Borneo is a vast tropical island known for orangutans, rhinos, elephants, sun bears, proboscis monkeys, hornbills, and ubiquitous leeches. Conservationists have championed all of these species (aside from the leeches) in one way or another, but like many tropical regions Borneo’s freshwater species have long been neglected, despite their rich biodiversity and importance to local people. But a new organization, the Kinabatangan River Spirit Initiative, is working to change that.
“Almost 40% of the freshwater fish species here are endemic to the island,” explains Kinabatangan River Spirit Initiative founder, Tun-Min Poh, in a recent interview with mongabay.com. “What is more, the Kinabatangan River, the longest in the State of Sabah at 560 km, lies within the most isolated of Borneo’s watersheds. This means that the Kinabatangan has (or maybe had) the highest freshwater endemism on the island. Some species of fish that the local people, the Orang Sungai or ‘River People,’ catch for subsistence are found nowhere else in the world”
Fish in the river, which include a wide-diversity of astounding species, are imperiled by adjacent palm oil plantations, deforestation, lack of enforcement of existing regulations, and over-fishing. In order to build a movement to begin conserving the river’s riches, Poh and her organization have started working with local people who depend on the fish.
“Rural communities are at the frontline of biodiversity loss in the Kinabatangan, and this has affected them deeply. The lives of the Orang Sungai are inextricably linked to the river: for water, for food, for income, for cultural identity. They are the ones who lose out most, and they are also the least able to do something about it. This is what we need to address,” Poh says.
AN INTERVIEW WITH TUN-MIN POH
Mongabay: What’s your background?
Tun-Min Poh: I actually came into the world of conservation later in the game. I have a degree in Business Administration with an emphasis in Finance, and worked in the financial industry in New York City for almost 7 years before I realized that that was not my passion. I discovered that I wanted to speak out for fish—not the dead ones on the dish but the live ones swimming around free in a world of water that we still understand so little about. In trying to figure out how I could contribute, I went home to Malaysia and did some volunteer work. It is there that I saw the potential of community-based conservation and found my path. I completed my Master degree in Marine Management from Dalhousie University in Canada and moved back to Sabah in 2010, and proudly have a Malaysian address again after 15 years living abroad.
Mongabay: What makes Kinabatangan River so special?
Tun-Min Poh: Although most people know that Borneo is a biodiversity hotspot, less people realize that this extends to freshwater fish as well—almost 40% of the freshwater fish species here are endemic to the island. What is more, the Kinabatangan River, the longest in the State of Sabah at 560 km, lies within the most isolated of Borneo’s watersheds. This means that the Kinabatangan has (or maybe had) the highest freshwater endemism on the island. Some species of fish that the local people, the Orang Sungai or ‘River People,’ catch for subsistence are found nowhere else in the world.
Mongabay: What are some of the standout fish species found in the river?
Tun-Min Poh: Great-tooth sawfish (Pristis microdon) is the most memorable—or that could be because it is no longer found here. People here speak of this fish with a note of longing—this critically endangered fish was commonly caught as by-catch until the 1980s, and their saws were kept at the entrance of homes to ward off evil spirits. Today, the saws have rotted away and all that is left of this fish are the stories that people tell.
Another big and beautiful species here is the giant freshwater whipray (Himantura polylepis). The Kinabatangan River is the last bastion for this species in Malaysia—this realization is new to the people here, who have been catching this whipray seasonally for as long as they can remember.
Among the fish better known to aquarists is the spotted archerfish(Toxotes chatareus), known locally as Sumpit-sumpit, which roughly translates as blowpipe fish. Aptly named, this fish hunts at the surface, ‘shooting’ unsuspecting insects off overhanging vegetation. The giant red-tail gourami (Osphronemus laticlavius) is another species, which has been exploited by the aquarium trade. Endemic to Northern Borneo, it has yet to be assessed for the IUCN Red List. This fish is feared to gone from the Lower Kinabatangan.
Another fish that is making an impression in the Kinabatangan is the invasive Amazon Sailfin catfish (Pteryoplichthys pardalis). Probably introduced to the River system by thoughtless aquarists, this fish began appearing in fishers’ nets roughly 10 years ago. This resilient and durable fish is found now in the oxbows, streams and big river throughout the Lower Kinabatangan. Its impact on the freshwater system here has yet to be determined, but elsewhere, this fish is a threat to native fish, competing for breeding habitat.
Mongabay: Why do you think the fish in the river have been so long neglected by conservationists?
Tun-Min Poh: Lets be honest, fish aren’t very charismatic in the traditional sense of ‘cute and cuddly’. Snapping pictures of alive and swimming fish (especially in a turbid river like the Kinabatangan) is problematic—they are definitely not photogenic; and even less so when on a hook. It does not help that when most people think of fish, they think food. All this makes it very hard to raise money for freshwater fish conservation.
River fish are rarely seen in the wild by people other than those who utilize them. Unless there is some kind of monitoring, people usually do not do much about their decline until it is too late. This is all the more true in a place like the Kinabatangan where there is so much species diversity. When one preferred species declines, fishers can just move on to another one. And unlike wild salmon or sturgeon species, it is difficult for the decline of river fish here to attract attention because they don’t have the commercial value or volume, which when lost, will make people sit up and notice.
Mongabay: What are the threats facing these fish species?
Tun-Min Poh: Just like the challenges faced by terrestrial ecosystems, unsustainable development is probably the single largest threat to freshwater fish species. The Lower Kinabatangan floodplain is considered the ‘bread basket’ of Malaysia’s Oil Palm industry, and these plantations make up most of the landscape here. Runoff from plantations and processing mills has changed the river chemistry. The loss forests have led to the loss of ground cover. This in turn has led to heavy levels of sedimentation in the river, allowing very little light to penetrate into the river realm. The lack of enforcement of existing laws protecting riparian habitat has led to bare riverbanks, leading to the loss of valuable food, shelter and breeding areas for aquatic species.
Unsustainable fishing practices and overfishing has and is impacting fish populations here, with the decline in fish stocks leading fishermen to increasing their capacity through increasing fishing gear and decreasing mesh size. The decrease in giant freshwater prawn catch and the accompanying increase in price has led to destructive fishing practices such as the use of insecticide to increase catch and decrease the time spent fishing.
The fish, which manage to deal with all these changes, must compete with introduced species for food and habitat. It is a tough time to be a fish in the Kinabatangan.
Mongabay: What measures do you think will be necessary to protect the fish biodiversity of the Kinabatangan River?
Tun-Min Poh: The problems faced in the Kinabatangan river ecosystems are by no means isolated incidences, and overcoming these threats require a holistic approach. The conservation of fish biodiversity will depend heavily in the incorporation of watersheds, floodplains, and coastal ecosystems in landscape level planning. Terrestrial and aquatic conservationists must work together towards the common goal of protecting ecosystems and biodiversity, since neither can be sustainable in the long-term without the other.
At a more local level, river habitat rehabilitation must be addressed if native fish diversity is to be protected. This begins with the rehabilitation of riparian areas, and the enforcement of existing laws and regulations relating to agricultural practices, waste management, and riparian protection. Improved fisheries management practices are also necessary.
We are hoping to work towards some level of community-based co-management of fish resources in the Lower Kinabatangan, taking into account critical habitat of sensitive, globally threatened, and commercially important species. Furthermore, it is necessary to determine the impact of introduced species on native populations and address this problem while developing and enforcing regulations to prevent future introductions.
To protect the remaining native fish diversity, we will need commitment and contribution from all riverine stakeholders: local communities, industry stakeholders such as the agriculture industry, State and Federal government departments. What our project is trying to do is work with local communities to identify local-level conservation action that the communities themselves are willing to carry out.
Mongabay: Why are local communities so important to the fate of the river?
Tun-Min Poh: Given the forces driving the government and industry for economic development, and the challenges faced by conservationists in this field, who better to engage than those who stand to lose the most? Rural communities are at the frontline of biodiversity loss in the Kinabatangan, and this has affected them deeply. The lives of the Orang Sungai are inextricably linked to the river: for water, for food, for income, for cultural identity. They are the ones who lose out most, and they are also the least able to do something about it. This is what we need to address.
Through the Kinabatangan River Spirit Initiative, we work with local communities to better understand the River and what is happening to it. We are collaborating with them in the process of gathering information, combining local ecological knowledge and scientific research. We are trying to help them realize the uniqueness of the river’s biodiversity, build a sense of ownership, and empower them to act for their own future: protect remaining native biodiversity, and at the same time protect their culture and livelihoods.
Mongabay: What can the public do to help these efforts?
Tun-Min Poh: Fish conservation will be greatly assisted if the public begins to understand and better appreciate their fish, and the aquatic ecosystems that they live in. A lot of this is just common sense, but we have a long way to go in shifting our mindset from seeing fish merely as a resource for food and entertainment (e.g. sport fishing, aquarium fish), to considering them as wildlife with the intrinsic right to exist.
Everyone can contribute, and this contribution starts at home. Get educated about the fish you eat (check out sustainable seafood guides at montereybayaquarium.org, or Fishwatch.org), and the ones you keep in your fish tank (online resources such as the Sustainable Aquarium Industry Association saia-online.eu). It is important to consider where fish are from, whether they are they cultured or caught from the wild, and whether present methods of exploitation or even aquaculture sustainable. Although the aquarium trade in the Kinabatangan is relatively undeveloped today, it may have played a role in the extirpation of the giant gourami species in the past. Furthermore, invasive species are wreaking havoc on native flora and fauna not only in the Kinabatangan but also in aquatic habitats all over—think twice before freeing your pet goldfish (or Amazon Sailfin catfish) into a drain or stream.
Fish habitat, in Kinabatangan and all over the world face multiple man-made threats. In North America, water quality is a big concern in populated areas as it determines whether our children can go swimming in lakes and rivers. But water quality should not just be a concern in the summertime. Contribute to habitat restoration in your own neighborhood. There are lots of great community projects trying to revive rivers and improve fish habitat. Learn more about the issues surrounding water bodies near you—and get involved if you can.
This article was written for Mongabay.com and re-posted on Focusing on Wildlife.