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.