Saturday, 29 March 2014

Letter to the Editor: Protect RAMSAR sites and seagrass meadows

Letter to the Editor 
Protect RAMSAR sites and seagrass meadows against further degradation

(Photo taken of Knobbly Sea Stars (Protoeaster nodosus) at the Sg. Pulai seagrass meadow) 

It is with dismay that MNS Green Living learned of the Johor State Government's plans to degazette 2 ecologically sensitive wetland habitats listed as RAMSAR sites (NST, 26 March 2014). It is alarming that state governments are making unanimous and arbitrary decisions to degazette forest and mangrove reserves and delist RAMSAR sites without consulting environmental organisations or the local community. 

Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) and its volunteers have carried out data collection and coastal cleanup projects at Pulau Merambong, Sungai Pulai, Tanjung Piai, and Pulau Kukup in the past and can attest to the diversity of flora and fauna in these sites. 

Over the years, however, coastal erosion and environmental degradation has adversely affected the water quality and marine biodiversity in the said sites. However, degazettement would be the irresponsible and counterintuitive thing to do. The logical response to the degradation of the sites would be to create buffer zones and take other measures to protect the sites against destruction, pollution, overfishing and other harm. Instead of degazetting the degraded sites, effort should be made to restore the sites and to seek RAMSAR listing for other wetlands of international importance. 

The seagrass meadows of Sg Pulai are especially deserving of protection due to their importance to the environment and local communities. Seagrass meadows provide coastal zones with a number of ecosystem goods and ecosystem services, including stabilising the sea bottom, providing food and habitat for other marine organisms, maintaining water quality, supporting local fishing communities, wave protection, oxygen production and protection against coastal erosion. Seagrass meadows account for 15% of the ocean’s total carbon storage. It is estimated that per hectare, seagrass meadows hold twice as much carbon dioxide as rainforests. Yearly, seagrasses sequester about 27.4 million tons of carbon dioxide. 

 The habitat complexity of the Sg. Pulai seagrass meadows, Pulau Merambong, Pulau Kukup and Tanjung Piai enhances the diversity and abundance of animals. These ecologically-sensitive sites provide food and shelter for many organisms including seahorses and dugong, and are a nursery ground for commercially-important prawn and fish species, and thus contribute to local economic activity. 

It is regrettable that while environmental organisations such as MNS and Save Our Seahorses (SOS) Malaysia strive tirelessly to educate members of the public on the importance of conserving wetlands, estuaries and seagrass meadows, state governments and those in a decision-making capacity are trading our natural treasures and ecological heritage for short-term financial gains. We therefore strongly urge that the Johor State Government reconsiders its plans to delist the RAMSAR sites and instead take concrete action to protect these ecologically important zones. 

MNS Green Living, 
Malaysian Nature Society

Friday, 21 March 2014

Volunteer Appreciation Day 2013/2014 at the Awana Genting Longhouse

Since 2010, the Malaysian Nature Society (Selangor Branch) has been organising annual Volunteer Appreciation Days ("VADs") for approximately 50 of our best and most dedicated volunteers, usually around International Volunteer Day in December.
Each year, the Committee will choose a nature spot within the same state and get all the volunteers to carpool to the event for an overnight stay. It's not all fun and games for those of us in the organising committee, though, because of the added responsibility of logistics, food catering requirements, reservations and other preparations. I am usually put in charge of the games and ice-breaking activities.
This year, however, we decided to engage the services of the resort managers to take care of all the food and activities so the rest of us who typically are in the organising committee would get to relax and participate in the games for a change. It was a liberating experience for me not to be in charge of anything for once. I felt so.... appreciated!
So the VAD this year was held at the Awana Longhouse in Genting Highlands for the first time, after 2 consecutive years of observing VAD at the Air Hitam Forest Reserve. It was a welcome change, especially because of the heat, drought and haze in the city. We were absolutely thrilled to arrive at the Awana Longhouse to find the air cool, clean, crisp and free of pollution. Even the heavy rain could not put a damper on our spirits. After 3 weeks of dry weather (unusual for Malaysia), the rain was a cause for celebration.
The resort managers had planted Caribbean Pine (Pinus caribaea), an introduced species, around the Longhouse and resort grounds. It gave the resort grounds a subtropical feel, and the young pinecones provided food for the local wildlife.
Bamboo windchimes gave the Longhouse a rustic, pastoral vibe.
Little hand grenades :)
Pinecones from the Caribbean Pine (Pinus caribaea) and Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophylla). I collected a few to make crafts with.
A bamboo orchid (Arundina) plant growing wild. We saw quite a number of wild orchids on our nature walks in the area.
Aravind doing the forward descent abseiling exercise, which was the first organised activity of the day.
The setup of one of the contemporary simulation games organised by the resort manager. Participants were broken up into teams, and hostages and rescue experts were appointed.
I was a very opinionated and loud hostage. I didn't want to be the victim, I wanted to be the hero, so I kept calling them out for discrimination.
... And the plot thickens. The hostages were returned to their teams without the knowledge of the blindfolded rescue experts! Hilarity ensued.
It started to pour with glorious icy cold rain soon after we completed the games. We ran up to the Longhouse with glee to enjoy the cold, damp and misty weather. I could not resist playing in the rain. We had been so deprived of rain in the city for the past few weeks.
Rolling mist in the montane forests, 3,000 feet above sea level.
MNS volunteers birding and nature watching after the rain. We had a lovely time spotting montane flora and fauna, and I learned a lot about plants from our Flora Group coordinator, Koon Hup.
We spotted a giant millipede (about a foot in length) along the trail while walking back to the Longhouse for dinner.
Giant millipede: "Sorry! Can't stay to chat! I've got to go! I've got to go!"
(Photo credits: Steven Wong)
After dinner, Pui May of the Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers (MYCAT) delivered a talk on wildlife crimes and the Citizen Action for Tigers (CAT) Programme. Many thanks to May for answering all our questions on the wildlife crime reporting procedure.
It was good not to be distracted by our electronics and household chores, so we could go to bed well before midnight. It was lovely to sleep in the open air. Mother Nature switched her air-conditioning unit on at full blast, so I had to have a hoodie and 3 blankets in order to stay warm enough to go to sleep.
Longhouse camping -- a first for Aravind. He really enjoyed the excursion, and I was just happy to have him with us. He has been volunteering for every event since 2012 and has been very helpful and friendly to the others, so nominating him was an easy choice. I did get the feedback of the committee first, because I didn't want to be accused of cronyism. It was a unanimous committee decision to invite him.
(Photo credits: Steven Wong)
A group photo of the volunteers for posterity. I hope we remain friends and volunteers for many, many years to come.
For more information on the Awana Longhouse, please visit the link below:

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Raptor Watch 2014: People - Nature - Birds - We're All In This Together!


"But what's the use of roots if you can't spread them?
What's the use of wings if you can't fly?"
~ "What's the use of wings", by Brian Bedford.

The following is my brief review of Raptor Watch 2014, which took place last weekend (8th - 9th March 2014). This marks my 13th year as a Malaysian Nature Society Raptor Watch volunteer, and my 9th year as the coordinator of Green Living.
Raptor Watch and MNS have both come a long way (as an ecotourism event and environmental organisation, respectively) and the level of raptor awareness now is really very heartening to see. My hope for Raptor Watch is that it becomes more than just a tourist event and encourages and promotes citizen activism and hands-on volunteering. I hope to see more of the local community involved in surveys, data collection, beach cleanups, petitions and Citizen Science activities.
Good things that made Raptor Watch 2014 memorable, and which I hope will be repeated in the subsequent years:
(i) RIDE-SHARING! For the first time, the MNS Secretariat provided a bus in which to transport the staff and volunteers. I hope this will be continued in the interests of environmental responsibility and volunteer welfare.
(ii) Volunteer accommodation -- We got to stay in PNB Ilham Resort this time, which is a lot more convenient and comfortable than staying in other resorts and having to lug our things to the event grounds and back each day. I remember the early days when we had to stay in the deplorably run-down PD Marina apartments, and in the quaint government quarters where we had to cook and prepare our own meals after a long day of volunteering because meals weren't provided.
(iii) It was good to see more people being aware of the availability of the water refill stations, and most visitors and volunteers did come prepared with their own water bottles. It was also good that we did not provide cups, because this compelled people to reduce waste.
(iv) It was one of the most low-waste events ever, despite the sheer number of visitors. Most of the waste could be recycled or reused. I was, however, a bit concerned over the fact that not all the recycling bins provided by PNB Ilham Resort were put to use the way they were intended, and there wasn't enough waste separation going on. There's always room for improvement but I am happy we didn't do too badly, and the event on the whole was very professionally run thanks to Andrew and his capable team.
(v) It was good to see more of the local non-profit environmental organisations such as MYCAT and the Turtle Conservation Society being represented at this major ecotourism event. I hope in future we can also offer booths to CETDEM, Gerai OA and other local environmental groups for their fundraising, awareness and outreach work.

Raptor Watch 2014 Photodump:

Zhang En briefs visitors at the Green Living booth. I can retire and let her take over as coordinator now.

Green Living volunteers -- Zhang En, Aravind, Zhang Hui, Shannon, Illani and Liza -- having a powwow at our booth before the next batch of visitors arrive.

New posters for our booth -- Thanks to our graphic design maven, Liza Manshoor (who also happens to be one of my best friends and a very dedicated volunteer)!

MNS Nature Guides registering participants for the Jungle Walk at their booth.

It was good to see everyone making use of the Water Refill Stations!


Look who's here! Our friends Loretta and Rayven came all the way to Tanjung Tuan to support our efforts!

Wildlife snares and traps on display at the MYCAT (Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers) booth to raise awareness on wildlife crime.

Bird-themed merchandise at the MNS Bird Group's booth to raise funds for their educational activities and trips.

At the MY Garden Birdwatch registration booth. I received a free t-shirt as a token of appreciation as this is my 5th year as a MYGB participant.

Pelf Nyok and her awesome mum at the Turtle Conservation Society's booth. I did most of my shopping here ;)

The view of the PNB Ilham Resort swimming pool from our apartment unit.


The view of the event grounds from our apartment unit on the 3rd floor.

Meranti Tembaga (Shorea leprosula) -- one of my favourite indigenous rainforest trees.

Eunice, Liza and I walking up to the lighthouse after our official duties were over.

A big-ass mengkuang (Pandanus) plant in the forest reserve.

The Cape Rachado lighthouse viewed from a different angle.

A tree that caught my attention. My guess is that it is a Ficus racemosa. Would anyone be able to help me ID it?

Picking up litter along the jungle trail and around the lighthouse, as usual. Eunice was surprised to see the bin bag. She didn't realise that I bring bin bags with me wherever I go. Cleaning up nature spots has become a bit of an obsession with me.

Sunset over the Tanjung Tuan Forest Reserve and Straits of Melaka.

PNB Ilham at dusk.

Me, briefing the race marshalls and 'predators' on their roles and responsibilities before the Predator Run.  (Photo credits: Stephenie Cecilia of MNS)

My 'predators' were supposed to have eagle costumes but that didn't happen due to budget and time constraints so we made do with painted faces instead. I don't know how they ended up gators instead of raptors, though. But it's alright, the boys did a great job of catching the runners and ripping their race bracelets off. Even last year's race winner was not spared. All the runners were able to answer the environment-related questions I printed onto their race bracelets, so maybe I'll need to come up with more challenging questions next year. (Photo credits: Elena, MNS Events Manager)

Aravind and Zhang Hui were called up as finalists for one of the Lucky Draw prizes. Neither won, though, but it's alright guys, you'll always be winners in my eyes!

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Langkawi LASSie and the livin' is easy

I first visited the Langkawi LASSie animal shelter and Island Animal Clinic in 2006, and returned there to volunteer and play with the animals with my ex-partner in 2010.

I love how beautifully-kept and well-managed the resort and animal shelter are and made it a significant goal on my Mighty Life List to return one day as a resort guest and volunteer. By a stroke of serendipitous good fortune, I saw a Facebook announcement for a contest for which the prize was a 3-day 2-night stay at BonTon Resort, which operates, manages and shares its premises with Langkawi LASSie.

I participated in the creative writing story to raise awareness for homeless animals and this was my entry, which was selected as one of the finalists.

I won the contest and the results were announced several months later. It was several months before I could go to ChinaHouse Penang to collect my original voucher and certificate when the copy they posted to me went missing in the mail. I suppose it is still going halfway around the world on the back of a mule now.

The important thing was that Aravind and I managed to make arrangements and book ourselves a nice and meaningful little holiday in the middle of February.

We flew AirAsia to Langkawi and rented a car at the airport. So many memories came back to me then. The ex and I had done the same things and visited the same places when we had our vacation in Langkawi. I am glad we were staying in Bon Ton Resort this time, though. If there is anyone who deserves a fancy and relaxing holiday, it would be Aravind. He had been working very hard and really deserved the break. The main attraction for me would be my animal friends at the shelter and clinic. I flew with a backpack full of dog and cat treats, toys and grooming brushes for them.

We arrived at Bon Ton and waited to be checked in. The swimming pool in our tropical paradise shimmered invitingly in the afternoon sun.

We were checked into a charming little chalet, Yellow Orchid, whose resident cat is Skippy, the protagonist of my poem and the contest. Skippy was found with a broken paw by the shelter's founder, Narelle, many years ago. Although the broken paw never healed perfectly, Skippy did not let this hold her back or stop her from living a wonderful free-range existence on the resort grounds. She let herself into our chalet and demanded to be lifted up to the sink so she could drink from the tap. Most cats prefer running to static water. I guess it reminds them of flowing streams in nature.

I love this cosy reading nook in our room, which also serves as a cat cuddling nook.

Skippy sat on the pathway to Blue House when we left the chalet for a pre-dinner walk.

I handed out treats and toys to two of the LASSie dogs, Mocha and Shane. Apparently Mocha loves her new tug toy so much that she brought it along with her on her walk. It's nice to know your gift is appreciated!

Aravind did the "trololol cat" to Fat Ginger, who also has a deformed/broken paw. Fat Ginger looked suitably bewildered.

We walked around the grounds of Bon Ton Resort and its sister resort, Temple Tree, handing out treats and toys to the cats and dogs who are fortunate enough to call the Resorts their home. Aravind especially enjoyed giving the Templetree LASSie cats some TLC.

Here I am, cuddling one of the restaurant cats. I think this one is Nalla, the Mighty Chaser of Monitor Lizards.

We had a lovely dinner at the resort restaurant, Nam Restaurant, in the company of cats. We were happy to spend money at the restaurant and shop as most of the profits would fund the shelter and animal clinic for the local community. Two of the cats, Tortie and Skippy, joined us for a movie in our room after dinner. Tortie and Skippy spent the night with us, so it was only fair that they got to share our breakfast. We didn't give them too much milk, though, because it's not the proper food for adult cats. Just a saucerful each. The caretaker would slay us if he knew we've been giving our milk to the cats.

I didn't have much on my itinerary for this trip, as my objective was to volunteer at the shelter and spend time with the animals. However, we did end up taking the cable car up the mountain on our second day. I didn't get to do this the last time I came here because the cable cars were under maintenance then.

Aravind was a lot more relaxed about the cable car ride than I was. I felt a bit anxious knowing that I had no control over the cable car's speed, altitude or safety. Here we are at the cable car lookout point, 700 metres above sea level.

The skybridge was closed for repairs, though.

The cable car ride package we purchased included a Duck Boat/Bus amphibious vehicle ride. We went for the experience, but I probably wouldn't want to do it again. The amphibious vehicle was slow and smelled strongly of diesel fumes.

This is what the Duck Boat/Bus looked like moving through the water.

Fishing boats against the backdrop of the mountains.

Later that evening, we met up with my friend Lynette who now works and resides in Langkawi. She continues to help out at the shelter and clinic every day. Here is Lynette with the clinic/vet assistants, Ilya and Yang, at the LASSie Clinic. Keep up the good work, my friends!

The very appropriately named Big Friend, one of the Clinic Cats. He loves the treats I brought him.

Lynette came over to join us for drinks and pre-dinner snacks at TempleTree.
Lynette: "So, what will it be?"
Me: "Oh, I don't know. Probably Corona Beer and a side of cat cuddles."

JJ the TempleTree dog wouldn't stop barking and annoying the other guests, so we had to take him out for a walk, beer in hand. Look at us, walking dogs while drinking beer. Stay classy, guys!

Beer, ice cream and the company of good friends, two-legged and four-legged. It doesn't get any better than this.

I helped to clean and disinfect cages at the LASSie Clinic the following morning.

Aravind and I also helped to walk and exercise the LASSie Shelter dogs.

I handed out treats after the dogs have had their walks and baths. Here are two of the LASSie Clinic pups enjoying their treats. One went home with her new adopter a few minutes later.

Treats for Nako, who is such a lovely and cooperative little woofie.

Treats and toys for the LASSie shelter cats.

Goodbye, Skippy, and thank you for letting us stay in your home. We love you and will never forget you. I will come back to visit you as soon as I can.

No visit to Pantai Chenang, Langkawi, would be complete without visiting this beautiful resort and the furry residents of LASSie. Do stop by for a bite at Nam Restaurant and buy yourself some sophisticated souvenirs from the Bon Ton shop, as the proceeds go towards a very worthy cause. For more information, please click on the following links:

Langkawi Animal Shelter and Sanctuary Foundation (LASSie):

Temple Tree Resort: