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SOS Rhino : In the News : Nature loses out

Nature loses out

The Star online
February 10, 2004

Malaysia enjoys an enviable position as one of the 12 megadiversity centres in the world, but the sobering news is that we take second place after Ecuador for having the most number of threatened plants. Despite numerous conservation efforts, many endangered species of flora and fauna have slipped nearer to the brink of extinction. How did we arrive at this sorry state? TAN CHENG LI delves into the issues at hand.

HERE'S another entry to add to the ever-expanding list of "Malaysia Boleh" achievements ∆ we are No.2 in the world for having the most number of threatened plants. With 683 species (mostly timber trees) at risk of vanishing from the wild, we are second to Ecuador's 975 threatened species according to the 2003 IUCN-World Conservation Union Red Data List of Threatened Species released late last year. Animals do not fare any better, with 145 species teetering on the edge.

It appears that despite numerous conservation efforts, none of our endangered species are better off today. Instead, more have slipped nearer to the brink. How did we reach such a dire state? Well, for one thing, agriculture and development continue to obliterate the country's wilder side faster than wildlife protection laws and efforts can catch up.

Causes of species' decline were outlined in the National Policy on Biological Diversity which was adopted in 1998. With its 14 strategies and 86 action plans, the document is a detailed roadmap charting the path towards sustainable use and management of the country's cache of natural wealth ∆ but if only it was fully executed.

Within the conservation circle, there is general consensus that most of the action plans in the policy have been left unimplemented. In fact, it is unclear how the policy is to be carried out, by whom, and when since it contained no target dates.

In the meantime, nature continues to lose out.

A major weakness is the lack of a single comprehensive legislation to protect and manage our wealth of species. Laws now focus on specific sectors ∆ either wildlife, forestry, fisheries or agriculture. Enforced by different agencies with different interests, these are not always conservation-driven despite being relevant for biodiversity.

All of which leave gaping holes. In Peninsular Malaysia, the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 is the chief legislation to shield species but it is sorely inadequate as it covers only animals, birds and some insects but not plants, fish and most invertebrates. Thus the only flora protected are those which happened to grow in parks or wildlife santuaries.

Marine species are equally ignored. The Fisheries Act 1985 did not cover biodiversity protection until it was amended in 1999 to include threatened marine life such as whale sharks and giant clams. However, corals, other marine invertebrates and threatened reef fish such as the Napoleon wrasse are still left out.

And despite all the talk about Malaysia being a member of the exclusive megadiversity group of 12 countries which collectively hold 60% of earth's biodiversity, we are not even sure of what species we have. "So how can we start protecting them?" asks Dr Sundari Ramakrishna of Wetlands International. "I do not know of a central depository of all living specimens from Malaysia which we can showcase to the world."

The Science, Technology and Environment Ministry has commissioned only one biodiversity assessment to date, in 1997. The report was submitted to the Convention on Biological Diversity secretariat as obligated under the treaty. We did not submit another one as required in 2000, neither did we present a report on forest biodiversity due in 2001.

Also, whatever information we have now is scattered among different agencies and universities, making their retrieval difficult. "There is no central body like a Biodiversity Directorate acting as a one-stop agency with all the information despite recommendations for such a set-up. Now you have to go to different places," says Prof Datuk Dr Abdul Latiff Mohamad, dean of the Science and Technology Faculty in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. He says such a body was suggested in the policy to co-ordinate programmes, monitor, evaluate, set priorities and manage information. "But it has yet to be realised."

The dearth of data also means the country lacks its own list of threatened species. For such information, scientists and media alike rely on assessments from foreign and international institutions such as the IUCN Red List. This has a drawback ∆ a species facing extinction locally may be common elsewhere and thus will not be listed as threatened. A case in point: the green peafowl has disappeared from the peninsular wilderness and yet the Red List ranks the bird as merely "vulnerable" to extinction because it still inhabits the forests of other countries. Clearly, a comprehensive listing of species is needed to afford better protection to a wider variety of species.

Not getting better

Sahabat Alam Malaysia president S.M. Idris regards enforcement of legislation and administrative guidelines as a problem. "It is unclear how the government is effectively monitoring threats to biodiversity."

He says so far, resources have been poured into conserving the larger and charismatic beasts such as the Sumatran rhino, Asian elephant, tiger, orang utan and turtles. And yet, none of these have recovered in numbers. On the other hand, they are declining.

Tigers, once hunted as trophies but now shot by poachers for their body parts and by farmers protecting livestocks, are down to 500 individuals from 3,500 in the early 1950s. As for the Sumatran rhinos, fewer than 100 are left in fragmented forests and with an unsuccessful captive breeding programme which saw all five rhinos dead in three weeks late last year possibly due to bacterial infection, they appear set to join their cousin, the Javan rhino, which is already extinct in the peninsula.

Scientists predict the leatherback turtle will be the next to go, possibly by this decade. Malaysian birds are also imperiled. The last wild colony of milky storks, in the Kuala Gula mangroves in Perak, are down to 50 birds. With 40 species threatened, Malaysia has the 10th highest number of bird species at risk of extinction in Asia.

So long as their habitats are sacrificed for timber, crop plantations and settlements, these species and other obscure ones will not have a fighting chance. Unfortunately, competing landuse is still the order of the day, a result of the low priority given to conservation in landuse policies.

"These losses continue not because of inadequate legal provisos," asserts Dr Mohd Nordin Hassan, Fellow at the Academy of Sciences. "It stems from land conversion and degradation. The agencies driving such changes are development-oriented and resource-utilisation agencies. The motives are economic and political. The net result ∆ less space for conservation of our natural heritage."

The Federal Government has little say over biodiversity since natural resources are in the hands of State Governments which more often than not, view these as a major source of revenue, for instance timber and minerals. Conservation objectives are sometimes ignored and legislations not standardised. An integrated approach to conservation is thus missing. One consequence of this conflict is seen in marine parks. We have an impressive list of 38 marine parks but unchecked tourism development is bleeding silt which smothers coral reefs because while the sea is a protected area, the islands are not.

Wild sanctuary

Malaysia has adopted the approach of managing whole habitats or ecosystems since this safeguards the greatest number of plants and animals. Protected areas have expanded, giving conservationists cause for hope but there is a concern ∆ some habitats are unrepresented, for instance, coastal dipterocarps, mangroves, limestone and quartz hills and highlands. Very little lowland dipterocarp forest (those below 600m), the largest reservoir of flora and fauna species, remains.

"Because different regions harbour particular communities that may be unique or made up of many endemic or narrowly distributed species, our existing protected areas are not really sufficient," says Prof Dr Wong Koon Meng of Universiti Malaya's school of biological sciences. He says the peninsula lacks a large contiguous highland conservation site in the Main Range, such as found in Sabah's Crocker Range National Park. He adds that one would be hard-pressed to find beach forest in good enough condition outside of Pulau Langkawi, Pulau Pangkor and some East Coast islands.

Also, some protected areas may be too small or too fragmented for long-term survival of species. The 26,000ha Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary in Sabah, for instance, is divided into isolated patches. Wildlife such as orang utans and elephants end up raiding fruit orchards and oil palm plantations. And often, the over-riding factor for establishing parks is their tourism potential rather than preservation of species. Thus reserves may be fashioned around scenery and recreation and may not overlap with species-rich sites.

A great portion of wildlife habitat resides in Permanent Forest Estates managed by the Forestry Department to produce timber. In the past, wildlife management assumed a minor role but things are changing, with the department taking more interest in protecting biodiversity.

Last year, it funded scientific expeditions to Gunung Stong in Kelantan, Matang mangroves in Perak, the Belum forest in Perak and Pulau Langkawi. However, the studies were ad hoc and findings are still not shared as they have not been published. This again reiterates the need for a central body to manage data on biodiversity.

But who should be responsible for overall management of this natural wealth? Fingers are pointed at the Science, Technology and Environment Ministry. It could either set up a new body for the purpose or rely on Perhilitan. A ministry official says a revamp of Perhilitan is being considered to expand its technical and enforcement capability. This will include a biodiversity research centre. The official says 600 new posts had been approved for the department.

UM's Wong feels the government's stewardship in promoting awareness is critical. He says there must be clear linkages on how the environment and species diversity can be better recognised, researched, presented, and managed. "The only way of conserving our natural heritage is through clear, well-targeted action plans that consider biological diversity in particular and natural habitats in general. This is where the National Policy comes in."

Clearly, the noble ideals of the policy must be put into action, and soon. If the decline of species continues, our claim as a megadiversity country may well be dubious.