Community Ecotourism in Malaysia's Largest Wetlands

By David Dudenhoefer

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, November 5, 2002 (ENS) - Indigenous Semelai farmers living around the Tasek Bera wetlands have exploited their natural resources for centuries, sometimes with disastrous results. Past hunting of crocodiles for skins, and arrowhana fish for the aquarium trade, has practically eliminated those species from Tasek Bera.

Now conservationists are helping the Semelai establish a community tourism enterprise, so that they can make a living from the wetlands while protecting their endangered species.


Semelai woman fishing in the Sungei Bera, the main river flowing into the Tasek Bera system. (Photo by Roger Jaensch courtesy Wetlands International)
One of the original ethnicities of the Malay Peninsula, the Semelai now number a mere 12,000, about 2,000 of whom live around Tasek Bera. Nearly half of those families have incomes below the national poverty level, and all of them rely on the wetlands and surrounding forest for an array of goods.

But since 1994, when Tasek Bera was declared a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, the Malaysian government has banned activities such as commercial hunting and fishing, leaving the Semelai with fewer income options.

Wetlands International Malaysia is promoting ecotourism as an economic alternative for the Semelai. With funding from the Global Environment Facility's Small Grants Programme, which is implemented by the UN Development Programme, the organization has helped the Semelai develop a basic tourism infrastructure, trained them in guiding and other skills, and helped them form an association to manage tourism.

Hashim Inolan, vice-chairman of the Semelai Association for Boating and Tourism (SABOT), has been involved in the ecotourism project since its inception. Like most of his neighbors, Inolan's main income is from rubber, a crop that was introduced to the area in the 1950s, but for the past two years, he has earned extra money guiding tourists through the wetlands.

"I have high hopes that tourism could become a major source of income," Inolan said.

Though few people currently visit Tasek Bera, which is Malaysia's largest natural wetland and only Ramsar site, it is not for lack of natural attractions.


This water trumpet, Cryptocoryne purpurea, is endemic to Malaysia and is found only in the lowland wetlands of Tasek Bera. (Photo courtesy Wetlands International-Asia Pacific)
The 3,000 hectare (7,413 acre) protected area includes a mix of tropical rain forest, narrow waterways and open swamps where giant pandanus plants flourish alongside the purple water trumpet, a species found only in Tasek Bera.

The animal life Tasek Bera is even more diverse, ranging from giant reticulated pythons to tiny mouse deer, and including such endangered species as the sun bear and Malayan false gharial - a long-nosed crocodile.

The Semelai hunted both python and gharial for their hides until the government banned the activity some two decades ago, but those species remain rare in Tasek Bera.

The avian fauna is diverse and abundant with about 200 species of birds which include heron, wader and duck species. There are 95 species of fish, about 50 of them known as aquarium species.

Though the Semelai continue to hunt and fish for food, SABOT chairman Atim Padod said his neighbors are exploiting Tasek Bera's wildlife less since the ecotourism project began. He hopes they will eventually earn more money showing the local plants and animals to tourists than they once did from hunting.


A campsite provided by the Semelai people in Tasek Bera (Photo courtesy SABOT)
In addition to offering boat tours of the wetlands, SABOT has several jungle camps where visitors can spend nights. They also offer guided forest hikes and demonstrations of Semelai folk music, medicinal plants, and production of handicrafts, the sale of which benefits families that are not involved in guiding.

Sundari Ramakrishna, the director of Wetlands International Malaysia, said her organization has produced a website, posters and other materials about Tasek Bera, and the members plan to increase efforts to attract visitors.

Ramakrishna explained that SABOT's members have to pay annual dues and give the association 10 percent of everything they earn from guiding, transporting, and accommodating tourists, which provides it with an operating budget and ensures its sustainability after the initial ecotourism project ends.

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