Lankayan is one of Borneo’s best dive destinations thanks to its conservation area status. But the island paradise is fighting a continual war with poachers who could destroy the fragile balance of Lankayan’s reefs. Chris Mitchell reports.
[This article first appeared in edited form in Scuba Diver AustralAsia magazine]
Lankayan is the television definition of paradise – a tiny palm-topped island with pristine white sand beaches, offering seclusion, peace and quiet and spectacular diving. A two hour boat ride from the town of Sandakan in Malaysian Borneo, Lankayan is set within the Segud Islands Marine Conservation Area (SIMCA), which was set up back in 2001. The SIMCA project has led to Lankayan’s numerous reefs becoming abundantly populated with thousands of different species thanks to its “no fishing” policy- it’s widely regarded as one of the best macro diving locations in all of Asia. But Lankayan is under continual attack – fisherman continually attempt illegal fishing, indiscriminately dragging the reefs with their nets to haul up whatever they can find or using dynamite fishing to kill everything in the explosive’s vicinity which can then be collected when it floats to the surface. Lankayan’s Wildlife Officers are locked in a never-ending battle to try and keep the fragile balance of their newly thriving conservation area intact.
The source of all this conflict is what lies beneath the waves – shallow reefs that are now home to a multitude of amazing creatures. Jawfish, gobies, nudibranches, frogfish and ghost pipefish are amongst the list frequently reeled off by divemasters at briefings. But Lankayan is famous not only for being a haven for the smallest marine life, but also the largest. From March to May each year, whale sharks are attracted to the coral spawning that occurs around the island. An encounter with one is still quite rare, but there is no shortage of other marine life to keep your interest. My personal favourite was the jawfish, grown outsize at Lankayan to fist size, turning to give each watching diver an unblinking stare and slowly sinking back into its hole if unsure about its visitors.
Elsewhere, squadrons of blue-spotted stingrays endlessly skitter and settle on the sand, whilst leopard sharks, stonefish, lionfish and huge groupers all compete for attention. Providing an interesting counterpoint to the shallow reefs that comprise most of Lankayan’s dive sites, the Lankayan wreck is actually two boats, both fishermen’s poaching boats that were confiscated and subsequently sunk. Once dedicated to plundering Lankayan’s marine life, these boats now provide a home for it, and some measure of protection from the poaching that relentlessly continues. Over the course of a week’s diving, I spotted several large dead patches of coral, the direct result of dynamite fishing. During one dive we even heard the muffled thud of a dynamite charge going off, a disconcerting experience that highlights that Lankayan’s conservation still hangs in the balance.
The wildlife officers of Reef Guardian, the company tasked with protecting the marine conservation area, work with the Malaysian police and army to combat the poachers. Armed with radar and fast speedboats, Lankayan’s resident marine biologist Chung Fung Chen and her team are often required to take their boats both day and night to intercept the fishing boats. “Any boat that enters SIMCA will trigger an alarm on the scanner and we will be able to identify the boat through our tracking system”, Ms Chung explained to me. Many come from Indonesia and the Phillippines, some with entire families on board, driven by poverty to chance their luck at fishing illegally within the teeming conservation area. Ms Chung described how some fishermen would use a breathing tube running from the boat to let them walk along the reef collecting sea slugs. As she pointed out, “It’s very dangerous work and they can expect to get paid maybe 50 Malaysian ringgit” (about US$ 13). Educating the fishermen is an ongoing effort, and several Lankayan staff are former fishermen who now help preserve the environment rather than take from it. Even so, unless the poachers can be given a realistic alternative to their current livelihood, it’s difficult to see how the root rather than the symptoms of the problem can be treated.
For those poachers apprehended by the wildlife officers, there is either a booking or a trip to the mainland to visit the police headquarters and a fine of 500 ringgit required for the release of their boat. With 40,000 hectares of ocean to supervise and only a handful of staff and police to do so, Ms Chung has her work cut out to keep the fishermen out of the conservation area.
If the battle with the poachers remains precarious, it’s still a major progression from the 1990s, when the island was uninhabited and the reefs were fair game for any fisherman. Businessmen Ricky Chin and Kenneth Chung set in motion a campaign that eventually resulted in the establishment of SIMCA and the resultant restitution of the reefs, along with the Lankayan resort, the only facility on the island which holds a maximum of 50 people. It’s an incredibly tangible example of the power of conservation methods to restore seemingly destitute environments, and of the possibility of commerce and conservation working together. There are other areas where Lankayan’s marine protection program has made solid advances too. The island has a no waste policy, with all water and human waste completely filtered by a hydroponic system to avoid any contamination of the sea. All of the island’s solid trash is shipped back to the mainland, with organic waste dumped at sea outside SICAM’s boundaries.
More evident to visitors to the island is the turtle hatchery, where baby turtles are kept and nurtured to protect them from poachers and also from natural predators so as to give them the best possible chance of survival. Currently under construction on the island is a small Information Centre to make Lankayan’s conservation aims more prominent to its visitors. As Ms. Chung pointed out, at the moment there is not much information available to the island’s visitors about Reef Guardian’s work. “We aim to have audio-visual presentations and posters here to describe what we’re doing,” she explained as we looked around the newly built but still empty hut that will house the Centre.
Reading Lankayan’s comments book, it’s heartening to see that virtually all the tourists who come to Lankayan do so precisely because they feel a solidarity with the work that goes on here. Most recognise the direct correlation between the quality of the diving and the island’s conservation efforts. Best of all, guest suggestions are directly acknowledged and acted upon by Lankayan’s staff, so there is a very real culture of continually trying to improve things. To have such flexible and responsive management is vital given that, in the wrong hands, Lankayan could easily be irretrievably damaged.
Besides the difficult and dangerous work of enforcing the security of the marine area, Ms Chung’s day to day work involves assessing and monitoring the state of the reefs and fish life through continual checks. Species identification, water quality, coral examination and sedimentation checks all form part of her routine, along with dealing with the recent alarming outbreak of Crown Of Thorns starfish. Surprisingly, there is no monitoring program for the whale sharks in place at the moment, but perhaps this will come in the future. There is only so much Ms Chung’s small team can do effectively at once. “Our next major projects are coral farming and installing reef balls”, says Ms Chung. “Both projects will help restore the reefs where they’ve been damaged by dynamite fishing”.
Soon their responsibilities will be increasing. The success of Lankayan has prompted plans for another resort along the same lines on the island of Billean, which also lies within the marine conservation area. Construction is expected to finish in 2007, and hopefully the opening of the new resort will also see more money and resources given to the Reef Guardian team to protect this unique place.
Chris Mitchell flew to Sandakan courtesy of Thai Air Asia and Air Asia Malaysia. (www.airasia.com). The Lankayan Resort is online at www.lankayan-island.com. Reef Guardian is online at www.reef-guardian.org