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For all the progress Malaysia has made over the past 60 years, it has also lost irreplaceable treasures: its wildlife.
The situation could have been much worse had it not been for conservation efforts carried out in the last few decades, said WWF-Malaysia chief executive officer Dr Dionysius Sharma.
WWF considers animals like the Malayan tiger, Bornean orangutan and Borneo elephant to be the nation’s “flagship” species that are now in danger because of poaching, and loss of habitat due to rapid development, agricultural expansion and forest fragmentation.
Sharma, who is also WWF-Malaysia executive director, told The Malaysian Insight that 14% of Malaysia’s mammals were listed as “endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
“The most critical threat to our tigers is poaching and the illegal wildlife trade. It is an organised crime that is threatening the existence of many species due to over-exploitation, and has caused many of these animals to be classified as ‘critically endangered’ on IUCN’s Red List of Endangered Species.
“In fact, some species have been almost completely wiped out due to illegal poaching,” Sharma said, referring to the Malayan tiger, which is unique to the peninsular.
Its population is now estimated at between 250 and 340 tigers, compared with 3,000 in the 1950s. “Meanwhile, the population of Asia’s only great ape, the orangutan, in Sabah had dropped to about 11,000 in 2004,” said Sharma.
“In the mid-1980s, the population of orangutans, which can be found only on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, stood at around 20,000.”
The Borneo elephant was estimated to number 2,040 in Sabah in 2010, according to a study by Raymond Alfred, but WWF currently lists the number at 1,500.
Also known as the pygmy elephant, they are the smallest pachyderm in Asia.
The species’ population in Sabah shrank rapidly in the 1990s and 2000s due to habitat loss, following the state’s drive to convert land into large-scale oil palm plantations.
Sharma said human survival depended on protecting endangered species, as without conservation, the ecosystem would fall apart and this would affect people’s lives.
The extinction of wildlife in Malaysia can be traced directly to forest loss, especially between 1983 and 2003.
In these 20 years, the country saw a reduction of about 4.9 million hectares of forest cover.
Subsequently, the extinction of the green peafowl (“Pavo muticus”) was linked with the extensive clearing of prime forest areas to make way for oil palm plantations.
Agricultural expansion is seen as the main reason for massive forest loss and degradation, according to a study, titled Proximate and Underlying Causes of Forest Cover Change in Peninsular Malaysia, by Miyamoto M., Mohd Parid M., Noor Aini Z., and Michinaka T., which was published in 2014.
Land clearing began with moves to eradicate poverty in the 1970s, when the poverty rate was nearly 53% of Malaysia’s total population.
As the poverty rate went down, the loss of forest cover went up, noted the study.
Deforestation saw its highest level between 1970 and 1979, but slowed down in 1980. It increased again between 1990 and 1999, with this period corresponding with the years of massive land conversion for the planting of oil palm.
The planting of the commodity crop caused the loss of 2.47 million hectares of forest cover in Malaysia within 40 years, research by David L.A. Gaveau, published this year, revealed.
His research paper, titled What a Difference 4 Decades Make: Deforestation in Borneo Since 1973, stated that forest cover had severely reduced from 61% in 1970 to 44% in 2010.
In its waters, the nation has also lost the iconic leatherback turtle, which is the largest marine turtle in the world. In the 1950s, there were more than 10,000 leatherback nestings, but the number has plunged to zero since 2011.
“The leatherback population in Malaysia is functionally extinct,” said Sharma.
Another turtle species, the Olive Ridley, also faces a similar fate, recording a drop of 99.9% in population, based on data by the Fisheries Department.
“Very small numbers of Olive Ridleys still land occasionally in Malaysia. Marine turtles face numerous threats, such as loss of nesting and feeding habitats, egg collection and trade for consumption, fishery-related mortality and pollution, as well as the direct (catching) of adult turtles,” said Sharma.
“Such trade mostly happens in Sabah, where turtles are poached from the waters and their eggs are smuggled from neighbouring countries into Malaysia.”
With the leatherback basically gone and the Olive Ridley on the brink of extinction, WWF-Malaysia has focused its turtle conservation efforts on the country’s two remaining marine species: the green and hawksbill turtles.
With intensified patrolling during the annual nesting season in Terengganu, more green turtle eggs are secured for incubation, recording an increase of more than 40% in terms of nesting over the last 25 years.
In the same state, however, the critically endangered hawksbill has seen a decline by more than 90%, compared with its numbers 20 years ago.
The overall nesting population of the hawksbill has also decreased at another nesting site on Pulau Upeh, known as the “turtle island” of Malacca.
Sharma said one of the biggest challenges facing turtle conservation efforts were reclamation works, which had been carried out on Malaysia’s coasts since the 1950s.
“But it was only in the 1990s that it caught public attention. The proposals for several large-scale reclamation plans along the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia facing the Straits of Malacca are of particular concern.
“These would accelerate the erosion of the coastline, (increase) sedimentation or siltation, and result in the loss of mangrove forests, coral reefs and mudflats.”