Fiffy Hanisdah Saikim — now a senior lecturer at Universiti Malaysia Sabah’s Institute for Tropical Biology and Conservation — spent two years living with Tidong communities on the outskirts of the Tabin Wildlife Reserve in Malaysian Borneo.
These communities included both poachers and people employed in ecotourism and conservation programs centered around the Sumatran rhino and other endangered species.
According to Saikim, attempts to engage communities in anti-poaching programs can succeed when they demonstrate that conservation has better long-term economic returns than poaching.
The Sumatran rhino is now extinct in the wild in Malaysia, but Saikim believes lessons from Tabin can be applied in places where rhinos still exist in the wild.
The Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) is extinct in the wild in Malaysia. But a recently published study sheds some light on what motivated poachers in the Tidong community in Malaysian Borneo’s Sabah State — and offers insight about how to reduce poaching in areas where the Critically Endangered species still survives.
In 2005, Fiffy Hanisdah Saikim, now a senior lecturer at Universiti Malaysia Sabah’s Institute for Tropical Biology and Conservation, undertook ethnographic research by living in for two years in villages located just outside Tabin Wildlife Reserve (TWR) in eastern Sabah. Established in 1984, the reserve covers over 120,521 hectares (297,814 acres), and is home to the Bornean pygmy elephant, orangutan, banteng, proboscis monkey, sun bear, clouded leopard, and bearded pig. Until the early 2000s, the Sumatran rhinoceros also roamed there.
Saikim’s research examined the potential for community-based ecotourism to serve as a tool to reduce poaching. While sharing close quarters with Tidong families for months on end, she was able to evaluate the effectiveness of a 2002 conservation education program funded by Bornean Biodiversity and Ecosystem Conservation (BBEC), and a related community-based homestay and nature-tourism project founded by the Japanese International Cooperation (JICA) — both of which aimed to encourage community members to give up traditional activities like hunting, particularly endangered species. (A 2013-2017 JICA project in Sabah, the JICA-Sustainable Development for Biodiversity and Ecosystems Conservation, was initiated after Saikim carried out her research, and was not the subject of the study.)
Mongabay spoke to Saikim about her interactions with poachers and their attitudes towards conservation, the potential of ecotourism programs as a conservation tool, and whether lessons from Tabin can apply in places with surviving rhino populations.
AN INTERVIEW WITH FIFFY HANISDAH SAIKIM
Mongabay: Could you describe the ecosystem of Tabin Wildlife Reserve?
Fiffy Hanisdah Saikim: The Tabin Wildlife Reserve is a huge protected area. But because of the timber industry, the forest has not been a primary forest since the ’70s and ’80s. There are a lot of trails for people going to cut the trees. The Tabin Wildlife reserve is surrounded by oil palm plantations — if you Google a map of the Tabin Wildlife Reserve, it is one big patch of forest surrounded by oil palm plantations. And bear in mind: because it is surrounded by oil palm plantations, not only the local community gets access to the forest, but also the oil palm people, so sometimes you can hear the gunshots from the oil palm area.
Fiffy Hanisdah Saikim: They are hunting for animals. They are hunting for wild boars because these oil palm people, especially those workers — most of them are not local or Malaysians — sometimes need some extra meat, so they go out and find it.
Mongabay: And what about the communities that live in Tabin Wildlife Reserve?
Fiffy Hanisdah Saikim: There are a few villages surrounding Tabin Wildlife Reserve, but for my research I only selected those who are living near the border of the Tabin Wildlife Reserve: Kampung Dagat, Kampung Tidong, and Kampung Parit. These three Kampungs [villages] are the Tidong community, a small ethnic minority in Sabah. When I was doing my interviews in 2005 there were 518 villagers including children. And they are very remote and very traditional, and if you wanted to interview the women you need to have the consent from the husband.
Mongabay: In a recent article, you wrote that “Illegal hunting in Borneo appears to have been relatively sustainable at least until the 1970s, with the exception of the Sumatran Rhinoceros which was already in decline by the 1930s.” How can illegal hunting be sustainable, and in this context what is the difference between hunting practices of the Sumatran Rhinoceros and other species?
Fiffy Hanisdah Saikim: Hunting can be sustainable if they have permits from the Sabah Wildlife Department, because the Sabah Wildlife Department allowed people to hunt. But you need to have permits, and you have to follow lists of scheduled animals that can and cannot be hunted. Those that can be hunted include the deer, the wild boar, etc. What cannot be hunted is the rhino. In reality, these people are opportunistic, so their hunting could be unsustainable.
Mongabay: Why did community members indicate that the Sumatran rhinoceros is a species of particular value?
Fiffy Hanisdah Saikim: Because in Tabin Wildlife Reserve, in addition to our Wildlife department, there was also an NGO: the SOS Rhino Borneo Bhd. The president of the SOS Rhino Borneo Bhd during that time was Nan Schaffer, an American lady, who used her own money to create this NGO. Once the SOS Rhino Borneo settled there they organized regular activities such as going to the jungle tracking rhinos, because they needed to know how many rhinos were left in Tabin Wildlife Reserve.
So, the local community got to know about the rhino when their sons and their grandsons started working as rhino trackers with SOS Rhino Borneo. They knew the rhino is very valuable in the black market, but then because their sons and grandsons were working with an NGO to conserve these rhinos, eventually they had a little bit of information on why is it not okay to hunt Rhinos. They are very traditional, and their ancestors have been hunting and poaching for a long time, so it’s hard, actually, to convince the elderly when compared to the young people.
Mongabay: And at that time how many rhinos were left in the wild?
Fiffy Hanisdah Saikim: Based on the last statistics, in 2005 the population of rhino during that time was less than 30 individuals. Now, if you ask me about the statistics of the rhino population in the wild in Sabah, it’s zero.
Mongabay: What is the routine of village life around Tabin Wildlife Reserve? What pressures do local communities face, and what role does the forest play in local families’ lives?
Fiffy Hanisdah Saikim: They are fishermen so they sell their products to the nearest place they can — mostly to Lahad Datu, or to the Tabin Wildlife Reserve people, to SOS Rhino and the oil plantation people. But sometimes they do encroach into the forest in Tabin Wildlife Reserve because of their needs for medicinal plants and meat.
Even though they are Muslim, they do hunt wild boars, and because they are fishermen they have a ritual about a “water god,” so they need to feed the water spirits, and they need to go to the forests to get herbs or animals for their rituals. And then the youngsters, they just copycat what their ancestors have been doing. Because their fathers and their grandfathers previously were hunters, they want to become hunters as well because it shows they are “superiors.”
Mongabay: And what role did the forest play in their lives?
Fiffy Hanisdah Saikim: Before SOS Rhino and the idea of conservation came, they needed the forest just for their consumption of food or medicines. But thanks to SOS Rhino they had also an employment opportunity. When SOS Rhino opened up and provided opportunities for their sons, the forest became very important for them because the forest provided them with an alternative income, and because they had monthly pay as compared to just encroaching and selling the products to the local market.
Mongabay: Could you describe the tourism project that was set up in the area in 2002, and how it impacted local communities both in the long and short term? I know it was quite successful in the short-term, but then its effects were not long-lasting.
Fiffy Hanisdah Saikim: This tourism project, the community-based homestay program, was initiated by the JICA, Universiti Malaysia Sabah and local agencies like the Sabah Wildlife Department and the Forestry Department. It was quite successful in the short run because the people from these organizations were there. They were doing some short-term workshops and teaching the local community how to do tourism, do home-stays, and some of them could speak Japanese – because most of the tourists were from Japan. It was quite successful because they had the help from these agencies, and two tour operators brought tourists who stayed there for a few days with the local community to experience the local culture.
But then these agencies stopped giving funding. For the first months it was OK because they still had these connections with past tourists and tour operators. But slowly, gradually, the flow of tourists become smaller and smaller, and suddenly it was just gone, and the project ended. Also, the tour operator, the Tabin Wildlife Resort during that time, kept on changing their management. Every time you change the management, you miss some of the important things in the agreement, so now they don’t have any more package to go to the Kampung Dagat.
Mongabay: People admitted to poaching while also saying they supported conservation. Why did they poach, and how could you explain this contradiction?
Fiffy Hanisdah Saikim: I interviewed five elders, the eldest people in the community, and they said, “It’s good the rhino is there.” They supported conservation because their sons and grandsons were working there. I think they supported the conservation because it became part of the families’ incomes. But at the same time, they need to hunt because it’s in their blood, in their culture, and it had been done by their ancestors, by their grand-grandfathers, and they are just continuing what has been done.
But as it was in contradiction with conservation they tended to limit the animals that they hunted: so next time if they see a rhino they won’t hunt it. But as they were hunters, their skills also helped the wildlife protection units because they were already used to the forest, knew the trails, and whenever they saw a rhino footprint they helped to cover it up.
Mongabay: And the concept of poaching was clear to them?
Fiffy Hanisdah Saikim: Yes, very much. I think if they can see the monetary value is higher for them in the long run they are very supportive in terms of conserving rhinos. These local communities, based on my experience from my previous projects, when they see the monetary value in the forest they would definitively support it, even though they are actually not so into conservation.
Mongabay: How open people were about their participation in poaching, particularly rhino poaching. It was something they were ashamed of or they talked about it openly?
Fiffy Hanisdah Saikim: They don’t talk to you openly about poaching. When they talk to the government personnel, like the wildlife protection units from the SOS Rhinos or from the Wildlife Department, they don’t talk about it, because they know it’s wrong. But because they trusted me, and they treated me like their own, they opened up to me and talked about it. But if, for example, there were other researchers — especially foreign researchers — they won’t talk about poaching, because they know it’s wrong. So they would just say “we support conservation, we are no longer poachers” or something like that. But still you can see these guns in their houses.
Mongabay: And what was their reason for poaching rhinos?
Fiffy Hanisdah Saikim: Based on the interviews with the elderly, they poached rhinos because they saw the value in the market. People like their horn because, they said, the Chinese liked to drink from this horn of rhino and it gave them some medicinal value. I asked: “Where did you find get this information that rhino horn can heal something?” They answered: “From the Chinese people we know from the market, they talked about it.” Rhino was an opportunity for them to get more money. But when they knew that the rhino population was getting scarce they got anxious, because they were afraid that there would be no more income for their grandsons and sons. That would mean they wouldn’t have enough money anymore. Because they are fishermen, and their income in 2005, if I am not mistaken, was less than 300 Malaysian Ringgit (USD$ 68) — not good.
Mongabay: Sumatran rhinos are now believed to be extinct in the wild, but populations survive in Indonesia. Are there lessons you learned in Borneo that could be applied to places like Kalimantan and Sumatra where wild populations still survive?
Fiffy Hanisdah Saikim: Yes, we could learn from them, and we can also teach them what we have done. Cincinnati Zoo successfully bred their rhinos, and the son Harry has been being transported back to Indonesia – there is a joke about Harry being there in Indonesia because of the language barrier. What happened in Borneo is we had unhealthy rhinos, probably because they have been solitary for quite long in the forest, they were unable to find each other in the forest, and so the female reduced heats making it hard to breed. Moreover, the migration of rhinos become problematic because of palm oil plantations, and as the male rhinos were for too long alone in the forest they did not have a very healthy sperm. We could repeat what has successfully happened if the rhinos here were actually healthy.
Tourism can play a crucial part in terms of conservation. We’ve done everything: we’ve done workshops about rhinos for the general public, we have done a lot of scientific research on the rhinos and other projects, but now it’s time to go back to the main root of the problem: the people who live adjacent to these protected areas. We have oil palm plantations there, we have local community there, who can easily encroach the forest.
I think tourism can be part of the solution. Whenever people want to go to the protected areas they need to go through tourism operators, who check how many people are allowed in and everything else. Then we must get local community engagement through tourism, so they can see the value of the forests, the animals. I think that can create awareness about the importance of the conservation of rhinos. You just need to teach the local people living around the protected areas how important it is to save them and how valuable these animals are alive compared if they are dead.
Don’t let the local community depend so much on the agencies or the NGOs. Get them empowered, get them to feel that they own this place, that they are the reasons that these animals are still alive. I think that can help to conserve animals in the forests because now people, even though they are pro-conservation, they don’t think they are playing a role as conservationists there. So, if you ask them “what kind of contribution you can do to help the conservation” they would definitely say “I don’t want to do anything because these people are there to help.”
Mongabay: How do you think we can empower them and make them really part of the conservation effort?
Fiffy Hanisdah Saikim: Well, this is what we are looking among, us the conservationists and biologists. We often do conferences, seminars and workshops among ourselves, so we are increasing our own awareness about this particular project but not the people’s. So, when I do my workshops or seminars in conservation or about protecting the forests I always invite the local community to participate. If we have international foreign speakers, we have a translator for them, make they feel that they are also part of this project. When you do these kinds of things, they will feel like “OK, I am part of it, I am in the circle, I need to do something and I need to convey this kind of messages to my community”. So they will definitely go back and teach their sons and grandsons and also other local communities how to join in the conservation.
This is the way to empower them: they are the one doing it, not us — we are just giving them information. I stayed for two years with them and I saw how difficult it is for them to accept conservation itself, because it contradicts with their livelihood. But if we empower them, we teach them and we convince them they are the one doing conservation — not us.
Readers based in Kampung Dagat have disputed Saikim’s characterization of the historical and current hunting practices in the Tidong community, as well as the outcome of the homestay project. A formal response is forthcoming and will be appended to this article.
Editor’s note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity. It was modified on April 19 to clarify that Saikim’s research did not include the JICA-SDBEC project.
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