally, the Iban communities of Ulu Menyang and Ulu Engkari believed killing orang-utans would have repurcussions.
She added that hunters who killed orang-utans would bring ill not only upon themselves but also the whole longhouse.
“They will die one after another from accidents or will be wiped by some diseases in an instance.”
Taboo at Menyang, Engkari Citing a WCS social survey along six rivers — Menyang, Engkari, Ngemah, Mujok, Katibas and Kanowit — in 2012, Now said the results showed only the Iban communities at Menyang and Engkari had such a taboo.
“The communities at Ngemah, Mujok, Katibas and Kanowit do not share the same belief and it is all right for them to harm or kill orang-utans if the primates happened to trespass into their farms or are spotted by hunters. The Ibans along the four rivers also have no taboo on eating orang-utans.”
It is, thus, the aim of Now and her two other junior researchers, Mary Buloh Balang, 27, and Jenny Ngeian Machau, also 27, as well as WCS director of Malaysia Programme Dr Melvin Gumal, to come out with the book to instill good stewardship among the Iban communities across Sarawak in protecting endangered species, especially the orang-utans.
“Like any other parts of Sarawak, the young Ibans of Batang Ai area are leaving their villages to seek better lives. These orang-utan-related folktales will be lost if not preserved in writing.
“So we need to preserve these folktales which have been handed down through the oral tradition. We have collected and written them down. It is also our hope that through these folktales, the younger generation of Batang Ai Ibans will continue to preserve the good tradition of living in harmony with the orang-utans and be very aware of the importance of conserving the flora and fauna in their areas,” Now explained.
She said the book was published for the purpose of education, believing that knowledge would be an effective tool in promoting orang-utan conservation not only to the local communities but also the world at large.
To Mary Buloh Balang, who is with WCS for seven months, orang-utans are mystical animals. And to Now, the primates might, indeed, end up as mystical animals in the absence of conservation efforts.
Now Sidu (right), Mary Buloh Balang (centre) and Jenny Ngeian Machau the three Iban women writers.
Preparing the book
The collection of the folktales started with interviewing the elderly longhouse folks along the two rivers — Ulu Menyang and Ulu Engkari. There are eight longhouses in Ulu Menyang and 12 in Ulu Enkari.
The three Iban women writers — Now Sidu, Mary Buloh Balang and Jenny Ngeian Machau — managed to cover four longhouses in Ulu Menyang and 10 in Ulu Enkari.
The interview started in April this year and the stories written in May. By July, the book was completed and it was launched by Permanent Secretary of Resources Planning and Environment Datu Sudarsono Osman on Aug 5. Presently, WCS is translating the book into English.
Forestry Department Sarawak (FDS) bore the first printing costs. A total of 105 copies were printed with most distributed to the longhouses as a gesture of giving back to the community.
“What we are doing is all for the Iban communities in Ulu Menyang and Ulu Engkari who have played such an important part in preserving the orang-utans in their areas without knowing it,” Now pointed out.
SFD, Sarawak Forestry Corporation, WCS and Borneo Adventures (BA) had conducted an orang-utans survey between 2012 and 2013 in Ulu Menyang where a total of 1,421 nests and 25 orang-utans were sighted.
SFD estimates there is 200-strong orang-utan population in the area and has identified Ulu Menyang, situated between Batang Ai National Park and Lanjak Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary, as having the biggest orang-utan colony outside national parks in southern Sarawak.
Though classified as a reserved area, due to the uniqueness of Ulu Menyang, the government has allowed the affected local community to continue owning the land but will closely monitor development activities to make sure conservation efforts are not compromised.
A new model of conservation, involving the local communities, government agencies such as FDS and SFC, private sector such as BA as well as NGO such as WCS, is now underway to ensure successful co-existence of conservation and community tourism with the wildlife.
SINCE the haze is still the hottest topic around, Eye thought that perhaps we could shed a little light on what the numbers of the Air Pollutant Index (API) mean.
This too, came about when an old pakcik from a kampung near Kuching asked “Apa sebenarnya disukat sidak dalam API tok? Nya sukat ketebalan asap ya ka?” (What do they measure to get the API? The density of the smoke?)
Not surprisingly, many people do not really understand what makes up the API reading. Some still think that the readings are generally measurements of the density of smoke in the air – be it from burning, exhaust fumes or factories.
And to many, smoke is smoke – it is irritating, it stinks and it causes respiratory problems in those who are sensitive and with allergies.
Those who think that smoke does not get to them because they are not sensitive, are not very bothered by the haze and in fact continue to loiter around outside and puff on their cigarettes and vape gadgets.
Little do they know that they are contributing much of the toxic pollutants into the air around us. There are also those who still inconsiderately burn their garden waste – dead leaves, twigs, and cut grass – out in their backyards during the dry season.
Do they not realise how much harm they are causing to themselves and their own families?
But first, let us understand what the air quality index entails. In Malaysia, it is known as the API, while in Singapore it is called the Pollutants Standard Index (PSI). In China and Hong Kong, the term Air Quality Index (AQI) is used.
Generally, there are six levels of air quality – Good (0-50); Moderate (51-100); Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups (101-150); Unhealthy (151-200); Very Unhealthy (201-300) and Hazardous (readings greater than 300). The highest API level recorded in Malaysia was 839 on Sept 23, 1997 in Kuching during the infamous 1997 Southeast Asian Haze. However, there are those who argue that the readings back then were in fact much higher if new standards of measuring air pollutants had been applied.
When measuring air pollution, particles or particulate matter floating around in the air are analysed. Even when the skies are clear and when we seem to have clean air, there are still particulates hanging around in the air.
These particles come in many shapes and sizes. For the purpose of measuring pollutants in the air, experts have divided these particles into two groups – PM10 and PM2.5. It wasn’t too long after the 1997 haze incident that PM2.5 was included in measuring pollutants in the air.
So what exactly do PM10 and PM2.5 mean to us?
According to the many informative websites on air quality, PM10 refers to bigger particles between 2.5 and 10 micrometres. These particles are said to cause less severe health effects.
What is a micrometre? Well, just imagine this – PM10 refers to particles that are between 25 and 100 times thinner than a single strand of human hair.
PM2.5 refer to particles smaller than 2.5micrometres (100 times thinner than a single hair on your head).
PM10 usually refers to coarse particles such as dirt and dust from factories and roads, smoke, pollen and spores. Take for example, dirt in the air caused by quarrying and excavation of rocks and soil.
PM2.5, on the other hand, refers to particles that are toxic and originate from exhaust fumes, processing of metals and burning of plant materials in the case of bush fires, forest fires as well as burning of garden waste. PM2.5 or smaller particles stay in the air longer and travel further.
How does particulate matter affect our health then?
Obviously, finer particulates are able travel further into our lungs when we inhale. While both groups of particulates can cause health problems, these finer particulates are considered more dangerous as they are more toxic (chemicals and cancer-causing compounds).
Malaysia included PM2.5 into its API measurements in December 2012, which means that the API is now calculated based on five major air pollutants – sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, particulate matters (PM2.5 and PM10), and ozone.
And just by knowing these five major pollutants, we know the API tells us a lot more than just how hazy it is out there, and not merely how dense the haze it. The higher the API, the more likely we are exposed to more than just smoke.
Scientists agree that the burning of forests or plant materials does not only increase carbon into the air, but also releases organic toxins, which are especially harmful to children.
In other words, take note of the API this hazy season and think twice the next time you decide to burn your garden waste. This will decide how your health turns out in the long run.
The higher the API, the higher the risk of us damaging our bodies if we do not take precautionary measures such as wearing the right type of face masks (N95 particulate masks), not burning our garden waste, cutting down on running our vehicles and reducing time spent outdoors during the haze.
Comments can reach the writer via firstname.lastname@example.org.
The mud lobster’s burrowing habit recycles nutrients and allows aerated water into the soil.
THE wooden boardwalk flows through the 24ha Kota Kinabalu Wetlands, one of the last remaining remnants of the formerly extensive mangrove forest that lined and protected much of the coastline around Sabah.
This relatively stable wetlands with a large number of species is nestled at the foot of Signal Hill and a mere 15-minute drive from the heart of Kota Kinabalu. Here it is possible, for a short while any way, to imagine people of Sabah slogging their way through the tangle roots. That is until you catch sight of the almost indestructible plastic bags, slippers or containers … or look up to see the skyscrapers circling this green lung.
Between 1980 and 1990, individuals interested in nature discovered that this patch of mangrove was in relatively good condition. The Kota Kinabalu Bird Sanctuary was created in 1996. The Likas Wetlands Management Committee was formed in the same year to administer this much-needed green patch. Then in 1999, it was declared a Cultural Heritage Site. Kota Kinabalu Wetlands was opened to the public in 2000.
The management of the site was taken over by the Sabah Wetlands Conservation Society in 2006. This society has the overall objective to conserve and manage Sabah’s wetlands through advocacy, education and research, including the management of Kota Kinabalu Wetlands.
This wetlands area is an easy entry into a forest type that is often mistakenly thought to be smelly and muddy wastelands. Mangrove forests are the opposite — they are teeming with life; their complex intricately connected food webs include surrounding forests, grasslands and water.
The mangrove forest perches on a complex web of intertwined stilt roots that lift it above the muddy soil.
The mangrove forest is striking as it perches on a complex web of intertwined stilt roots that lift it above the muddy soil. It occupies a harsh salty oxygen-starved but fertile environment.
Mangroves refer to different species that have adapted to survive and thrive in this harsh environment. In these salty conditions, which can be inundated with seawater twice a day, species generally use one of three adaptations to survive. Some exclude the salt by having root cells filter it out. Some accumulate salt in the tissue, while others excrete salt through, for example, dead leaves.
The 10 mangrove tree species found in the Kota Kinabalu Wetlands provide the physical link between the land, the tidal waters and the variety of animals that occupy ecological niches. The boardwalk enables visitors to see and experience first-hand the diversity and beauty of the forest.
The Sabah Wetlands Conservation Society has installed a series of information boards on the invertebrates (micro-organism, insects, molluscs, crustaceans), fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals, as well as the plant life. These informative boards provide insights to the forest, its ecology and inhabitants.
Ninety species of migratory and resident birds have been documented in the Kota Kinabalu Wetlands. Abundance of roosting, nesting and feeding sites bring in the birds. The brilliant white egrets, one of the three species frequently sighted, are easily seen against the dark green of the leaves. Key differences, as suggested by their name, Little Egret (Egretta garzetta), Intermediate Egret (Egretta intermedia) and Great Egret (Ardea alba) are the size. Another easily recognisable resident and largest bird found in the wetlands is the Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea). It nests among the fern, Piai Raya (Acrostichum aureum) a member of the Pteridaceae family that can be found in an area away from the sea.
Kota Kinabalu Wetlands has recorded 20 species of fish, 13 mollusc species, 14 crustacean, nine insects and five different species of reptiles. The affect of mud lobsters, a crustacean, which is not a lobster but more closely related to shrimps, demonstrates the complex interaction between species.
Mud lobsters (Thalassina sp) are members of the Thalassinidae family, which are sometimes called the farmers of the mangrove. These shy creatures build strange volcano-like mounds of mud as they burrow through the soil. It is believed that they eat organic matter in the mud as they dig their way through. The processed or recycled mud develops into the strange mounds, which then provide quarters for snakes, ants, crabs, spiders, warms, molluscs and shrimp.
Mudskippers and other aquatic animals take shelter in the pools during low tide that are created by the mud lobsters’ burrowing habit. Collared kingfisher (Todiramphus chloris) have been known to nest on the large mounds. Plants also grow on these mounds.
The mud lobster’s burrowing habit recycles nutrients and allows aerated water (water with oxygen) into the soil. Some plants grow better on mud lobster-tilled soils including mangrove seedlings. Mud lobsters are part of the food chain and eaten by other animals including birds. In the tropical Pacific they are hunted as food, however, this has fortunately not caught on in other areas. Mud lobsters are considered a pest because their burrowing habit weakens the bunds or edges that form the basis of lobster or shrimp farming ponds.
The ecological role of mud lobsters in the mangrove forest is a single example of the complexity and dependence of the fauna and flora of mangrove forests. As mentioned, the mangrove forest provides the link between the land and the sea, but they too benefit from the activities of the inhabitants that take up residence. The influence and the benefits of the ecological diverse mangrove forests extend far beyond their boundaries.
For information on Kota Kinabalu Wetlands read ‘The Mangroves of Kota Kinabalu Wetlands’, Sabah Society Journal Vol. 28 by Lee Young Ling 2011; and ‘Mangrove Fauna and their Adaptations in the Kota Kinabalu Wetlands’, Sabah Society Journal Vol. 28 by Lee Ka Han, 2011.
Collared kingfisher have been known to nest on the large mounds created by mud lobsters.