KUALA LUMPUR — Dubbed one of the world’s 12 “mega-diverse” countries by wildlife experts, Malaysia is home to an array of instantly recognizable species, many of which have been driven to near-extinction by deforestation.
A Google project in 2013 showed Malaysia losing almost 15 per cent of its jungle over the previous decade – much of it cleared to make way for plantations generating the palm oil that makes up around 4 per cent of exports.
Although land clearances have slowed, decades of deforestation have left marquee species – such as the orangutan and local variants of elephant, rhinoceros and tiger – listed as threatened or endangered by monitoring organizations such as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
The animals have been granted a respite of late, with their human tormentors transfixed by an epidemic that prompted an unprecedented response: shutdown.
Malaysia’s restrictions – accompanied by a government’s mantra of “duduk rumah,” or stay at home – were imposed on March 18 after cases of Covid-19, the occasionally fatal disease caused by the virus, spiked into the hundreds.
107 people have died since Malaysia reported its first infection in late January, prompting people to start wearing face masks and cut back on recreational spending.
Zoo Negara Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, the commercial capital and a city of 8 million, has seen lower revenue since February – due to “a significant drop in ticket sales” and companies cancelling or postponing events at the zoo, according to a spokesman.
So, even before Malaysia went into lockdown, pandemic panic put people off visiting animals.
Later, as humans retreated behind closed doors during a strictly-policed lockdown, the animals were more or less doing the opposite.
Melvin Gumal, director of the World Conservation Society’s Malaysia programme, said empty streets led to “wildlife coming back into the cities.”
The last few weeks have seen a variety of typically-timid creatures nosing around Gumal’s garden, including crimson sunbirds, bull frogs, Bornean tree skinks and crested green lizards.
The temporary re-wilding has, Gumal said, meant “elephants are seen roaming closer to towns as compared to before.”
The sometimes-reticent giants have been captured on camera while sauntering across empty roads and exploring car parks – as if transfixed themselves by the inexplicable absence of the frail bipedal fauna usually found lurking around such concrete-covered habitats.
Also granted a respite has been the Malayan Tapir, which looks a ut like a smaller-version rhino, minus the horn.
Frequently the subject of roadkill news reports – though few cars usually emerge unscathed from even a low-speed collision with a 300-400 kilogram tapir – the past seven weeks have seen the creatures wandering carefree on mostly-empty roads.
By forcing people to stay indoors, the lockdown – officially a Movement Control Order during which over 20,000 people were arrested – put a stop to fieldwork or other hands-on conservation operations.
“All our fieldwork has been affected and suspended, which accounts for 90 per cent [of the work],” said Andrew Sebastian, founder and director of the Ecotourism and Conservation Society of Malaysia, adding that government and private funding was drying up.
Several pygmy elephants have been found dead in eastern Malaysia, which Sebastian said could be down to poisoning.
Gumal lamented that his team’s biologists have been unable to “go out to the field to study wildlife” or to “collaborate with the local communities on conservation of wildlife and habitats.”
“I am concerned as there is now very minimal monitoring and communications even at protected sites home to our endangered species,” he said, hinting that reduced vigilance could facilitate poaching.
The Malaysia branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature said on Friday that poaching and illict trading of wild animals could in turn endanger human health, given that initial speculation about the new coronavirus suggested a link to a market selling wild animals in Wuhan, China.
“Unsustainable wildlife trade is the second-largest direct threat to biodiversity globally, after habitat destruction,” said Henry Chan, WWF-Malaysia’s conservation director.
Although Malaysia’s lockdown curbs were eased on Monday, with some businesses reopening and restaurants allowed cater to dine-in customers, its borders remain closed and international travel has all but collapsed.
Malaysia’s vital tourism sector, which in most years is the second-biggest in South-East Asia after Thailand’s, has been hard-hit.
Caught up the slump are niche jungle hideouts catering to visitors who want a first-hand look Malaysia’s endangered species.
“From my discussions with eco-tourism colleagues, the lockdown has been really hard on their business. They have cancelled trips and had to also arrange for international visitors to head back home,” said Gumal.
Sebastian said that local guides are out of work and could stay that way “for the next 12 months even.”
“The future for tourism/ecotourism and all that depend on it is very bleak,” Sebastian said.
The main consolation, he added, is that “islands, mangroves and sites that usually cater to crowds are doing nicely.”
That means, according to Sebastian, that “nature wins for now.”