THE revelation in the Sabah legislature last week that the Sumatran rhinoceros is effectively extinct in the wild after it was no longer sighted in the state was indeed poignant and far-reaching, not only locally but also worldwide.
The conclusion was based on a search for the animal’s footprints and using camera traps at the Ulu Segama Forest Reserve and Tabin Wildlife Reserve in Lahad Datu, as well as in the Ulu Malua Forest Reserve, which was known to have had a population of these animals previously.
Not a whimper of regret was overheard throughout the land on its demise. Some may already have been resigned to the idea that its impending extinction was a foregone conclusion.
Our “tidak apa” or nonchalant attitude may have something to do with it. But, more seriously, is the apparent lack of appreciation of nature among the majority of urban-dwelling Malaysians.
The eastern Sumatran rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis harrissoni), also known as the Bornean rhino, is the world’s smallest and most elusive rhino. It’s a subspecies of the Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis), and is a shy and solitary creature that inhabits the thick Bornean forests.
The decline of this species is mainly linked to two factors: poaching for rhino horns (comprised of keratin, rhino horn is like hair or fingernails, and its consumption offers zero medical benefit — contrary to ignorant beliefs), and habitat loss due to deforestation, mainly carried out to make way for oil palm plantations and human settlements.
Sumatran rhinos are relics of an ancient world, originating from earth’s Pleistocene period, which started 1.6 million years ago, and they lived freely in the forests of India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and China until 1930, when people started hunting them for their horns, traded with Chinese people for porcelain objects. Gradually, rhinos started hiding in thick forests, but humans deforested these areas allowing poachers to reach them.
The rhino is another species on the brink of extinction, due to humanity’s endless greed and lust for blood. What have we become as a country? Is material gain the only hallmark of a developed nation?
Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad used Earth Day last Saturday to remind us in timely fashion that “Malaysia will be a developed nation only when its physical progress is in tandem with environmental preservation”.
The prime minister said protecting the environment is a collective responsibility that we also owe to future generations.
“We have seen endless destruction as a result of uncontrolled development, which is only for profit. We have to realise that our goal of being a developed country will not become a reality if our rivers are dirty and our forests left to die,” he said.
The challenge then is how do we turn our good intentions into reality?
Declarations by our political leaders from time to time are important to inspire and provide guidance to the people. Enacted laws are fine but they are only meaningful if they are judiciously implemented, in particular hauling the perpetrators to court. However, in a healthy and vibrant democracy, it’s the rakyat who should have the final say.
But empowerment entails having the necessary knowledge, including about our own backyard.
The tropical rainforests, seas and freshwater ecosystems of Malaysia support a rich and diverse array of both flora and fauna. In fact, Malaysia is recognised as one of 12 mega-diversity countries with many of its species occurring in unusually high densities (for example, there are estimated to be around 1,500 species of terrestrial vertebrates alone).
Many of these species are, however, threatened. Indeed, 14 per cent of Malaysia’s mammals are listed by The World Conservation Union as endangered. Some experts have cautioned that the next to go after the rhino may be the Malayan tiger.
Water, Land and Natural Resources Minister Dr Xavier Jayakumar declared in Parliament last month that the critically endangered Malayan Tiger will go extinct if drastic action is not taken to address its declining population.
“Malaysia will forever lose this species between the next five and 10 years,” he said.
The rakyat must be educated into realising that preserving the environment is the basis for our long-term socio-economic wellbeing. It fulfils the targets set in Sustainable Development Goals number 14 (Life below Water) and number 15 (Life on Land) under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development agreed by Malaysia and other United Nations member states in 2015.
Towards that end, a national “communication, education and public awareness programme” on biodiversity may be a good place to start. Traditional messages on biodiversity from governments and non-governmental organisations urging the public and other stakeholders to change their daily practices need to be reviewed. Often these messages use too much jargon, are negative, too didactic, and abstract or filled with doom.
Instead of turning people on, they risk switching them off. The lesson to be learned is that communication has to be strategic, positive and tailored to different circumstances and cultural situations. Maybe then, and only then, could the future spectre of extinction of our wildlife be slowed down or stopped altogether.
The writer is a recipient of the 2018 Midori Biodiversity Prize