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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 …
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.
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