Malaysia is a hard-to-rival ecotourism destination. And now, through a combination of charismatic animal species and government programs to protect them, several areas of Malaysia have found a way to regulate and harness tourism as a positive force for animal conservation. Whether it’s dolphins, monkeys, turtles or elephants you’re hoping to encounter (and maybe even help), Malaysia is the place to be.
The Irrawaddy Dolphins of Sarawak
Sarawak, the largest state in Malaysia, is well regarded as a hot spot for Irrawaddy dolphins (known to locals as pesut). The Irrawaddy dolphins’ unusual features are its blunt, rounded head with a flexible neck, an indistinct and almost non-existent beak, a small triangular dorsal fin with a blunt tip and its long broad flippers. Irrawaddy dolphins usually swim in groups of two to six, but in Santubong and Buntal, larger groups of more than 30 have been sighted.
Since the Irrawaddy dolphin is a protected species in Sarawak, the local government has created dolphin-watching programs to control tourism and limit the number of visitors. Unfortunately, Irrawaddy dolphins are still facing great risk of extinction due to human encroachment. The biggest threat of all is entanglement in fishing nets. Dolphin-watching season runs from April to November, but due to unpredictable weather, sightings are not frequent. It is therefore best to combine a dolphin watching tour with a mangrove cruise that offers the opportunity to see a wide range of rare wildlife such as Borneo’s famed proboscis monkey.
The Marine Turtles of Talang-Satang National Park
Sarawak’s first marine national park, Talang-Satang, comprises four islands on the southeast coast of Sarawak. These four “Turtle Islands” are responsible for 95 percent of all the turtle landings in Sarawak. Talang-Satang National Park covers approximately 48,000 acres, including beautiful shallow reef areas surrounding the four islands. The park also includes a wildlife sanctuary, important nesting sites and fish-breeding areas, as well as rare species of hard and soft corals. Most importantly, though, it provides shelter and resting ground for sea turtles.
Marine turtles are amongst the world’s longest-living creatures with many reaching more than 100 years of age. Marine turtles will only start breeding at between 30 and 50 years of age and the females usually produce eggs only once every four or five years. They also do not lay eggs on just any beach. They will migrate back to their beach of birth, which sometimes can be more than 3,000 kilometres away. Their ability to find their way back to that particular beach, deftly navigating across an ocean world of deadly predators, is considered to be one of the greatest exploits in the animal kingdom.
The peak nesting season for turtles is from April to September. Due to the decline in turtle populations and deliberate poaching of turtles’ eggs, meat and shells, Sarawak Forestry has created a conservation program involving the local communities. As part of the project, turtle eggs are removed from the nests and placed in guarded hatcheries from which young hatchlings are released at night to reduce losses from predators. In addition, some are tagged with radio tracking devices to learn more about their ecology and life cycle. Pulau Satang Besar, the largest of the four Turtle Islands, is open to visitors, but conservation takes top priority over tourism. In fact, parts of the island and surrounding sea are off-limit to visitors.
Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary
Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary is situated in Pahang, 160 kilometres from Kuala Lumpur City. To get there, take the Karak Highway toward Lancang. Before reaching the elephant sanctuary, you pass through the Che’ Wong Orang Asli (aborigines) settlement, the last tribe of its kind in Malaysia.
Gandah Elephant Sanctuary was set up in 1989 and is managed by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks Malaysia. Its main objective is to continue locating, subduing and then relocating wild elephants to a bigger and safer jungle reserve when their natural habitat is being encroached upon by human development. It is estimated that only 1,200 wild Asian elephants are left in Malaysia, and Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary is the only conservation centre that provides safe sanctuary for these elephants rescued from all over the Malaysian Peninsula.
Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary also looks after orphaned elephants to ensure their continued survival. At present the sanctuary houses a number of elephants brought in from Thailand , India and Myanmar. These elephants are trained and used in the process of translocating wild elephants found in problem areas throughout Malaysia. The sanctuary strives to promote public awareness of the elephants’ plight in Malaysia and to educate the public on the importance of habitat and environmental preservation. Visitors are welcomed to join the elephant activities throughout the year and take part in one-of-a-kind adventures.