Malaysia set to lose biodiversity as species go extinct

A rare glimpse of the endangered Malayan tiger caught in a wildlife camera trap. Apex predators like tigers play a huge role in the health of forests. Photo: WWF-Malaysia

Norizan Mohd Mazlan of WW-Malaysia was struck by a documentary she watched recently on the Discovery Channel. In it, pear farmers in China are shown pollinating their trees by hand.

“They are pollinating with chicken feathers. Imagine the time and resources required to do that, (something) which we take for granted,” says Norizan, who is WWF-Malaysia’s head of conservation, peninsular Malaysia programme.

Photographs have emerged of farmers in Hanyuan county in China’s Sichuan province – famously known as the world’s pear capital – transferring pollen by using the tip of a chicken feather, tied to a long stick, to gently brush the powdery pollen off on to each flower.

They have had to resort to this painstaking method because the rampant use of pesticides has decimated the area’s bee and insect populations, which are vital for pollination.

It’s a cautionary tale that Malaysians, particularly farmers and the fruit sector, should take to heart.

“In tropical areas, our dependency on pollinators is up to 98% for the production of fruit,” points out Norizan.

We have reason to be worried.

In WWF’s Living Planet Report 2018 released in October last year, the Living Planet Index (a measure of the state of the world’s biological diversity) recorded an overall decline of 60% in species population sizes between 1970 and 2014; the Freshwater Living Planet Index shows a staggering 83% reduction in the same time period.

(The picture above is a rare glimpse of the endangered Malayan tiger caught in a wildlife camera trap. Apex predators like tigers play a huge role in the health of forests. Photo: WWF-Malaysia)

A Cautionary Tale

Malaysia faces the loss of its mega biodiversity
The beautiful corals in the pristine waters of Teluk Dalam Kecil, Pulau Redang, off Terengganu's coast may soon be gone if we don't try to conserve biodiversity. According to WWF's The Living Planet Report, species population sizes have declined by 60% between 1970 and 2014.

The decline is especially pronounced in the tropics, with South and Central America suffering an 89% loss compared to 1970 figures.

A measure of extinction risk for five taxonomic groups – birds, mammals, amphibians, corals and cycads (an ancient group of plants) – also shows declines for all, indicating that species are moving towards extinction more rapidly.

While the report cites threats from, among others, pollution and climate change, much of this biodiversity loss has been traced to overexploitation and agricultural activity, driven primarily by what it calls “runaway consumption”.

The biannual Living Planet Report is commonly known as a biologist’s “stock market index” for the diversity and abundance of species worldwide and has been published since 1998. Although the 2018 report grabbed global headlines, it does not highlight any particular country. However, this does not mean that Malaysia has nothing to worry about.

In the report’s global map of the Ecological Footprint of Consump-tion, Malaysia is in the category of countries recording a consumption of between 3.5 to 5.25 global hectares (gha), ahead of other South-East Asian nations like Thailand and Indonesia.

Going, Going, Gone

The Sumatran rhino is already extinct in the wild here, the leatherback turtle is missing from our shores, and species like the Malayan tiger, gaur and sambar deer are in peril. Put that together with a recorded 14.4% deforestation rate from 2000 to 2012 (as reported by conservation portal Mongabay), and it adds up to Malaysia’s status as one of the 12 mega biodiversity countries in the world being increasingly threatened.

It is anyone’s guess how much there will be left of Malaysia’s reputed hoard of 15,000 species of flowering plants, 1,500 species of terrestrial vertebrates, and about 150,000 species of invertebrates by the end of the century, or even by 2050.

“I can’t put it into numbers but, suffice to say, things are not going to go well (for Malaysia) if we don’t do anything to reverse this,” Norizan says replying to a question on local species in danger of dying out.

Most Malaysians won’t think of wildlife loss as directly impacting them in – but think again. Using the example of the big mammals, like tigers and elephants, Norizan says these animals play a huge role in the health of the forests.

Elephants, she explains, are often called the engineers of the natural world because, as they walk through forests to forage, they clear a path for new vegetation to grow.

And why is the health of forests so important? Anyone who has had a tap run dry should know this by now: A healthy forest ultimately forms the catchment area – the fount, so to speak – of water sources like rivers and streams.

“You can live without electricity (but) you can’t live without water,” Norizan points out.

It was reported that a water shortage in the Klang Valley in early 2014 caused 30 companies to suffer losses, among which were Panasonic with a total toll of RM40mil and Nestle, with a staggering daily toll of RM15mil. At the same time, the National Water Resources Study 2000-2050 also warned that Kedah, Kuala Lumpur, Melaka, Penang, Perlis, Putrajaya and Selangor are staring at water deficits.

This despite Malaysia enjoying tropical weather with abundant rainfall – without enough healthy forested areas to form water catchments, all that rain simply isn’t collected for use.

While the pollution of river water sources by industries, poorly operated sewage treatment plants, and indiscriminate waste disposal contribute to this shortage, Malaysians’ consumption habits don’t help either.

Taps Running Dry

It is already a much publicised fact that Malaysians are among the most wasteful when it comes to water, with domestic consumers using an average 210 litres per capita daily in 2013, which is way above the United Nations’ recommendation of between 50 litre and 100 litres of water per person daily.

Even more frighteningly, the water consumption trend for states in peninsular Malaysia is projected to increase from 10.2 million litres a day to 18 million litres a day by 2040.

Overconsumption is not just limited to water but is also prevalent in other areas like residential electricity consumption and “even rare earths”, warns Norizan.

“The best thing we can do as individuals, firstly, is to not wait. (Be) very efficient in water usage. Secondly, make good choices of what we consume – what we eat, what we buy. Everything has a carbon footprint.

“And, of course, legislation. The government (has) to drive that,” she says.

This is why WWF-Malaysia welcomes the recent announcement under Budget 2019 that RM60mil has been set aside as incentives for states to protect and expand their existing protected areas.

While there already exists policies for water catchment areas to be gazetted as well as a master plan for the Central Forest Spine – the fountainhead of most of the major rivers in Malaysia – in place for conservation, such regulations these can be, and are routinely, over turned.

For instance, many state governments count monoculture plantations – such as durian and rubber tree estates – as forested areas, which allows them to de-gazette virgin rainforest. But despite the number of trees in monoculture areas, they do nothing for water conservation or for biodiversity, while fertiliser and pesticide use further degrades the land.

Norizan says, at the moment, state governments depend on extraction-based industries such as logging and mining for their revenue because the Federal Constitution gives states jurisdiction over their land, water and forest.

“A more plausible idea is for the federal and state governments to increase this (allocation) in the future and to look at development not just in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) but also in terms of the sustainability of their decisions, and plan for more than just five years.

“We would really advocate for some more incentives,” she says. “We can’t live without nature.”

With the Living Planet Report 2018 valuing services provided by nature to humans at US$125 trillion (RM514.12 trillion) a year – or over seven times the value of US GDP in 2014 (US$17.43 trillion or RM71.6 trillion at today’s rates) – threats to biodiversity do not only put humanity’s survival at stake but much of our economic activities as well.

This means, of course, that protecting our ecosystems and biodiversity may just make business sense as well.

A New Deal For Nature

In the wake of the Living Planet Report 2018, WWF-Malaysia wants Malaysians to join its push for a “New Deal” for nature.

The conservation organisation is hoping to come up with this new deal at the Conference of the Parties on the Convention on Biological Diversity in Beijing in 2020.

“Governments from many countries will meet in China then for a new road map,” a spokesperson says in a recent interview.

Malaysia is party to the convention, which was opened for signing during the paradigm-shifting Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

The 2020 meeting also sees the end of a 10-year plan agreed at a 2010 meeting in the Aichi district in Nagoya, Japan, for a set of 20 achievable targets to stem biodiversity loss, known collectively as the Aichi Biodiversity Targets.

The Aichi Targets hoped to, among others, reduce the rate of natural habitat and forest loss by at least 50%, prevent the extinction of threatened species, safeguard ecosystems for tribal groups, women and the poor as well as combat desertification and restore degraded ecosystems.

Formulators hope that the New Deal to be struck in 2020 will work in much the same way that the 2015 Paris Agreement works with negotiations on climate change.

The Living Planet Report has cited pollution, climate change, invasive species and disease, and overexploitation and agricultural activities – caused by “runaway consumption” – as reasons for the decline.

The decline is especially pronounced in the tropics, with South and Central America suffering an 89% loss in species population sizes compared with 1970.

WWF-Malaysia marketing and communication director Dominic Wong says Malaysians – all of humanity, actually – only have a small window to act to reverse the declining health of the world’s biodiversity.

“The evidence becomes stronger every day that humanity’s survival depends on our natural systems. Yet, we continue to destroy the health of nature at an alarming rate.

“That’s why we, along with conservation and science colleagues around the world, are calling for the most ambitious international agreement yet – a new global deal for nature and people to bend the curve on biodiversity loss,” he says.

“It’s clear that efforts to stem biodiversity loss have not worked and business as usual will amount to, at best, a continued, managed decline,” he says.

To this end, WWF-Malaysia will be embarking on a series of events to highlight its push for the New Deal, including an awareness programme on endangered Malayan tigers.

See the entire report here.

Malaysia faces the loss of its mega biodiversity

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