Malaysia: Of pregnant tigers and sad whales

By Quek Yew Aun, 23rd February 2016;

February 2016 has been a grim month so far for Malaysian wildlife. In a span of less than one week, we have lost members of two very recognisable species ― a Malayan Tiger (Panthera tigris jacksoni) and a Bryde’s Whale (either Balaenoptera brydei or Balaenoptera edeni). Both died under very different circumstances; the former upon collision with a multi purpose vehicle while attempting to cross the East Coast Expressway 2 while the latter’s cause of death has yet to be confirmed.

Tigers and Whales along with a select few species are what conservationists call charismatic species ― animals unique enough to capture the attention of the general public. The reason for this is still unclear. Some may draw their charm from being large in size like the Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus), while others rely on their unconventional life histories, like the male gestating Seahorse (Hippocampus sp.). More often than not, charismatic species are used as de facto symbols for wildlife conservation.

Although both fauna possess these charismatic values, the story of how they died could not be more different. One tells of the gradual loss of Malaysia’s most iconic species in the face of development while the other, how a lack of evidence-based statements can lead to public confusion.

The tale of the Malayan Tiger

This year itself, we have taken six Tigers from the wild. Aside from the three (mother and cubs) lost in the accident, two were poached in January while another Tiger was found in a Wild Boar trap earlier this week. Six might not seem a large number but considering the Tiger population in Malaysia is estimated to be between 250-340, we have already removed 2.4 per cent of all Malayan Tigers this year alone!

Returning to the incident with the pregnant Tigress, I am pleased that the Minister of Environmental and Natural Resource Datuk Wan Junaidi has announced measures to prevent more such accidents in future including the proposal to build 37 eco-viaducts. However, I hope this will not turn out to be just a knee-jerk reaction in response to public outcry. More importantly, the incorporation of eco-viaducts should not be an excuse to build more roads.

According to Dr Reuben Clements of Universiti Malaysia Terengganu, eco-viaducts will undoubtedly reduce the impact of existing roads on wildlife. The very presence of roads, however, allows accessibility and hence intensifying further threat to wildlife like forest conversion, poaching and illegal trade.

In short, we have to build fewer new roads cutting through forests and focus on building viaducts for wildlife hot spots along the staggering 49,935 km of federal roads. If nothing is done in the near future, we are at risk of relegating Malaysia’s most iconic species to just adorning the covers of our passports.

A beached Whale

The story of the Bryde’s Whale that was found on Malaysian shores is indeed a tragic one. It was first sighted struggling in the shallow waters of Pontian last Monday. Local fishermen managed to tow the poor creature to deeper waters after several attempts. However, its carcass was found a day later about 100 kilometres away near the river mouth of Sungai Sarang Buaya.

In a video report by StarTV, three different reasons were given by “experts” as to why the Whale died. To make matters worse, the whale was misidentified as a Sei Whale (Balaenoptera borealis) when it was actually a Bryde’s Whale from the presence of three parallel ridges on its head.

In the video, a fishery officer explained that the Whale might have been under emotional duress and beached itself after being separated from its pod. A local university professor then theorised that shallower waters could have disrupted Whale migration patterns leading to an eventual stranding. Lastly the Johor branch president of the Malaysian Nature Society pinned the death on disorientation from the noise of heavy shipping in the narrow Malacca Straits.

In response to these claims, MareCet, the only local marine mammal NGO run by actual marine mammalogists, rebutted these statements in a Facebook post. According to them, this particular species of Whale is usually solitary, do not undertake seasonal migrations and do not use echolocation for communication hence would not be affected by shipping vessels. The barrage of inconsistent information is an example of how little we know about marine species inhabiting Malaysian waters and the need for evidence-based statements in reporting.

With that, I caution readers against totally believing reports on wildlife especially the ones that pop up on social media. Alas, only recently the Tokay Gecko (Gekko gecko) was hunted en masse for supposedly being able to cure HIV/AIDS. Ideally, it is good practice to fact check with something as simple as a Google search.

A bright side?

Taking a step back from the causes of death, both cases managed to garner a sizable following on social media. Is this a positive sign for Malaysian wildlife? Or are we Malaysians merely keyboard warriors looking for the next sensational story? I personally believe that everyone can and should have a part to play in conservation, from doing something as simple as spreading awareness on Whale species nomenclature to actively campaigning against the building of new roads that cut through forest.

In the immortal words of Winston Churchill: “Never let a crisis go to waste”, I hope that these twin tragedies will galvanise action to ensure a future for our wildlife, be it terrestrial or marine.

Source: Malay Mail

Malaysia: Of pregnant tigers and sad whales

Dead Dugong (Dugong dugon) found on the beach somewhere along the Johor east coast, in Tenggaroh area. MareCet has informed the authorities and has requested to participate in any post-mortem that may take place. We hope that we will be able to work together with them on this. This Dugong was a male, and judging from the many scratches on its back, was probably not a young animal. We are saddened by this, as this is the second dead Dugong in 4 months from within the small Johor east coast population.

Source: Orang Kota – Tinggi Facebook, via Langkawi Dolphin Research Facebook

Malaysia: Call for study on Whale-Dolphin deaths in Malaysia

By Mohd Farhaan Shah, 2016;

There have been 11 cases of beached Whales and Dolphins in Malaysia’s coastal areas in the past three months and a non-governmental organisation has called on the Government to conduct proper studies to save these animals.

MareCet founder and chairperson Dr Louisa Ponnampalam said marine research in Malaysia was quite new compared to that in Western countries which have the capabilities and financial resources to conduct such studies.

She pointed out that the recent case of a Whale that beached itself at Sungai Sarang Buaya, near Batu Pahat, was a good wake-up call for the Government to initiate research on such mammals.

There are 26 species of marine life that can be found in Malaysian waters, from Whales to Dolphins and even Dugong (Dugong dugon), but due to financial constraints with logistics issues, not many organisations are able to conduct proper research on these animals.

“Whale sightings in Malaysian waters, in particular at Langkawi and Kudat, are quite the norm but due to public misconceptions about these gentle creatures, there is not enough awareness,” she said.

Dr Louisa said the time was right for the Government to initiate a dedicated study on Whales, which would help shed light on the presence of the animal in our waters.

She said the Whale that beached itself in Pantai Rambah on Feb 8 might not be a Sei Whale (Balaenoptera borealis) as thought but a Bryde’s Whale (Balaenoptera edeni), which is a species that was typically found in warm, tropical waters.

“Proper research involving stakeholders will help us understand these Whales and give us important knowledge on marine conservation which will help us sustain all life in our waters,” she said.

It was reported that the Whale on Pantai Rambah was towed out to deep water by fishermen but the 15-tonne mammal was found dead in Batu Pahat about a day later.

A post-mortem found pieces of plastic rubbish in the Whale’s stomach, badly damaged internal organs and a parasite in the carcass.

Source: The Star

Finally, a news article that mentions that it’s not a Sei Whale (Balaenoptera borealis).

The taxonomy of the Bryde’s Whale is still far from settled; what we call the Bryde’s Whale has been split into two subspecies or even distinct species by some authorities: the true Bryde’s Whale, a larger species found in tropical and warm temperate waters worldwide (Balaenoptera brydei), and the Sittang or Eden’s Whale, a smaller form that may be restricted to coastal waters of the Indo-Pacific (Balaenoptera edeni). Both species(?) have been recorded from tropical waters of Southeast Asia.

Malaysia: Call for study on Whale-Dolphin deaths in Malaysia

Sad sight: Fisheries officers taking measurements of the Whale carcass that was found in Sungai Sarang Buaya.
Photo: Bernama

Malaysia: Expert: Whale could have died due to stress
By Mohd Farhaan Shah, 11th February 2016;

The Whale that was earlier rescued off Pontian could have died due to emotional distress after it got separated from its pod, says a fishery expert.

“This Whale might have been separated from its group while looking for food along the Malacca Straits. This may explain why it ended up off Pontian.

"It was having trouble returning to its pod due to the low tide at that time. This led to it suffering emotional distress which can cause organ damage,” Fisheries Research Institute (FRI) officer Mohd Tamimi Ali Ahmad said when met after the Whale’s carcass was towed back to the Batu Pahat Fisheries Department jetty here yesterday.

A post-mortem to identify the cause of death will be carried out on the 12-metre long, 15-tonne adult male mammal.

“The carcass that was found along the river mouth of Sungai Sarang Buaya here is of the same animal found in Pontian earlier.

"We need about a week to obtain the results of the post-mortem.

"Once it is complete, its meat and organs will be destroyed while the skeleton would be placed at the FRI headquarters at Dungun in Terengganu,” he said.

The highly-endangered Sei Whale (Balaenoptera borealis) is the third-largest Whale after the Blue Whale (Balaenoptera musculus) and the Fin Whale (Balaenoptera physalus).

“The Sei Whale is a common animal that can be found in Malaysian waters as the area is within their migratory route,” he said.

Over the last 10 years, Mohd Tamimi said, there have been similar cases of beached Whales, including at Carey Island in Selangor and Pahang.

“It is not only Whales that have been found beached, but also Dugongs (Dugong dugon) and Dolphins (F. Delphinidae).

"I hope people will keep the sea clean for the sake of such animals,” he said.

Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency Batu Pahat enforcement chief Lieutenant Commander Maritime Muhammad Zulkarnain Abdullah said the animal had swam more than 90 nautical miles from Pantai Rambah in Pontian to its final destination at Sungai Sarang Buaya here.

Source: The Star

The three longitudinal ridges along the rostrum are quite obvious in this photo, and are a characteristic feature of the Bryde’s Whale (Balaenoptera edeni); all other rorquals, including the Sei Whale, have only a single ridge along the upper edge of the rostrum. Hence it’s quite puzzling why this Whale has been identified as a Sei Whale.

The taxonomy of the Bryde’s Whale is still far from settled; what we call the Bryde’s Whale has been split into two subspecies or even distinct species by some authorities: the true Bryde’s Whale, a larger species found in tropical and warm temperate waters worldwide (Balaenoptera brydei), and the Sittang or Eden’s Whale, a smaller form that may be restricted to coastal waters of the Indo-Pacific (Balaenoptera edeni). Both species(?) have been recorded from tropical waters of Southeast Asia.

MareCet said the following through the Langkawi Dolphin Research Facebook page:

This video contains numerous incorrect information about the Baleen Whale that stranded 2 days ago in Batu Pahat, Johor. MareCet would like to provide some corrections:

a. “The Whale may have been separated from its pod. The separation might have caused emotional distraught to the Whale”.

OUR COMMENT: Bryde’s Whales are typically solitary animals or found in pairs, unlike other Whale species which tend to be found in groups of multiple animals. The stranded Whale was described to be around 12 m in length, which suggests that the animal is near its maximum growth (approximately 15 m) and therefore is likely to be a mature animal. Thus the likelihood of emotional distress being the case for this animal is fairly minimal. Additionally, no mention was made that tests had been done on the Whale’s adrenal glands to check the gland’s condition and the level of stress-related hormones at the time of its death. In the interview, it was further suggested that the animal’s organs had failed in the previous stranding incident in Pontian. Assuming that this is the same animal, such suggestion is circumstantial given that no investigation was made on the animal’s organs during the rescue operations in Pontian.

b. “Whales, and even Dolphins, are commonly seen in our waters from end of year to January/ February as they are migrating to warmer waters in this period”.

OUR COMMENT: This statement is incorrect. Marine mammals are present in Malaysian waters throughout the year. There are 27 species of marine mammals that have been recorded in Malaysian waters to date comprising both oceanic and coastal species. Being a predominantly warm water species, Bryde’s Whales do not undertake seasonal long distance migrations like many other Baleen Whale species. Our sighting records of these Whales have been scattered throughout the year during the course of our research. Furthermore, most of the Dolphin species found in Malaysia also do not undertake seasonal migrations and are present in Malaysian waters all year-round.

c. “Vessel noise may have disturbed the Whale’s echolocation capabilities”.

OUR COMMENT: Although Baleen Whale’s hearing capabilities are still relatively unknown, it is generally considered that they do not use echolocation to navigate their surroundings like species belonging to Toothed Whale families (i.e. Dolphins, Sperm Whales, Porpoises).

The MareCet team, in collaboration with officers from the Fisheries Research Institute in Rantau Abang, Terengganu (Department of Fisheries Malaysia) and veterinarians from the Kuala Terengganu Department of Veterinary Services, conducted a necropsy on a Dugong (Dugong dugon) which was found dead near Pulau Sibu in Johor on 12 Oct 2015. She was a young immature female, and based on the large chunk of the right side of her face that was missing and some propeller wounds, and the fact that her internal organs (though decomposed) appeared normal, we think that the most probable cause of her death was due to boat strike. Nonetheless we hope to do some histopathological tests to investigate if other factors may have caused her death. This was a very unfortunate blow to the small and only viable Dugong population in Peninsular Malaysia as it means that there is one less Dugong that will grow to maturity to reproduce and bear offspring. MareCet is currently in discussions with the authorities on the possible implementation of a speed limit zone around the Sibu-Tinggi islands.

Source: Langkawi Dolphin Research Facebook

(This is Part 1 of a 2-part photo set)

The MareCet team, in collaboration with officers from the Fisheries Research Institute in Rantau Abang, Terengganu (Department of Fisheries Malaysia) and veterinarians from the Kuala Terengganu Department of Veterinary Services, conducted a necropsy on a Dugong (Dugong dugon) which was found dead near Pulau Sibu in Johor on 12 Oct 2015. She was a young immature female, and based on the large chunk of the right side of her face that was missing and some propeller wounds, and the fact that her internal organs (though decomposed) appeared normal, we think that the most probable cause of her death was due to boat strike. Nonetheless we hope to do some histopathological tests to investigate if other factors may have caused her death. This was a very unfortunate blow to the small and only viable Dugong population in Peninsular Malaysia as it means that there is one less Dugong that will grow to maturity to reproduce and bear offspring. MareCet is currently in discussions with the authorities on the possible implementation of a speed limit zone around the Sibu-Tinggi islands.

Source: Langkawi Dolphin Research Facebook

(This is Part 2 of a 2-part photo set)

It was so decomposed, its dorsal fin was all disfigured, which did not enable us to identify whether this individual was one we’ve photographed before or not.

Its teeth were still sharp and clean, indicative of a young animal. Old animals usually have very worn teeth.

Source: Langkawi Dolphin Research Facebook [1], [2], [3]