Of pregnant tigers and sad whales

FEBRUARY 23 ― February 2016 has been a grim month so far for Malaysian wildlife. In a span of less than one week, we have lost members of two very recognisable species ― a Malayan tiger and a Bryde’s whale. Both died under very different circumstances; the former upon collision with a multi purpose vehicle while attempting to cross the East Coast Expressway 2 while the latter’s cause of death has yet to be confirmed.

Tigers and whales along with a select few species are what conservationists call charismatic species ― animals unique enough to capture the attention of the general public. The reason for this is still unclear. Some may draw their charm from being large in size like the Asian elephant while others rely on their unconventional life histories like the male gestating seahorse. More often that not, charismatic species are used as de facto symbols for wildlife conservation.

Although both fauna possess these charismatic values, the story of how they died could not be more different. One tells of the gradual loss of Malaysia’s most iconic species in the face of development while the other, how a lack of evidence-based statements can lead to public confusion.

The tale of the Malayan tiger

This year itself, we have taken six tigers from the wild. Aside from the three (mother and cubs) lost in the accident, two were poached in January while another tiger was found in a wild boar trap earlier this week. Six might not seem a large number but considering the tiger population in Malaysia is estimated to be between 250-340, we have already removed 2.4 per cent of all Malayan tigers this year alone!

Returning to the incident with the pregnant tigress, I am pleased that the Minister of Environmental and Natural Resource Datuk Wan Junaidi has announced measures to prevent more such accidents in future including the proposal to build 37 eco-viaducts. However, I hope this will not turn out to be just a knee-jerk reaction in response to public outcry. More importantly, the incorporation of eco-viaducts should not be an excuse to build more roads.

According to Dr Reuben Clements of Universiti Malaysia Terengganu, eco-viaducts will undoubtedly reduce the impact of existing roads on wildlife. The very presence of roads, however, allows accessibility and hence intensifying further threat to wildlife like forest conversion, poaching and illegal trade.

In short, we have to build fewer new roads cutting through forests and focus on building viaducts for wildlife hot spots along the staggering 49,935km of federal roads. If nothing is done in the near future, we are at risk of relegating Malaysia’s most iconic species to just adorning the covers of our passports.

A beached whale

The story of the Bryde’s whale that was found on Malaysian shores is indeed a tragic one. It was first sighted struggling in the shallow waters of Pontian last Monday. Local fishermen managed to tow the poor creature to deeper waters after several attempts. However, its carcass was found a day later about 100 kilometres away near the river mouth of Sungai Sarang Buaya.

In a video report by StarTV, three different reasons were given by “experts” as to why the whale died. To make matters worse, the whale was misidentified as a Sei whale (Balaenoptera borealis) when it was actually a Bryde’s whale (Balaenoptera brydei) from the presence of three parallel ridges on its head.

In the video, a fishery officer explained that the whale might have been under emotional duress and beached itself after being separated from its pod. A local university professor then theorised that shallower waters could have disrupted whale migration patterns leading to an eventual stranding. Lastly the Johor branch president of the Malaysian Nature Society pinned the death on disorientation from the noise of heavy shipping in the narrow Malacca Straits.

In response to these claims, MareCet, the only local marine mammal NGO run by actual marine mammalogists, rebutted these statements in a Facebook post. According to them, this particular species of whale is usually solitary, do not undertake seasonal migrations and do not use echolocation for communication hence would not be affected by shipping vessels. The barrage of inconsistent information is an example of how little we know about marine species inhabiting Malaysian waters and the need for evidence-based statements in reporting.

With that, I caution readers against totally believing reports on wildlife especially the ones that pop up on social media. Alas, only recently the Tokay Gecko was hunted en masse for supposedly being able to cure HIV/AIDS. Ideally, it is good practice to fact check with something as simple as a Google search.

A bright side?

Taking a step back from the causes of death, both cases managed to garner a sizable following on social media.  Is this  a positive sign for Malaysian wildlife? Or are we Malaysians merely keyboard warriors looking for the next sensational story? I personally believe that everyone can and should have a part to play in conservation, from doing something as simple as spreading awareness on whale species nomenclature to actively campaigning against the building of new roads that cut through forest.

In the immortal words of Winston Churchill: “Never let a crisis go to waste”, I hope that these twin tragedies will galvanise action to ensure a future for our wildlife, be it terrestrial or marine.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.