SHOREBIRDS ARE constantly declining in population as a consequence of habitat degradation, land reclamation and perils during their journey. Depending on natural wetlands for roosting and feeding sites, shorebirds’ chances of reaching their next staging site or destination can be severely minimised owing to the loss or degradation of important sites. Without these natural wetlands, they will continue to decline.
For sites included in the IBA (Important Bird and Biodiversity Area) listing under BirdLife International (of which the Malaysian Nature Society is the country partner), there seems to be hope, with global eyes and resources trained towards their protection. But what about shores not yet acknowledged as IBAs?
For MNS Miri Branch, the protection of Sarawak’s northern shores and its migrating (and resident) shorebirds is a cause close to the members’ hearts. There are four IBAs in the area, but the branch is pushing for another important shorebird staging area to be recognised – and hopefully protected.
Nevertheless, pushing for IBA status means more surveys and research, which necessitates collaboration with various parties dedicated to the protection of Sarawak’s northern shores. That was what led to MNS Miri organising a two-day Shorebirds Watching Course at Kg Masjid, Kuala Baram at the close of 2018.
Aimed at imparting knowledge about shorebirds, specifically in awareness and birdwatching ethics, and ultimately, appreciation of these birds and wetlands, the training comprised a briefing session on the first day and a field trip on the second, to Sungai Sembilan.
Not quite protected
Even this short day trip tells a long story. I had been to this area twice before, but this time the sightings were plentiful. This was influential in pushing the point across that the Kuala Baram Wetlands were an important area for birds, both local and migratory. The travellers include some rare species, such as the Chinese crested tern (Thalasseus bernsteini), listed as Critically Endangered and once thought extinct; and a few hundred other avifauna that make the annual journey from as far away as Alaska and Siberia. As we were enjoying scoping them out, however, Musa said during the weekends, the birds avoided the roadside areas, owing to the presence of those net fishing in the wetlands themselves. This despite the catch being measly small fish, according to the village head, who shared photos of the average yield. He also said the casual fishermen were likely from outside the area, as locals were aware that the Kuala Baram Wetlands were protected under the Sarawak Wild Life Protection Ordinance, 1998. I looked around and saw “No Hunting” signs, in both English and Malay, quite prominently displayed.
Though the training was local, attended by 22 people from agencies in Miri and Baram, as well as representatives of local tourist guides, MNS Miri plans to continue its awareness and advocacy efforts for the protection of these wetlands. Musa said the story has been told for years, with the Branch making waves in the media a number of times. He was confident, though, that the message was getting through, with Sarawak Forestry Corp and MNS Kuching involved as stakeholders, and the presence of Sarawak Assistant Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture Datuk Lee Kim Shin and members of the media during the field trip. A push towards IBA listing means more attention being given to the site, especially in the international sphere. Aside from the possibility of research being carried out to assist in conservation plans, it could also mean increased interest from birders, environmentalist and tourists. And this, if managed well, can only be good for the area, the community and the state.