Celebrating wildlife conservation
THE PRACTICE OF WILDLIFE conservation has become increasingly important due to the negative effects of human activity. Many species are becoming endangered for several reasons, which may be due to their low population to begin with or that their population is under threat by varying environmental or predation factors.
Major external threats to wildlife include habitat loss or destruction due to human activities such as agriculture, oil and gas exploration, cutting down trees, commercial development or water diversion which causes the habitat to no longer be able to provide food, water as well as places to rear their young.
Apart from that, pollutants released into the environment like widely used pesticides and toxic chemicals make the environment or habitat become toxic especially to plants and other animals around. Every day there are fewer places left that wildlife can call their home, consequently making it more difficult to help a diversity of species and ecosystems to survive.
Growing apathy from the public to wildlife, conservation and environmental issues in general may perhaps be the largest threat today. Over-exploitation of resources as in wildlife and plant species by people for food, clothing, medicine, pets and many other purposes makes it even more difficult for wildlife to survive.
Due to this, government bodies and private agencies in Sarawak have dedicated themselves to wildlife conservation by helping to implement policies designed to protect the wildlife as well as to promote various wildlife conservation causes.
This includes the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Sarawak Forestry Department (SFD), which focuses on the control of unsustainable hunting and the conservation of wildlife in various land categories. These two organisations co-wrote ‘A Master Plan for Wildlife in Sarawak’ which was adopted by the Sarawak government in 1997, where it includes legislative changes like a total legal ban on sales of wildlife, regulations to control hunting in logging concessions, and the control of modern hunting technologies.
The implementation of the plan involved state-wide conservation education and enforcement programmes, formal training for government staff, the creation of important new protected areas, and reduction in sales of shotgun cartridges. The results have been an increase in protected areas and declines in the wildlife trade (Bennett 2004).
The wildlife of Sarawak is a mix of species of diverse origins. The region’s rich and diverse wildlife is preserved in numerous national parks and wildlife sanctuaries across the country including the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre and Matang Wildlife Centre. Sarawak is also home to a number of rare and threatened animal species, and for that, wildlife management here is essential to preserve these species.
Sarawak is one of the most ecologically diverse regions in South East Asia. It is considered a living laboratory of unique plants and animals. Close to the Equator, and high-rainfall all year-round, Sarawak has an ideal climate for flora and fauna to flourish. Thus, it has the highest ecological diversity per unit area in the world.
Sarawak has about 185 species of mammals (Payne et al,1985), 530 species of birds (Mackinnon and Phillips, 1983), 166 species of snakes, 104 of lizards and 113 of amphibians (Anon, 1985).
However, since the 1980s, Sarawak’s rainforests have been gradually depleted by human activities such as logging and agriculture. Habitat loss had a disastrous effect on the wildlife including the “man of the forest”, the orangutan.
In an effort to conserve wildlife including rehabilitation of orphaned and displaced orangutan in Sarawak, Semenggoh Wildlife Centre was set up in 1975. Their purpose is to care for wild animals either found injured, orphaned or kept as illegal pets. Since its creation, the centre has taken care of almost 1,000 animals from dozens of different species including gibbons, sun bears, and hornbills.
Semenggoh is mainly known for its orangutan rehabilitation programme, a conservation effort by the state to preserve and protect their natural habitat which has also resulted in the repopulation of the surrounding forest by dozens of orangutans.
About the ‘Man of the Forest’
Orangutans were first documented in 1854 by Alfred Russel Wallace, a British explorer. Wallace spent 16 months in Sarawak studying orangutans and developing a theory that animals descended from a common ancestor, which is an inspiration for Charles Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’. Wallace’s conclusion that every species had come into existence coincident both in space and time with a closely allied species is behind what is known as the Sarawak Law. Wallace was also one of the first to raise concerns on the impact of human activity.
Once, the orangutan roamed throughout South-East Asia in large numbers but now fewer than 15,000 of the region’s two species survive, in Sumatra (Pongo abelii) and Borneo (Pongo pygmaeus). Although in the past, there was a lucrative trade in capturing and selling the baby orangutan, today, the orangutans are now protected under the Totally Protected Animals in Sarawak’s Wild Life Protection Ordinance 1998.
The plight of the orangutans as an iconic species has touched the hearts of many all around the world. This intelligent creature, sharing 97% of the similar DNA as humans is endemic to Malaysia and Indonesia and regarded as highly endangered species due to their habitat destruction, indiscriminate hunting and animal trade.
According to Oswald Braken Tisen, manager of Sarawak Forestry Corporation, there are currently approximately 2,500 wild orangutans in Sarawak, and in Semenggoh itself there are currently 27 individual orangutans, which include 15 that were born there.
A number of the fully rehabilitated orangutan have been repatriated to the Matang Wildlife Centre, where their eventual release to the jungle would allow them a larger roaming area. However, several orangutan in Semenggoh have become so used to human interaction that they simply cannot be returned to the jungle, especially the ones that have been brought up by humans from young.
Matang Wildlife Centre, part of Kubah National Park, houses endangered wildlife in large enclosed areas of rainforest or spacious enclosures. The main attraction here is the orangutan adoption programme, where young orangutans, either orphaned or rescued from captivity, are taught how to survive in the wild. Besides orangutans, the Centre includes spacious enclosures housing crocodiles, sambar deer, sun bears, eagles, storks, kites, civets and bear cats, hornbills and a host of other birds native to Sarawak.
Unfortunately, the orangutan rehabilitation programmes are expensive and require dedicated personnel. Orangutan rehabilitation centers in Sarawak are in dire need of additional funding for their operations; the same goes with the programmes at Semenggoh and Matang Wildlife Centres.
Due to this, the Orang-Utan Adoption Program was introduced by the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre to include public involvement in their rehabilitation programmes as well as to educate them on totally protected and endangered wildlife.
The programme which aims to raise funds as well as to disseminate information on orangutan conservation efforts in Sarawak is also looking to extending the ownership of the programme to other citizens of the world.
Their continuous conservation efforts have caught the attention of higher learning institutions in Sarawak. As such, the Faculty of Resource Science and Technology (FRST) in Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS) has been focusing on academic and research programmes in areas related to science, management and sustainable utilisation of natural resources in Sarawak.
Students in this faculty specialize in science and management of fauna and flora, aquatic biology, biotechnology and resource chemistry, and the overall programmes in FRST is biodiversity focus towards establishing a body of highly educated, skilled and dedicated natural resource managers, biological conservationists, environmental educators and teachers capable of contributing and providing leadership to the sustainable development of Malaysia’s biotic wealth.
Recently, during the State Level World Wildlife Day being held at Semenggoh Wildlife Centre on Apr 5, UNIMAS signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Sarawak Forest Department to carry out biodiversity researches and continue in their great help towards conservations of wildlife.
As a reminder for everyone to continue to conserve wildlife and eradicate the exploitation and destruction of wildlife arbitrary, Mar 3 has been declared by the United Nations General Assembly as the World Wildlife Day to be celebrated all around the world.
In Sarawak, the “Combating Wildlife Crimes – Involving Stakeholders” was chosen appropriately as this year’s theme for the inaugural Sarawak state-level World Wildlife Day which was held on April 6 at Semenggoh to encourage support from the public and stakeholders in this “life-saving” mission of wildlife and preserve them from the threat of extinction.
According to Second Minister of Resource Planning and Environment Datuk Amar Awang Tengah Ali Hassan, conservation efforts should be emphasised despite the unavoidable rapid development today in Sarawak.
“The current development we are having these days we cannot avoid but we need to standardise it with good conservation efforts. It is feared that if things do not concern everyone this could accelerate the extinction of wildlife as there are many factors which accelerate extinction such as climate change, environmental pollution, habitat destruction, as well as consequences of human activities,” he added, urging all those entrusted to manage the forests and their resources to multiply their efforts through the activities of preservation, protection and ethical harvest.
Held annually, World Wildlife Day gives us the chance to highlight the breathtaking diversity of our planet’s species and their survival in the wild which is intimately linked to ours.
Species extinction is not something to be ignored; it does have profound implications on our economy and society. Take Semenggoh for example, it is the iconic orangutan that has put Sarawak on the tourism map and provided for our thriving tourism industry. And who hasn’t felt a connection looking into those all-too human eyes of those creatures that share an almost identical DNA with us?
Wildlife and nature is an undeniable part of our daily lives providing many valuable substances for trade, medicine and economic growth. The ecosystem must be a balanced living system on earth, consequently ensuring our survival. For that, wildlife conservation is as necessary as we ourselves are. So, start helping, conserve the wildlife and save the world.