Age of Awareness
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Age of Awareness

Merdeka (Independence) for Nature Too?

Wild Sumatran rhinos have become extinct in Malaysia. Puntung, one of the last surviving rhinos in captivity in Sabah, is dying from her cancerous swelling. Photo: File pic.

By Melvin Terry Gumal
September 12, 2017

HERE we are, 60 years young as a nation, having accomplished much, including the best haul of medals in the recent SEA Games.

Our range of Malaysian luminaries include statesmen such as Tunku Abdul Rahman, movie stars such as Tan Sri Michelle Yeoh, the singer Datuk Siti Nurhaliza, internationally-recognised cartoonist Datuk Lat (born Mohammad Nor Khalid), sportswoman Pandelela Rinong (a multiple Olympic medallist) and multiple squash world champion Datuk Nicol Ann David.

And we have the biologist Dr. Lim Boo Liat, the only South-East Asian nominated by peers worldwide for the renowned American Society of Mammologists.

But what about our unsung heroes in nature?

Wild animals maintain the forests (through pollination, seed dispersal, and seedling regeneration) and those forests “catch” rain to give us priceless drinking water. And there’s the “small” matter of how these trees provide oxygen for us to breathe.

Don’t orangutans also deserve to be “Merdeka,” or free, in their forest homes? Photo: AP

Some of the Malaysian trees and wildlife (I call them our “Founding Wildlife”) have existed for many millions of years.

However, sadly, some of them have disappeared from the wild, and these include the banteng from Peninsular Malaysia and Sarawak, and rhinos from throughout the country.

Others such as elephants, gaurs, pangolins, clouded leopards, and tigers are now under severe threat. Poaching, rampant loss of habitat, and the rapid expansion of plantations have contributed much to their demise and continue to do so.

Many of us only know of the large iconic animals, but may forget the lesser known ones, like the flying foxes (which is actually a bat), insects (bees and butterflies) and the sharks, rays and skates in our coastal seas.

Poaching, hunting and overfishing (including the use of bombs and cyanide) have reduced their populations.

Elephants, gaurs, pangolins, clouded leopards, and tigers are now under severe threat. Poaching, rampant loss of habitat, and the rapid expansion of plantations have contributed much to their demise and continue to do so.

Meanwhile, silent killers like the pervasive use of plastics, pesticides and fertilisers have polluted our lands and waters, killing off these hardworking but unappreciated insects who help pollinate our flowers that then make our forests, crops and fruits.

A reef shark killed in 2016 by a fishing net inside the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park off Kota Kinabalu. More enforcement of marine park rules is needed. Photo: File pic.

Wisdom at 60?

For a human, the age of 60 is a time when we take stock of our life, our past contributions and what we have to offer for the future, in terms of wisdom.

Malaysia at 60, is also at its cross-roads. Do we convert more of our natural treasures and biodiversity towards our endless and relentless pursuit of “development” (or money) or do we start looking at development in a more proper, sustainable and ecological sense?

This means not losing more of our natural capital or biological diversity — at the past and current unsustainable rates.

For example, how wise is it to replace natural forests with artificial plantations?

The banteng (wild cattle) has disappeared from Peninsular Malaysia and is endangered in Borneo. Photo: Sen Nathan

What are we accumulating human wealth for, when such actions mean we will lose the natural resilience that forests and biodiversity can provide?

For example, why chop down the forests of Ulu Muda in Kedah for short-term logging profits only to lose out on the crucial longterm water supply that they provide?

Why destroy the biodiversity that has taken nature millions of years to build up when it may hold future priceless cures for cancer and other diseases?

Haze and polluted streams or rivers are some of the more visible threats we have. Try drinking green, algae-covered water in plantations, as some of our rural neighbours have to daily and you can see what I mean.

Pride in Nature

Surely, we need our natural environment and we should treasure it with as much pride as we have for our gleaming tall, new buildings?

We have eco solutions and the world knows that we have them.

What are we accumulating human wealth for, when such actions mean we will lose the natural resilience that forests and biodiversity can provide?

We talk about the strength of our environmental laws, and lofty goals such as the Central Forest Spine project. Our universities produce skilled students in the natural sciences.

Yet, there is a general feeling that the future of the environment in Malaysia is bleak. Perhaps the push for “development” (for whom?) has been given so much priority that hopes for conserving the environment have taken a back seat.

The Bornean clouded leopard should be considered a patriotic part of our national heritage. Photo: Sen Nathan.

We need to redress this imbalance and ensure that our environment is given the pride and protection it deserves.

To celebrate Merdeka, we also have to ask, “What about the independence and freedom of our wildlife and forests?”

The freedom of animals to wander in the forest and seas, to do their own thing without being poached or poisoned and the freedom to roost in their habitats or homes without them being chopped down.

Plus the freedom of forests to give us Malaysians fresh air and drinking water.

Have a look at this short video and see how wildlife roam freely and happily in our forests. They do celebrate their lives in wild Malaysia mostly without any of us humans watching.

To celebrate Merdeka, we also have to ask, “What about the independence and freedom of our wildlife and forests?”

They also quietly disperse seeds so that we eventually gain the benefit of tall trees. Let us celebrate them and help save them so that they continue to be part of our future, instead of being relegated to a history of extinction.

At 60, yes, let us celebrate, but let’s not forget to share our future with wildlife and nature. After all, we Malaysians are known to be a generous lot.

Selamat Hari Merdeka and Malaysia Day to all, including the wildlife roaming our forests and seas. Thank you for all you have done to help your human brothers in this country.

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Melvin Terry Gumal is the Director of Malaysia Program at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).

A version of this story appeared originally in The Star Malaysia on September 12, 2017.

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Wildlife Conservation Society

Wildlife Conservation Society

WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.