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Saturday September 19, 2009

Wetlands has ecotourism potential

KUCHING: Located about 40km northeast of Kuching City is the Bako-Buntal Bay, an expanse of intertidal mudflats fringed by mangrove forest with Gunung Santubong lying to the west and Bako National Park on the east.

Residents of the two Malay villages in the area, Kampung Bako and Kampung Buntal, derive their primary income from fishing, with increasing participation in tourism activities.

However, the proximity of Bako-Buntal Bay to the capital city is like a double-edged sword.

KEEN OBSERVERS: Birdwatching enthusiasts from MNS gathered at the Bako-Buntal bay.

The bay is one of only two project sites in the country undertaken to support the implementation of the Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar Convention) in four South-East Asian countries including Malaysia.

The other site considered of global importance as a wintering spot for waterbirds is the north-central coast of Selangor.

While being located considerably close to the city means easy access for urbanites who appreciate nature, it also makes the wetlands vulnerable to urban activities and development.

According to Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) Kuching branch chairman Rebecca D’Cruz, the bay has enormous potential for eco-tourism but the human population and infrastructure development in the area applied a constant stress on the site and its natural resources.

“Kampung Bako is the only entry point to the (Bako) National Park and villagers gain significant income from ferrying visitors while several tour companies provide wildlife cruises in the bay area, which offer close-up views of proboscis monkeys, dolphins, crocodiles, fireflies and many bird species,” she said when highlighting the Bako-Buntal Conservation Study, a collaborative effort between the Sarawak State Planning Unit and MNS Kuching.

The cruises cover the nearby Kuching Wetlands National Park, which is Sarawak’s first and only Ramsar Site, and the popular seafood destination of Kampung Buntal with restaurants lining the sandbar that is also the high-tide roost for shorebirds.

IN THE LIMELIGHT: One of the bird species spotted at the bay.

Bird-watching enthusiasts from MNS Kuching frequently go on excursions at the bay where 32 shorebird species have been recorded so far, with an estimated 15,000 waterbirds arriving there to escape winter.

The most significant are the Spotted Greenshank, Asian Dowitcher and Fareastern Curlew while the numbers of Red Knot and Great Knot are among the highest for any site in Malaysia.

“Of particular note in recent years are the 31 Chinese Egrets counted at the bay in 2003, accounting for 1% of the global population and may be the largest number recorded to-date in Borneo,” said D’Cruz.

She said the previous record number of 13 was charted in Brunei in December 1984 and between 15 and 25 in April 1986, which reinforced the global conservation importance of the bay.

With continuous observations dating back to the early 1900s, it was noted from historical records that even back in February 1913 Spotted Greenshanks were seen at Buntal while in 1935, Fareastern Curlews were described as ‘swarming’ at the same bay, she added.

The area also supported a steadily increasing population of proboscis monkeys, initially confined to the park but protection has increased their numbers beyond its carrying capacity and the excess is spreading across the bay and into Santubong.

D’Cruz said dolphin- and crocodile-watching activities were rising in popularity as the waters within the bay supported at least three species of dolphins — the Irrawaddy Dolphin, Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphin and the Finless Porpoise — while its delta has a healthy population of estuarine crocodiles.

“The larger crocodiles can be seen basking along the exposed mudbanks and may constitute one of the most important populations of crocodiles in the state,” she said, adding that the study’s objective was to improve the conservation status of the bay through the establishment of a local conservation group (LCG).

In promoting the approach as an effective contribution to the implementation of the Ramsar Convention in Malaysia, she said the LCG as an effective community-based organisation worked to find solutions for nature conservation issues.

“The success of such an approach depends a great deal on the awareness level of stakeholders,” she said of the project to promote sustainable wetland-based livelihood especially for the people in Bako and Buntal villages.

Besides Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam are participating in the project to strengthen government-civil society partnerships funded by the Darwin Initiative (United Kingdom), Keidanren Nature Conservation Fund (Japan) and Japan’s ministry of environment.

The project received the nod from Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment, which served as the administrative authority for the Convention in Malaysia and will run for an initial period of two years, with the possibility of an extension for a third year.

“South-East Asia’s wetlands are very important for biodiversity, national economies and the well-being of local communities but unfortunately, the same wetlands have frequently been viewed as unproductive areas and converted into other land uses,” D’Cruz noted.

She said South-East Asia’s remaining natural and semi-natural wetlands supported tremendous biodiversity wealth, including many threatened and endemic species that provide vital ecosystem services, particularly to local communities.

There are six Ramsar sites nationwide -- Tasek Bera in Pahang (1994), Pulau Kukup, Sungai Pulai and Tanjung Piai in Johor (2003), Kuching Wetlands National Park in Sarawak (2005) and the Lower Kinabatangan-Segama Wetlands in Sabah (2008), covering a total area of 134,158ha. — Bernama

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