Not quite dinosaurs, mudskippers are one of the many wonders of Southeast Asian marine biodiversity. This photo was taken in the mangrove swamps of Tanjung Baru Beach, Karawang City, West Java, where the mudskipper population is threatened by a plan to build a sea port. (Aditya Nugraha/ACB)

Marine conservation – From Seaweed to Flying Dinosours

Breaking news: ‘Large flocks of flying dinosaurs have been spotted all over Southeast Asia. The sky above Metro Manila and Singapore, as well as large parts of Thailand and Vietnam was darkened today by estimated 50 million creatures. The dinosaurs are believed to migrate from Russia down to Australia, paying a visit to the ASEAN region on their way. Please remain inside and stay calm.’ This announcement shouldn’t terrify but rather sound quite familiar to most Southeast Asians, since it happens twice a year.

Sleep like a dinosaur

Really? The sky darkened by millions of dinosaurs? Feathered dinosaurs, to be precise – more commonly referred to as birds. But birds don’t share much with Jurassic Park’s star Tyrannosaurus rex, do they? Have a closer look. From their appearance to their sleeping posture they have a lot in common: fossils of more than 20 dino species, like Archaeopteryx, have been collected with preserved feathers. T. rex’s fossilized skin is as soft as that of a bird. With their heads tucked under their arms, dinosaurs even slept like modern birds.

Modern birds are the only kind of dinosaurs that survived their famous mass extinction 65 Million years ago – most likely resulting from an asteroid impact – due to their larger and more complex brain. Having brains helped them to better adapt to the dramatic change in the environment – until now. Sixty-five million years later, the environment is changing again, thanks to a new player with an even bigger brain – Men. His development and resource consumption now critically endangers many surviving dinos.

Just take the Spoon-billed Sandpiper; as few as 100 breeding pairs remain in the wild. Once hatched in the Arctic Circle, the tiny Sandpiper fledglings face their first 8,000 km migration to Myanmar and other parts of Southeast Asia. Together with 200 fellow waterbird species, they use twice a year the East Asia – Australasian Flyway, connecting Russia to Southeast Asia and Australia. At the same time, this region is home to 45 percent of the world’s human population, leaving 33 of the bird species critically threatened. Some shorebirds show annual declines of nine percent. Clearly, the feathered dinosaurs in the flyway have more reason to be terrified by us, then we by them.

Hidden billions

From a seabird’s eye perspective, such threats and decline are symptomatic for the rich marine biodiversity of the region, harboring the Coral Triangle, a mega-diverse area with 75 percent of global coral species. The Triangle is highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, in combination with other human activities, leaving e.g. 98 percent of Philippine coral reefs at risk. “This is because only 12 percent of the reefs in the region are protected,” as Ms. Annabelle Cruz Trinidad of the Coral Triangle Initiative (CTI) set the scene for the marine session of the 4th ASEAN Heritage Parks (AHP) Conference, held October 1 -4 in Tagatay, Philippines. The 33 AHPs represent biodiverse ecosystems in the region, encompassing, however, only four marine sites.

How can that be, if marine ecosystems are so crucial for feathered dinosaurs, and the livelihoods of millions, providing hundreds of billions to the regional economy?

Because these billions are hidden. “The Philippine Bolinao-Anda coral reefs, for instance, is worth US$38 million per year, consisting mainly of indirect benefits from shoreline protection. Yet, direct use from fisheries, aquaculture, and tourism was only valued at US$ 6 million,” Ms. Trinidad pointed out. And even worse, most reef revenues are not ploughed back into their management. This leaves marine protected areas of developing Asia with a financing gap of 85 percent. As always, we are short on cash. But also on the effective use of it, since capacity is often lacking.

Of floating fences and pink patrols

And we are short in fences. Unlike their counterparts on land, marine protected areas cannot easily be fenced against outside threats. Threats come from hunters. Mine-hunters. While luckily there is not a single sea mine to be found on the Philippine Tubbataha Reef, on 17 January 2013 the minesweeper USS Guardian famously ran aground on the UNESCO World Heritage-listed coral reef. Destroying the reef on a size of about five basketball courts was certainly no joy to the millions of flying dinosaurs who depend on this last intact seabird rockery of the country, they use on their exhausting journey along the flyway to fuel up on fish. Fish and the entire fauna are so plentiful that one can find 80 of all 111 know coral species here. The biodiversity value of this richness dwarfs the mere US$ 600 charged per m2 of destroyed reef, as Ms. Songco, Superintendent of the protected area remarked.

It’s exactly this vibrant value, not sea mines, what a different kind of hunters is after. For poachers, the protected and productive atoll is a true magnet within its plundered surroundings. Without floating fences being invented yet, poaching makes strict law enforcement by rangers indispensable. On their difficult job in the middle of the Sulu Sea, 15 boat hours away from their families, they are supported with good equipment, proper training and motivation. “If they ask us to paint their boats pink we do so, as long as they patrol the reef day and night,” Songco said. In these efforts, the protected area management is supported by GIZ, the German Development Cooperation, who also works with the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity to contribute to environmental awareness around the region.

This awareness is crucial, since many ask why on earth the armed forces of the Philippines should protect a bunch of fish. “Only in the Philippines you will find that people are still smiling when arrested for poaching’, as happened on an illegal Chinese vessel caught in 2006,” Sogong narrates. But such hard measures can only bear fruit if combined with soft ones, like education, outreach and partnership. Such promotion of compliance works: enforcement costs decreased dramatically in the last decade, locals now even text in when they see poachers coming from the outside.

Planet, people, profit

From outside its boundaries come most risks to marine protected areas. Therefore, the economic situation of people living there needs to be considered carefully. Simply locking people out, won’t work. “There is always a triple bottom line: Planet, People, Profit,” said Dr. Rili Djohani, Executive Director of CTI. The Center guides the communities in the region to realize the conservation benefit for entire fisheries. The spill-over of fish from thriving protected breeding grounds sustains the Coral Triangle tuna industry, worth alone US$ 3 billion a year. It becomes clear that the livelihoods of over 100 million people are not threatened by conservation but maintained, or even increased, if alternatives to destructive fishing are applied. Just take seaweed cultivation. You might not like its fishy taste, but it is en vogue for cosmetics, medicines and textiles. A trial with 1,000 farmers is promoted by CTI in the Indonesian Nusa Penida, a learning site to share knowledge throughout the region.

Yet another alternative, bringing in US$ 900.000 a year in Thailand’s four marine AHPs alone, is ecotourism. Prudently planned ecotourism. Dr. Niphon Phongsuwan of the Phuket Marine Biological Center explained just how carefully ecotourism should be implemented. The Green Fins project of environmentally-friendly dive operators and the Andaman Marine Protected Areas Network work together as reef guardians. And guardians are desperately needed for Thailand’s reefs, weakened by climate change-induced bleaching of corals. In 2010, bleaching killed large parts of the reef building Acropora corals. Named in honor of Her Majesty Queen Sirikit of Thailand, Acropora sirikitiae should be at the heart of all Thais.

And at the heart of all Southeast Asians, with their destiny closely linked to marine resources. Dangers from the outside, be it warships, poachers or climate change need “regional and trans-boundary mechanism, based on scientific findings and backed by solid financing,” the AHP Conference session concluded. One example of such regional approach is the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership with 15 government partners, many of them in the ASEAN. Dr. Llewellyn Young of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands highlighted that without international cooperation on conservation of the flyway, many waterbird species will face extinction in the near future.

For the extinction of the other dinosaurs, the continued survival of pigeons, puffins and penguins – thanks to their big brains – may be a small consolation. Let’s keep it this way. Watching the feathered dinos taking off into the sunset, let’s hope that our brains too are big enough – for their and our survival.


First Published 26 Oct 2013, Written by Philipp Gassner / Special to the BusinessMirror