Crocodiles, bats, rats – Malaysia has plenty of endangered animals that would love a job as a mascot. But even in the tourism industry, looks matter. Sadly these beasts just aren’t as cute or cuddly as a monkey with a very big nose.
Being a mascot is hard work: You’ve got to be a good luck charm, cheerleader, goodwill ambassador, look great in a costume and sell a lot of merchandise. All creatures great and small are for the most part perfect for the job – though there have been strange pairings done in the name of marketing. Reptiles, amphibians and creepy crawlies have been called on to peddle products from beer to insurance. So turning to the Proboscis monkey to entice the world to Visit Malaysia in 2014 is a hip choice.
That said the long-nosed primate – nicknamed monyet Belanda by the Indonesians because of its apparent resemblance to their former Dutch colonisers – has its work cut out. It replaces the much-loved orangutan as the face of the Tourism Ministry’s efforts. But why this monkey and not something with a bigger plush toy possibility, like the Lar gibbon or Hose’s langur or Dusky leaf monkey?
The fact is there are only 6,000 Proboscis monkeys left in the jungles of Borneo, according to wildlife conservationists. And there are several weird, wonderful things about the primate that make it an interesting choice for a mascot – its unusually large nose, its webbed feet, the fact that males challenge each other for mates and leadership by comparing penis sizes.
Still, here are four other endangered beasts struggling to survive in Malaysia that may someday prove to be mascot-worthy.
CONVEX HORSESHOE BAT
Bats have a scary PR problem: They’re feared as bloodsucking monsters and terrifying receptacles of diseases. In isolated cases, that may be true, but that doesn’t lessen their importance to ecology. Several bat species endemic to Malaysia are threatened, but the convex horseshoe bat – the least pretty of the lot – is close to extinction in the wild. These bats, with faces that look like they’ve been stepped on by horses, live in large colonies in dark caves and hollow trees. When they come flying out at suppertime, it’s the stuff of nightmares – except they’re only interested in sipping on some bugs. Sadly, four horseshoe bat species were linked to an outbreak of a SARS-like virus in China in 2005. Not the Convex, but the damage was done.
TOMISTOMA (FALSE GHARIAL)
Not much is known about the Tomistoma – also known as the Malayan gharial – a freshwater croc with a distinct long and thin snout. It was once thought that its diet consisted of fish and small vertebrates, but evidence now shows that the beast will eat fruit bats, water birds, macaques and the Proboscis monkey. On occasion, it will munch on a fisherman: In 2008, a female Tomistoma swallowed one in central Kalimantan and his remains were found in her stomach. Despite its elusive nature, the croc is as an endangered species with fewer than 2,500 adults left in the remote wetlands of Malaysia, Borneo and Sumatra. Hunting, logging, agriculture and an irrational fear of this creature continue to whittle down its number.
MOUNTAIN SPINY RAT
You’d think rats – ugh, these vermin could survive a nuclear war. Maybe so, but some of them can’t survive humans and they’re being slowly wiped out. Good you’d say – and you’d be wrong. Wildlife rodents, like bats, play a big part in the biology of jungles. For example, the endangered summit rat, found only in Malaysia, has a mutualistic relationship with a species of giant pitcher plants: It deposits its fertilising poop into the plant’s traps while feeding on its nectar. And the mountain spiny rat, also a Malaysian species, lives in the upper mountain block of Sabah where it snacks on roots, fruits and insects. Both species avoid any contact with people or our food. Unfortunately, you can’t say rat without thinking of the filthy sewer kind, which is truly a reservoir of parasites.
Don’t be fooled by the shrew. It looks like a long-nosed mouse, but this shy little creature isn’t a rodent. In fact it’s related to moles. There are several threatened species in Malaysia, including the critically endangered black shrew. It was discovered on Mount Kinabalu and is the teeniest of its kind. Like moles, shrews have awful eyesight but excellent hearing and sense of smell. They forage for seeds, insects, nuts and worms, but they only have one set of teeth their entire life, so eating gets harder as they get older. Fun fact: the black shrew travels by caravanning – moving in a single file and holding the tail of the shrew in front with its teeth. Sadly, no one knows how many are left in the wild because you don’t see them around much anymore.
Additional reporting by Olivia Lee