Saturday 13 Apr 2024
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This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly on February 19, 2024 - February 25, 2024

Several scientific reports in recent years have highlighted how the world is facing a biodiversity crisis. One million species are threatened with extinction, soils are becoming infertile and water sources are drying up, as described by the United Nations Environment Programme.

In December 2022, the Global Biodiversity Framework was signed in Montreal as the first step towards halting biodiversity loss. This was again highlighted in the concluding statement of COP28 last November, which underlined the urgent need to address “the interlinked crisis of climate change and biodiversity loss”.

This will likely continue to be a hot topic in 2024. To find out more, ESG spoke to Mark Rayan Darmaraj, country director of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Malaysia Programme.

From your perspective, have there been any significant steps forward in protecting biodiversity?

Mark: I would say that globally, there’s certainly been a lot of attention on trying to contextualise what the global biodiversity framework actually means at the country level. I know that Malaysia recently undertook the process of revising the National Policy on Biological Diversity to be aligned with the global biodiversity framework.

This represents an opportunity for the country to be able to articulate its ambitions and be aligned with the global move to try to protect larger seascapes and landscapes. Whether or not that has been reflected in the latest revision of the policy or will be included in an adaptive manner remains to be seen.

Stating ambitions and being aligned are a good start, but has there been any traction on how biodiversity has gained in relation to ESG?

Not quite. Yes, there has been a buzz in terms of how “nature-based solutions” have the potential to increase financing to protect wildlife and the areas that harbour such biodiversity, but to be honest, there is really not much to tell in terms of what can be seen on the ground in Malaysia.

Existing frameworks perhaps need to be enhanced, or new ones that guide the pathways to make biodiversity protection locally meaningful need to be crafted.

I do hope that all this talk about financing nature-based solutions eventually really translates to meaningful efforts on the ground to not only reduce emissions of greenhouse gases but also enables critical conservation work on wildlife, such as protecting them from poaching, monitoring their population status, as well as recognising and involving indigenous people to be part of conservation efforts.

In Malaysia, we’ve seen the dwindling number of tigers in the wild, the loss of the last Sumatran rhino and continuing tussles over forest conversions. Are we moving backwards?

Since the national tiger survey was completed, I would say there have been mixed developments in terms of how tigers are faring. In some sites, I’m sure the tiger population would have dropped even further, but in other places like Endau Rompin, which is the landscape WCS Malaysia is working in, there are indications that the tiger population has been stabilised.

However, with the advent and spread of African swine fever, a disease that has possibly decimated wild pig populations (an important prey species for tigers) across Peninsular Malaysia, we are not quite sure how tigers are faring in Endau Rompin now. We will only know for sure (in 2024) after we complete a full-scale camera-trapping survey across the entire landscape.

For the species as a whole, tigers are faced with numerous threats such as poaching (both by locals and more hardcore syndicates from Vietnam), habitat loss and fragmentation. There are indications now that poaching by Vietnamese syndicates is starting to pick up again after Covid-19, so it is important that we don’t let our guard down.

Some species, like the Sumatran rhinoceros, have gone extinct in recent years, while fewer than 150 Malayan tigers remain in the wild. One of Malaysia’s megafauna, the gaur, is now only found in small numbers scattered across a few landscapes. The sambar deer population is also thought to have been heavily reduced due to historical hunting. Although we are on the right track with a number of new conservation initiatives being put in place over the past five years, it remains to be seen what the larger impact will be further down the line.

In terms of habitat, it remains a complex issue as states are the ultimate decision-makers when it comes to land matters.

In recent years, large-scale conversion of forest reserves has been taking place to establish timber-latex clone plantations, while rare earth mining is an upcoming threat that needs to be monitored to make sure important wildlife habitats are not compromised.

The recent establishment of the national Ecological Fiscal Transfer (EFT) as a mechanism to reward states for preserving their forests is a good start to addressing these issues, although the quantum of compensation probably needs to be increased dramatically to provide sufficient incentive for this to be carried out effectively. In addition, how states use EFT needs to be better governed and streamlined to ensure that existing natural forests are not converted to other land uses or degraded.

What are some milestones in Malaysia?

One is the establishment of Malaysia’s first National Tiger Task Force, which has outlined steps to be taken to conserve the Malayan tiger. This task force is chaired by the Prime Minister of Malaysia and attended by other high-ranking government officials. It is something that tiger conservation non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have been advocating over a number of years now.

Two related initiatives — Operasi Bersepadu Khazanah and the Veteran Orang Asli (VetOA) programme — were established to increase enforcement and patrol presence in and around wildlife habitats. Operasi Bersepadu Khazanah is led by the Royal Malaysian Police and the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, with participation by other agencies and NGOs.

The VetOA programme is led by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks and is also supported by NGOs. This initiative has deployed more than 1,000 patrollers on the ground by hiring Orang Asli and veteran armed force personnel to patrol wildlife habitats.

There’s also the establishment of a Wildlife Crime Bureau under the Royal Malaysia Police. Aside from that, the Wildlife Conservation Act was amended in 2022, which provides for stiffer penalties for wildlife offenders.

In terms of tiger conservation, a couple of significant milestones took place in 2023. In March 2023, it was announced that Royal Belum State Park in Perak had achieved Conservation Assured Tiger Standards accreditation (CA|TS), a global accreditation scheme that encourages tiger conservation areas to meet a set of standards and best practices.

This journey took place over several years and is a testament to how Malaysia can achieve global recognition by strengthening conservation efforts and management of protected areas through strong leadership and commitment.

Royal Belum State Park is the first site in Southeast Asia to receive this accolade. In the following month, Pahang announced the gazettement of Malaysia’s first tiger reserve, spanning 1,340km², named the Al-Sultan Abdullah Royal Tiger Reserve. This is indeed a positive development as the expansion of protected areas is critical for the long-term survival of tigers and many other threatened species.

Some “missed” milestones include a freeze or ban on the conversion of parts of permanent forests to industrial-scale plantations and a ban on rare earth mining in permanent reserved forests, although it is stated as an action in the new National Policy on Biological Diversity (“Ensure that all mining projects take into account all relevant legislation and avoid important biodiversity areas, including Permanent Reserved Forest and protected areas”).

The Central Forest Spine Master Plan is supposed to connect vital ecological corridors. What is the progress?

The revised Central Forest Spine Master Plan (2022) is still new, so its progress and achievements remain to be seen. The original Central Forest Master Plan released in 2009 had major challenges, and, in effect, only a couple of the 37 identified linkages were afforded an improved level of habitat protection.

One of the few success stories is the ecological corridor within the Belum-Temengor Forest Complex in Perak, which was gazetted as a permanent reserved forest, and a viaduct was built to facilitate wildlife movement across the Gerik-Jeli Highway, which cuts across this landscape.

Many of the other linkages in the first 2009 plan have been degraded or converted to other land uses. There were numerous challenges in implementing the master plan back then and perhaps even now, mainly due to limited buy-in from the states in relation to the lack of financing options to protect linkages and larger habitats.

It would be interesting to see how the biodiversity sukuk for 2024 that mentions reforestation will be utilised to restore some of these linkages and how carbon financing will protect the larger habitats that these linkages are intended to connect.

What do you hope to see in Malaysia in the next year?

The key thing that I would really hope to see is the harmonising and optimising of some of the existing initiatives that the government already has or is planning to have.

For example, recognising that the Malayan tiger is on the brink of extinction and that a large portion of its habitat is in permanent reserved forests that could be subjected to logging, conversion to monoculture plantations or mining.

I would also observe how the Malaysian Tiger Task Force is utilised in a manner that will be able to prioritise efforts to bring in carbon financing or any other means of financing to help protect the Malayan tigers’ habitat from being further fragmented, degraded or converted into other land uses.

I would love to see how this could be tied in with implementing the Central Forest Spine Master Plan, with the support of the EFT and the biodiversity sukuk, so that these efforts can be maximised to protect, restore and connect tiger habitats that will benefit Malaysia’s biodiversity.

In relation to on-the-ground protection from poaching, I would love to see the contract hiring of Orang Asli as rangers under the VetOA programme converted to permanent positions and institutionalised, so this will not be dependent on the annual budget allocations.

In addition, I anticipate that new initiatives such as the Wildlife Crime Bureau will support the Department of Wildlife and National Parks to counter poaching and illegal wildlife trade, and I look forward to how this will progress positively for the greater good of protecting our biodiversity.

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