Reconciling traditional livelihoods in Malaysia

By Julia Lawson

Orang Seletar children in Gelang Patah.  Picture: Choo Chee Kuang

Orang Seletar children in Gelang Patah. Picture: Choo Chee Kuang

It’s mid-July and I’m sitting in the back seat of a sedan, the air-conditioning roaring to help quell the 45-degree Celsius heat that beats down from the hot Malaysian sun. Outside my widow a shiny new city springs from freshly cleared ground, full of luxury condominiums plastered with ‘For Sale’ signs and ready for occupancy. This is Iskandar, an entirely new region being built from the ground up by the Malaysian government.

The Iskandar region consists of five development zones around the southernmost city in peninsular Malaysia, Johor Baru. Johor Baru is peninsular Malaysia’s ‘southern gateway,’ only a 30-minute drive from the island city-state of Singapore. While the low prices of goods and services make Johor Baru a favourite shopping destination for Singaporeans looking to score a good deal, the Malaysian government hopes to turn this into a two-way street by providing the solution for Singapore’s economic expansion and physical need for land. Malaysia is a country with great aspirations, and rocketing economic growth. By the year 2020 it aims to be classified as a high-income economy (as defined by the World Bank), meaning a per capita gross national income greater than $12,616. This is often considered to be synonymous with joining the ranks of developed, first world countries.

The Malaysian government and the project’s ambitious planners bill the Iskandar development as a green city with a compact core that will promote walking and public transit. Its goal is to generate a physical and mental shift in Iskandar Malaysia’s population.

As I gaze out of the window of the sedan, the landscape around me is barren, dry and desert-like. We pull into a gas station and I drag myself across the scorching parking lot to buy a bottle of water. While I can’t help but question the walkability of a city where temperatures fester in the mid thirties throughout the year, I do appreciate that Iskandar Malaysia is trying to do things right. Yet, no matter how green a city, with a projected population of three million people by 2025, the process of creating Iskandar is not without consequences.

I plunge back into the car and we continue to head south to Gelang Patah, a traditional fishing community that has a large population of Malay indigenous people (Orang Seletar) and is situated on the Pulai River Estuary. The multi-national Ramsar Convention on Wetlands recognized this estuary for its biodiversity by naming it a Wetland of International Importance in 2003. At the base of the estuary lies Malaysia’s largest intertidal seagrass meadow, home to estuarine crocodiles, dugongs, and seahorses. I am here to help survey the yellow seahorses (Hippocampus kuda) living in this seagrass meadow. Over the past decade, nearly 800 seahorses have been tagged and monitored in this seagrass meadow, making it one of the most intensively studied seahorse populations in the world.

The best time to survey for seahorses is at dawn, so we leave to survey the seagrass meadow as the scorching Malaysian sun begins to rise. As we speed along the Sungai Pulai towards the Johor Strait, the view is astonishing. I see how tightly sandwiched the seagrass meadow is between two rapidly developing nations, Malaysia to the north and Singapore to the south. The seemingly remote fishing community of Gelang Patah sits only a stone’s throw from Singapore. As we get closer to Singapore, we begin to approach a daunting fleet of tankers that sit in the Johor Strait. Stepping onto to the largest seagrass meadow in peninsular Malaysia from our tiny boat seems surreal. The seagrass meadow is only exposed once a month when the tides are low enough for researchers to search for seahorses on foot.

In 2009 the local community began to express their concerns about the significant effect that the Iskandar development plan would have on their community and livelihood. The two primary concerns for the local people of Gelang Patah were the Tanjung Pelepas shipping port and Tanjung Bin Power plant. In order to go ahead, both developments would directly or indirectly remove mangrove forest and seagrass habitats, reducing the amount of space available to the fish and other creatures that the community relies on for food and income. Despite petitions and peaceful protests directed towards the Malaysian government, both projects have gone ahead, and are fully operational.

However, the biggest threat to the livelihoods of the fishers in Gelang Patah may be yet to come. A massive sea filling project is underway in the Johor Strait, the narrow strip of water running between Malaysia and Singapore. The new island will be christened “Forest City,” and is the largest sea filling project in Malaysia to date. When complete it will be a luxury home island. The seagrass habitat at the base of the Pulai River Estuary, a critical habitat to the fish that call it home and the fishers of Gelang Patah, will be buried.

So where is the fine balance between the increasingly urbanized population of Malaysia and traditional livelihoods? The green aspirations of Iskandar Malaysia show cautious planning and consideration, but sea filling projects seem to counter the developer’s objective to “preserve the biodiversity” of Iskandar Malaysia. The solution requires planners to meet the high standards they have set for themselves. They envision an Iskandar Malaysia that sets a global standard for green cities. With persistence, the success of a sustainable Iskandar Malaysia could indeed serve as a global example for other rapidly developing countries. I propose that Iskandar Malaysia both includes community-based knowledge systems in the development plan for Iskandar Malaysia, and considers the impacts the current development on traditional livelihoods. Supporting its own people through the rapid growth and development of the region should be a priority for the Malaysian government and Iskandar developers. 

As our small motorboat pulls back into the jetty at Gelang Patah after a long morning of seahorse surveys, the impacts of the Iskandar development are not immediately apparent. The local children take a small boat across the Pulai River to reach their school, and long-tailed macaques scamper through the trees surrounding the community dock. However, our boatman tells us how catches that sustain the livelihood of the community members are receding. I think about my friends in Gelang Patah today and hope that Iskandar Malaysia will not leave them behind.

The seahorses of Malaysia’s Sembilan archipelago

By Julia Lawson

A pregnant male yellow seahorse ( H. kuda )

A pregnant male yellow seahorse (H. kuda)

Located roughly 10 km off the west coast of mainland Malaysia, Pulau Sembilan (or the Nine Islands) has managed to fly under the radar while the rest of the country expands and develops. The archipelago is composed of nine uninhabited and densely forested islands.

Earlier this year, I conducted an exploratory dive in Pulau Sembilan looking for seahorses, which I heard could be found in the coral reefs surrounding these islands. Threatened by coastal development, land reclamation, and fishing, these reefs comprise some of the last healthy coral populations off the west coast of Malaysia.

The first few days of the trip were eye-opening for the sheer scope and diversity of the corals on display, but disappointing in terms of seahorse sightings. My research assistant, Yin Sing, and I found only four seahorses in the first three days. While it was exciting to observe these charismatic and mysterious animals in the wild for the first time, my heart sank as we looked for others. There were none, but this was not surprising as seahorses populations are notoriously patchy and low-density.

During our very last dive, I swam slowly back to the boat, determined to enjoy my final few minutes underwater in spite of our disappointing numbers. I noticed some beautiful branching coral in the shallows and swam over to examine it. That’s when I noticed two eyes staring up at me. A tiger-tail seahorse seemed to hold its breath, wishing for me to pass by it unnoticed. Nearly perfectly camouflaged against the yellow-tinged Acropora coral, I strained my eyes to look for others nearby. I was shocked to find more seahorses, woven amongst the branching coral. Running out of time, I conducted a quick count and confirmed five individuals in this small patch. Had they been there all along and we were just looking in the wrong places?

We returned to the Sembilan archipelago a few weeks later, determined to find out as much as we could about our newly discovered seahorse population. We were equipped with quadrats, transects, calipers and all the other scientific gear needed to survey a population of seahorses. On a hunch, I felt like there had to be more than just the five I found in that small patch. We had three full days to find out if this was true. My mind raced—what if there were only five? What if we can’t find them again? But before I knew it, I was back in the water at the Sembilan archipelago, eye to eye with a tiger-tail seahorse. 

Yun Sing and I worked methodically, focusing on patches of branching coral and then finding seahorses living inside. We would locate a seahorse, gently measure and photograph it, and return it to its home. We would also note whether it was pregnant or had a partner (as seahorses are monogamous). Lastly, we took note of the seahorse’s surroundings by photographing and measuring the branching coral that it lived in.

After three days of intensive diving we found 78 seahorses around the Sembilan archipelago, including two tiny juveniles that were only 2.5cm in length. We were ecstatic to find out that this population represented not only the biggest population found to date on the west coast of peninsular Malaysia, but one of the biggest populations discovered thus far in South East Asia.

Despite the size and density of this population, we were surprised to learn that the Sembilan archipelago is offered no protection by the Malaysian government. With no restrictions on fishing, the Sembilan archipelago is open access and more alarmingly, it is open to those specifically harvesting seahorses for the aquarium trade. 

Project Seahorse has since then teamed up with Reef Check Malaysia, a local non-governmental organization in Malaysia, and our colleagues at the University of Malaya, to encourage government protection of this unique and important ecosystem. Protecting the seahorses of the Sembilan archipelago is an important step in maintaining seahorse populations in South East Asia.

Julia Lawson is an MSc student with Project Seahorse. 

A tribute to Choo Chee Kuang, academic and humanitarian

By Julia Lawson

Earlier this year, Project Seahorse colleague Choo Chee Kuang passed away after a courageous battle with cancer. Choo was a scientist, conservationist, and humanitarian who produced important and novel research on seahorses and the seahorse trade in Malaysia. On behalf of the Project Seahorse team, MSc student Julia Lawson remembers our dear colleague, who will be deeply missed.

Choo Chee Kuang’s reputation preceded him. I knew his work long before I travelled halfway around the world to begin my own fieldwork in Southeast Asia. His pioneering research on seahorse populations in Malaysia introduced me to the country before I ever set foot in it. A map next to my desk depicted the sixteen sites that Choo surveyed along the west coast of the peninsula. Those sites acted as a guidebook, and came alive from Choo’s papers. As a young researcher, developing ideas for my project, he had published a number of pioneering studies that inspired me. I left for Malaysia in May 2013, eager to see how things have changed from Choo’s research twelve years earlier.

Upon arriving in Malaysia, I spent time with the volunteer research program Choo started in 2004 called Save Our Seahorses Malaysia. It was then I realized that he was so much more than an academic. SOS Malaysia leads the effort to understand and protect seahorse populations in Malaysia, with a focus on the Pulai River Estuary in the south peninsular region. The Pulai River Estuary consists of the largest riverine mangrove forest and most expansive seagrass area in the peninsula. It is home not only to seahorses, but also pipefish, estuarine crocodiles, and dugongs. 

While this area is exceptionally biodiverse, it sits in an area of political importance, making protection difficult. The Pulai River Estuary occupies a narrow strip of water between Singapore and Malaysia, right in the middle of a busy shipping lane. Singapore continues to expand through development and land-reclamation, and Malaysia seeks to keep pace. In 2006, Malaysia proclaimed a huge region in south Malaysia as the Iskandar Development Region. This region is aimed at complimenting Singapore as the central economic hub in peninsular Malaysia. 

Driving down to the SOS Malaysia headquarters in Gelang Patah, we passed through much of Iskandar Malaysia. High-rises sprang from freshly cleared ground; luxury condominiums sat empty in the middle of nowhere. Ready for occupancy, and ready for expansion, Iskandar Malaysia seems to perfectly capture Malaysia’s status as an emerging economy.

Orang Seletar children near Gelang Patah, South Johor.  Photo: Choo Chee Kuang

Orang Seletar children near Gelang Patah, South Johor. Photo: Choo Chee Kuang

Choo fought tirelessly to protect the Pulai River Estuary from the negative effects of development that come from projects like Iskandar. To save the estuary’s seahorses, Choo realized that he needed the support of the local indigenous people, the Orang Seletar. He recognized that as south Malaysia continued to develop, traditional livelihoods like small-scale fishing would be lost. Today, ocean-side communities in south Malaysia are faced with encroachment from shipping ports and hazardous petrochemical plants. Choo educated Orang Seletar children about their marine environment and over time he became a spokesperson for these communities. Under the guidance of Choo, Save Our Seahorses Malaysia was also a key organizer in peaceful protests by the Orang Seletar community to highlight environmental concerns about petrochemical projects in the region. 

Choo was an academic who was fascinated by seahorse biology and trade in Malaysia, yet he was also a humanitarian who cared deeply about the communities and people in the areas that he studied. Today, south Malaysia continues to develop, but the impact of Choo’s work continues to be felt. The Orang Seletar community still maintains a community centre, which Choo helped develop, and Save Our Seahorses Malaysia continues to monitor the seahorse population in the Pulai River Estuary. Through SOS Malaysia’s ongoing work to bring small-scale fishing communities and scientists together, Choo’s important work will live on for many years to come.

I count myself among those inspired by Choo, and he remains an advisor and a mentor to me, even though he is no longer with us. Using Choo’s papers as the backbone of my research, I revisited the ports he surveyed 12 years ago, and recorded trends and changes in seahorse trade and biology since his founding work. Project Seahorse and our colleagues at the University of Malaya will continue research on seahorses in Malaysia, and on-the-ground conservation continues with Save Our Seahorses’ dedicated volunteers and Orang Seletar fishing communities.