Wildlife conservation: Is there a solution to protect the world’s wildlife?

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ November 14th, 2011. Updated on December 10th, 2011. Published in: Travel blog » Sabah (Malaysian Borneo).
Close up of Male proboscis monkey

Close up of Male proboscis monkey and family

What’s the solution to protecting, and seeing wildlife today?

I’ll be the first to admit, I thought Sabah Borneo would be a lot less touristy than it is. I also thought it would be a lot more adventurous when it came to seeing wildlife. I think I was wrong on many assumptions, ideals, and the raw reality of what’s actually happening on the ground.

What I’m left with upon leaving Sabah, Borneo is a huge dilemma. Wildlife conservation vs Commercial industry vs Tourism.

I want to see wildlife. I want to get up close. I want to learn about these amazing animals. But is the cost too much? Am I a contributing part of the extinction process? Or am I helping to protect wildlife by contributing to seem them?

Already this year we lost two species of rhinoceros in the world. The West African Black Rhino, and Javan Rhino of Vietnam (source: The Atlantic Wire). Can we stop the same thing happening in Borneo?

Wildlife conservation in Sabah, Malaysia

I gave Sepilok Orangutan sanctuary a bit of a bashing in my previous articles about visiting there (wildlife around the world). And, the truth is; I really do feel it could be run a lot better. So yes, I am going to give it another bashing a bit later on here too.

However, during my visit there I did get to sit with Lisa, a doctor doing primate research who gave an insight into why things are as they are. We weren’t so interested in talking about Orangutans rehabilitation as we were in learning about the price of human intervention in their rehabilitation.

Man holding "silence please" sign in Sepilok

The human influence. I promise you, no one was silent.

Lisa’s answer caused her pain:

“It’s a catch 22. The Orangutans would be much better off never seeing a human here. But, we could never help protect them without the money from the tourists that want to see them.”

That to me, is a very sad, but very true statement. And, I’ve been apart of it.

I sat no more than a few feet from a female Orangutan looking me directly in the eye. I had to fight to take the photo, as really all I wanted to do was look back was enjoy the experience.

Anyone who makes long eye contact with a primate that size, so close, will know what I mean.

But, the truth of the matter is, I should not have been there. In the natural law, meaning anyway.

Yet, was I not helping by paying for an entrance ticket? Even writing that makes me feel a part of a circus.

Mass of tourists in Sepilok taking photos

Mass of tourists in Sepilok taking photos

The great argument of wildlife conservation over curiosity and profit

Global environmental degradation is a reality. Deforestation, palm oil and hunting is all blamed for much of the wildlife endangerment in Sabah.

Like it or not, even on the brink of extinction, profit will come before wildlife.

So we create wildlife rehabilitation centers, sanctuary’s and other well named establishments. A noble attempt to undo the damage our lust/need for consumerism imparts on the world.

Yet, to fund such attempts at conservation we often embrace the hugely profitable tourism sector. Something that has its own effects on wildlife conservation. And so the circle of interrelated problems and solutions continue.

I don’t see this circle ending either, it is simply a process of evolution within conservation

I do however think we need to make a choice on how we are going about things.

Times are changing, and so must wildlife conservation

I am not the biggest fan of Facebook. Mainly due to privacy/copyright issues etc. But, I realize many people today want to use it, and do use it. So, I made a Facebook page, if only to have a presence to publish such things as this very article.

Conservation must also change whether it wants to or not. It’s one thing saying save the Tarsier in Bohol, but it’s another to realize when government do little and, agencies like the WWF simply don’t have the funds to do so. Sometimes you must just make a sacrifice to get the word out.

Baby Orang-u-tan at Speikok in Sabah Malaysia

But, is it worth it to protect and keep Orangutans like this chap alive?

It seems conservation is grasping at the devil it knows for help.

The devil we know in the case of conservation, and this article, is the tourist. Letting them in to see endangered animals is the price.

But if this is the future, then it has to be better run than it is at the moment.

Let the tourists be educated in what’s happening to these animals. Let them be proactive in sustainable educational awareness on how to help save them. Don’t just sell tickets to a show.

In order for something like this to work, it has to be done the right way. And, at the moment, I don’t think it is.

Sepilok vs Labuk Bay in the name of wildlife conservation

The Proboscis monkey is endangered with only 3,000 remaining in Sabah alone; threatened by habitat loss, and hunting in some areas. While the Orangutan population is estimated at 50,000 + in all of Borneo.

In its truest sense of conservation it’s hard to compare the two primates due to their very different needs and the nature of such an article. But from a tourism conservation perspective, perhaps we can do some comparisons.

Sepilok Orangutan Wildlife Centre is run under the Ministry of Tourism and Environmental Development. At it’s heart it doesn’t really want tourists. Only accepting them for the money it draws in to protect the Orangutan and its habitat.


Meanwhile the lesser known Labuk Bay proboscis monkey sanctuary was initially bought as a palm oil plantation. But the owner, seeing these endangered monkeys, turned it into a privately run sanctuary that we can visit today.

They are indeed, two very different wildlife organisations. But that doesn’t mean they can’t learn from each other. If for anything else, the very survial of the species they are endeavoring to protect.

Sepilok vs Labuk Bay which is a better visitors experience?

I’ve worked in development. I’ve visited other primate reserves in different parts of the world. It doesn’t make me an expert in either area by any account. However, after spending time at both centers I really came away with two very different visitors experiences that perhaps one or the other could learn from.

Proboscis monkey in the wild

"Turn your flash off!! It's day time!, Mom, the stupid human hairless primates are looking at me again (click to enlarge)

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre Experience

A ticket into Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre entitles your to two feedings. The overcrowded morning feeding over you don’t have any time for a “jungle walk”. It did however seem like the walkway to the platforms was the “jungle walk” that had been mentioned previously as an attraction.

A BBC journalists video plays and it’s the only other alternative when waiting for the afternoon feeding. What follows is a 10 minute pleading by one of the volunteers for sponsorship of the Orangutans, or buy a t-shirt, or adopt a baby orangutan.

The latter was slightly soured bythe volunteer mentioning you don’t actually get to see your adopted orangutan but rather one of the “selected representatives” of baby orangutan’s in a nice Sepilok Adoption brochure type package. Hmmm. Maybe, they got their words muddled up. But this is what I came away with

Lunch at their canteen was a crazed affair of getting muddled orders and watching others wait 30 minutes for a beef burger to arrive cold, all the while battling to find a seat.

Then finally, it was time for slightly lesser, over-crowded, afternoon “showing”.

Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary Experience:

At Labuk Bay you are driven to four separate feeding platforms in mangrove swamps. One barely has 10 minutes with nothing to do. More to the point the guides that drive you around to each of the feeding areas are incredibly friendly, and the general staff were all very nice.

Birds in Sabah, Malaysia

Wildlife comes in many forms in Sabah

If asked a question they’d really take the time to explain everything they possibly knew about the subject. What’s more, they talked more about the environment in the area rather than the star attractions.

The food, while not spectacular, was timely and good in an area with plenty of space. They also show a documentary style video giving an overview of the Proboscis Monkey, but there were no sales erm, adoption pitches following it.

Again, I simply found the staff here more than forthcoming with information about not just the Probosics Monkey but also the surrounding habitat.

Which one provided the better experience?

It’s quite obvious, I personally had a far better experience at Labuk Bay. Both from an educational, administrative and a “seeing wildlife” perspective.

I am not saying Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is doing badly. I honestly just think the centre should and could improve itself administratively.

The education centers, jungle tours and the feeds are simply lacking in any emotion or passion what-so-ever. And that, is kind of sad.

Yes, they give baby orangutans cute names, but the emotional involvement stops there. Yes, they need the money. But I think they can go about things a little differently. If not, then I think something really bad is going to happen …

Crocodile eye in Sabah, Malaysia

Crocodile eyeing Tourists in Sabah, Malaysia

A simply case study of how things could go badly wrong

If you read my post on the Korean tourists getting too close to an orangutan, then this will give you some more insight.

When a mother orangutan was wandering in the crowd  at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre and the volunteer was asking for help to keep tourists back, there was no one around to help. A walkie-talkie in hand they repeatedly asked for help, no one came. The young volunteer was clearly in over their head with no support.

While they did their best to keep people back, a few tourists who didn’t understand the words “No Flash” ignorantly pointed cameras at the orangutan and blindly flashed away. Thankfully the volunteer was at least able to smack a Korean lady on the arm as she reached out to ‘stroke the orangutan’.

This is a disaster waiting to happen. And, it could finish their greater conservation efforts should a violent encounter occur.

Something similar happened at Labuk Bay. But this time there were several rangers ready to intervene and then educate the tourists about why it’s not good to touch wild animals nor use flash photography near them.

Wildlife conservation needs to keep up with the times

I do believe Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is doing a great job in rehabilitating Orangutans back into the wild. And, I do know the controversy from many who in this day and age believe this is a fruitless effort. So more power to them for continuing on. I’ll leave the debate to the experts over the right methodology for primate rehabilitation.

The fact still remains that funding such endeavors is vital.

Unless a highly unlikely government intervention imposes a self sustaining conservation tax on all commercial entities in an eco-zone, I think the only way to get funds, to continue conservation work, is to let tourists in.

It’s a blasphemous idea in many peoples eyes. And I too shudder at the idea. But failing to do so could mean the end of a species. Let alone our own due to our current subconscious intent on environmental genocide.

But, if we do open the floodgates for tourism to fund conservation it has to be run correctly. With conservation, education and administration at the top of the list.

As should independent regulation on the number of  backyard “sanctuary’s” that are popping up.

Mother Orangutan hide from tourists as she waits for lunch to be delivered

Mother Orangutan hides from tourists as she waits for lunch to be delivered (click to enlarge)

The future cost of wildlife conservation

Seeing an Orangutan in person is indeed a great experience.  And, the debate over whether they should be a tourist attraction or not; will rage on.

In my opinion, in this commercial day and age, there is no choice but to let people in. At the same time, running the administrative side of things must be improved.

At the moment, all I see is increasing fees for the privilege of seeing such wildlife today.

Almost like the big game hunters of the past who paid a lot of money for the privilege of seeing “wildlife in the wild” as well.

Surely high rates themselves are not a bad idea if they are helping to protect wildlife in places like Sabah.

So long as such rates don’t prevent those with less finances from such experiences.

Otherwise we are simply creating yet another divide in our already fragmented environmentally aware society.

Then again, didn’t the big game reserves in Africa once justify hunting with a similar financial logic? And, we know what the end result of that was …

The answer it seems, is a double edged sword, no matter how you look at it.

So my hope lies within the hands of humankind. Someone, somewhere will hopefully come up with the answers we so desperately need to make this right.

This is an additional article highlighting wildlife around the world and conservation

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26 Great responses to Wildlife conservation: Is there a solution to protect the world’s wildlife?

  1. Stuart says:

    I’ve tried to look at saving rare species from many angles and could never come to any other conclusion as well.

    Without money, they are going to be lost. Governments are so full of bureaucracy they can’t do a positive thing. Private business can help, but not at the expense of profit.

    We could privately fund them, and stop anyone seeing them. But it would require serious funding.

    I’ve guessing we need a UN type conservation order to oversee things could be the answer.

  2. Jan says:

    A solution? No, I don’t think so.

    The only way to stop wildlife going extinct is to stop humans from going anywhere near them .

  3. i don’t know what the solution is, but it surely isn’t THIS.

  4. Cynthia says:

    I’m not sure what the answer is. But I do think our governments should be funding the protection of our nations wildlife. They are a part of our countries as much as we are. Would Borneo be know for wildlife without Orangutans? I don’t think so. So let the Government sort this out.

    • I’d have to say I agree with you on Governments should be more proactive. Unfortunately they often say funding conservation is too huge a hurdle for them. Taxing non-environmentally friendly businesses might do it. If they want to strip the rain-forest, let them buy huge areas of protected reserve land first.

      Then let the tax money pay for the upkeep and protection. Or would this cut into their profits too much?

  5. hayadith says:

    well, i think this is the difference between regular visitor (tourist) and visitor like you. What is happening in Labuk Bay and Sepilok also reflecting the different type of people who manage the place.

    though i don’t have any strong proposed solution for this matter, i think we must educate the public (and also the management staffs) about simple things we should do to protect these animals like turning off the flash etc.

    this article helps a lot. Although there’s nothing much we could do to solve the problem , at least we can now start the conversation, start thinking about it, start questioning and perhaps one day, we can come out with one solid win-win solution for both the animals and tourism sector.

    Great article, Dave ;)

    • Thanks Hayadith. I’ve with you in trying to educate people on both the importance and need for conservation. As well as the rights that animals have not to be mistreated or abused. Education is vital. Yet it’s the one of those things that cannot be done in school at this level. Otherwise we’d have to learn about every animal, insect etc on the planet, and their needs. Instead, and I hope this article makes the point, the best place to learn about animals is when you visit them at places like this.

      However the key thing is, the sanctuaries really need to play their part too. Education in Sepilok was virtually non-existent beyond the basics, while it was a lot more interactive in Labuk Bay. If organisations and people can learn from each other on ways that work, then I think it’s a giant step forward in conservation. And, in our own progression as people!

  6. Ivy says:

    Good question. ;) Do we really help wildlife by keeping wild animals in protected areas. For me the answer is clearly “yes”. Actually, there is no other way for keeping them save. As a wildlife defender myself there were times when i preferred to keep a wild animal with me (in my house) than to put him back outside where he could be killed within the first hour of his release. What is the use of saving it if you find it pulverize in front of your doorway the next morning. We can’t prevent species from disappearing, that’s a natural process but we can help species that are really endangered, now … and, Dave did you answer my question about what is in the pancakes of the proboscis apes? Thanks so much for this post ;) and if you see one more tourist with a flash, punch him in the face, it’ll do you good :) you have my support !!!

    • Hi Ivy,

      It’s a question I had to write about here as I just saw so many little things that could be improved which in turn could make vast differences to both sanctuaries. And, indeed to wild life conservation if people take some ideas, and roll with them.

      You certainly make good a good point about both extinction is a natural process and how we can undo our own wrongs in this process by keeping such wildlife protected. In the case of endangered wildlife, sometimes it’s better they become protected by the very one’s who endangered them. Maybe it’s just a part of modern day evolution?

      Yes, I just answered your question on the pancake diet on the other post!! Sorry for the delay, I was trying to find that PDF document with their exact diet on it for you :)

      The proboscis monkeys diet

  7. Jason says:

    It’s certainly quite the conundrum this one Dave, and I’m afraid it will continue to keep going down it’s perilous path while the world continues to self populate at an alarming rate.

    I feel both of the wildlife experience’s (Labuk & Sepilok) have there place in the world, but more needs to be spent on re-habilitating and re-habituating these animals back to the only place they have any chance of real survival in Sabah. Those place’s are either the Danum Valley Conservation area or the Maliau Basin. These small pockets of what is left of their original habitats must be protected for ever more.

    People on a large scale need to be able to see these animals up close, such as at Labuk and Sepilok to appreciate them and to spread the word of their situation.

    I for one do not mind spending good money on these types of places if they have well thought out budgets on where the money goes.

    In the end though, it is education the world over that will be the one true answer to this. That’s for all of us, and lets hope it’s not to late.

    • Totally agree with you on Education and protecting Danum Valley Conservation area and the Maliau Basin. If sanctuaries like Sepilok and Labuk Bay can act as educational gate keepers to these areas, and educate visitors on why this is so important it’s big step in the right direction.

      One of the things the researchers I spoke with kept mentioning was sheer scale of rain forest the Orangutan’s need. And the near impossibility of policing it. Even when the government bought protected land for them, it turned out to be near fruitless as the land was split by commercial forest area. The Orangutans needed to move from one area to the next during the year. The problem was they now had to cross commercial land to reach the protected land. A prime area for hunters, traders and danger.

      I only hope the people that signed off on this without being educated on the migratory needs of these Orangutans. Though I doubt it. I couldn’t imagine them not being told what was needed. And surely the very act of a commercial land are in the dividing the protected zones reeks of profit before sustainable conservation.

  8. Leslie says:

    Thanks for digging deeper into these tourist attractions and examining their conservation value. We skipped most of the sketchy animal attractions on our RTW trip (like petting tigers in Thailand and that sort of thing) since they seemed to exploit animals. It’s even disturbing for me to see animals trapped in tiny cages at zoos or aquariums.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting here too Leslie. I think only through awareness can we bring things like this to the everyone’s attention, and thus provide an education on issues that affect us all. Things like those petting tiger shows really don’t belong out there. Let it be an educational center instead. Conservation before profit. I only hope people will stop supporting things like those shows!

  9. Anthony says:

    Hey Dave,

    Slightly off topic here. I just want to say I have read your blog for about a year and I am now in Malaysia (from England), putting names to the awesome foods you’ve spoken about and using your tips!

    Loving it here so far and just wanted to say thanks. :)

  10. Michael says:

    There is a very sensitive balance here. Unfortunately, the economic needs and priorities of a country always win out, particularly in “third world countries”. Species conservation is necessary because animals are becoming extinct not due to natural causes but because of man’s disregard of nature and pure greed (take the case of the rhinoceros). The “how” can and should be approached on a case by case basis and hopefully in a most sensitive way. But we don’t live in a perfect world.

    • Indeed, we don’t live in a perfect world. And, I think we are headed to very small reserves of wildlife in the future. Parts of West Africa showed me this. I think the trend will follow. I’m guessing this is a part of evolution, or our stupidity. I hope evolution. The idea of fighting to save a species is a noble one. But I think finance will win at the end of the day. A final budget being put away to save the DNA of endangered species so they may be brought back to life when we have the means and technology.

      Have you come across much wildlife in your trekking?

  11. Anna Mark says:

    this article helps a lot. Although there’s nothing much we could do to solve the problem , at least we can now start the conversation, start thinking about it, start questioning and perhaps one day, we can come out with one solid win-win solution for both the animals and tourism sector.

  12. Anna Mark says:

    write good .. i read this article and i like u post .. thanks for sharing