As school semesters come to a close across Southeast Asia, and teachers begin calculating final scores, another type of assessment is called for: an environmental report card for the region. While evaluating every environmental issue that has arisen in every country is unfeasible, it is possible to conduct a general overview of what has happened so far in 2018. How are forests, oceans, mangroves, and wildlife faring in the region so far in 2018? Some countries receive more coverage than others in this report, and Brunei is not covered due to the limited amount of international environmental coverage on the small Bornean country.
Let’s begin with Cambodia. The Environmental Investigation Agencey (EIA) recently published a report titled “Serial Offender: Vietnam’s Continued Imports of Illegal Cambodian Timber.” The EIA published a similar report around this time last year called “Repeat Offenders.” Both reports are damming indictments of the illegal logging taking place in Ratanakiri and Stung Treng provinces in the Kingdom’s northeast (as well as in Laos). Virachey National Park is singled out in this year’s report, and what I witnessed firsthand on an expedition in the park earlier this year confirms the report’s findings. Farther afield in the Kingdom, two protected areas were simply wiped off the list: both Snoul Wildlife Sanctuary and Roneam Duan Sam Wildlife Sanctuary were degazetted because there is simply nothing left of them; loggers, farmers, and poachers had their way with them.
Meanwhile, a proposed Chinese-backed dam on the Mekong River at Sambor in Kratie province is predicted to be the death of the lower Mekong River, while down in the southwest corner of the country park rangers found and dismantled 109, 217 snares in a single protected area: the Southern Cardamom National Park. Snares are putting wildlife at risk throughout the country. On a positive note, community patrols are battling the snare epidemic in Mondulkiri province.
Common leopards (panthera pardus), Cambodia’s largest carnivore since tigers were declared extinct last year (although they have likely been extinct since 2010), are nearly extinct in Mondulkiri. Troublingly, palm oil plantations are now making inroads into eastern Cambodia, while additional roads for mines are slated for the area. Roads through tropical forests are much more damaging than previously thought, and in a country as small as Cambodia additional roads through what’s left of its forests can sound the death knell for its wildlife. Poaching and road-building go hand in hand and pose grave threats to the Cambodia’s biodiversity.
Down on the coast, mountains of plastic and trash are accumulating on Cambodia’s beaches, while Chinese investors are making disturbing headway in transforming Sihanoukville’s coastline into a mini Las Vegas. However, Cambodia also created its first marine protected area in order to combat illegal trawling.
In more disturbing news, villagers are threatening a fabulous budding foreign-run ecotourism site, but eight NGOs are urging the Cambodian government to show resolve and help defend the site in Preah Vihear province. To end on a positive note, river tern populations are said to be increasing on the Mekong River.
Overall score for Cambodia: F
Things are looking somewhat better across the border in Thailand. The dugong — or “sea cow” — population in the waters off Trang province is larger than previously estimated. Thai authorities did a fantastic job of arresting Lao wildlife kingpin Boonchai Bach at the start of the year, an elusive criminal who was previously thought untouchable. Thai police also uncovered and seized a dozen captive tigers in another laudable effort, yet this discovery points to what is most likely a larger underground illegal tiger farm network in the Kingdom. In more bad news, a pregnant whale shark was caught off the Phuket coast and died soon after, but at least the authorities seem intent on a heavy fine for the transgression.
The beautiful Maya Bay in the Ko Phi Phi archipelago has been closed to tourism because of the massive environmental stress on the scenic beach caused by mass tourism. Additional islands in Trang province have also been closed off in order to allow the environment time to rehabilitate; overnight stays on the Similan islands are now banned for the same reason.
Meanwhile, Thailand has begun importing waste from 35 countries and runs the risk of becoming the garbage receptacle of Asia. A pilot whale recently washed up on a southern Thai beach and later died from having eaten 80 plastic bags. Pattaya’s beaches are turning black with raw sewage and wastewater. On a more positive note, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has ordered that a residential complex in the forested Doi Suthep mountain be scrapped and returned to its natural state, much to the delight of activists.
Still, the prospect of an environmentally catastrophic Kra Isthmus canal hangs over the south while a black leopard-eating tycoon in western Thailand plans to bulldoze a road through the Myanmar jungle next door. To end on a positive note, it is said that Thailand’s wild tiger population is increasing.
Overall score for Thailand: C
Next door in Myanmar, indigenous and environmental activist Saw O Moo was murdered, and peace in the country could spell doom for a potential wildlife refuge in the Karen state. Wild elephants are being caught and skinned so that bags, “medicine,” and other accessories can be sold in Chinese areas. It is estimated that 165 wild elephants have been caught and skinned for this ghastly trade in the last seven years. Tragically, the ethnic Rohingya people of Myanmar are being attacked and killed by wild elephants in neighboring Bangladesh.
In an almost unbelievable act of cowardly and gratuitous violence, what appears to be a Chinese tourist apparently paid for the “privilege” of shooting a caged Asian black bear in the head, killing it “out of curiosity.” Numerous dams are slated for construction across the country, and in eastern Shan state Chinese workers are secretly carrying on construction under armed protection. To end on a positive note, there is hope for the endangered snub-nosed monkey after all, although some of that hope is across the border in Yunnan, China.
Overall score for Myanmar: F
Heading back east to Vietnam, we can begin with some surprisingly good news: the large-antlered muntjac, listed by the IUCN as Critically Endangered, was recorded for the first time ever by camera traps in Quang Nam province. This species was only discovered in 1994 and none exist in captivity, so discovery of its existence in another province offers a new lifeline to this extremely rare deer. However, in that same province, illegal logging continues, and garbage covers southern Vietnam’s highest peak. Still Quang Nam authorities are pushing to protect the increasingly rare gray-shanked langur monkeys.
Massive fish deaths were recently recorded along the southern Vietnamese coast, waves of trash lap up against the beaches of central Vietnam, and passenger coaches entering Vietnam from Cambodia were found loaded with illegally fetched timber. And it should not be forgotten that Vietnam is the destination for all of that illegally logged timber described in the EIA report. Furthermore, on an expedition in Cambodia’s Virachey National Park earlier this year, we found numerous large hardwood trees near the Lao border with Vietnamese timber syndicates’ initials spray-painted on them (I found a bottle of the spray paint and crossed out their insignias and wrote “Cambodia” on the trees).
A conservationist I recently met with who works in Malaysia reported that the protected area that he works in has seen a spiked increase in Vietnamese poachers searching for the country’s last tigers, and a Vietnamese national was recently arrested with 180 pairs of sun bear paws.
Meanwhile, Vietnam continues to import huge quantities of African pangolin scales, while pangolins in Indochina become increasingly scarce. Finally, in more hopeful news, a Vietnamese environmental campaigner won the country’s first Goldman Prize for her push for energy conservation, and traditional medicine students in the country are pushing to discourage the use of wildlife products in the field.
Overall score for Vietnam: C-
Over in Laos the Chinese are planning a massive development project around the scenic Khonephapheng waterfall, and debt to China over projects that are of questionable value (and which are environmentally destructive), such as the high speed rail line linking Yunnan to Bangkok, threaten to actually bankrupt the country.
Even though Vientiane has promised to crack down on the wildlife trade, little enforcement seems to be taking place. Furthermore Laos’ dam-building frenzy continues despite concerns from neighboring countries. Sadly, one of the last thickly-forested areas of the country way down at the very edge of Attapeu province, Nam Ghong PPA, is under major threat of annihilation from rapacious resource extraction and infrastructure development. Chemical runoff from factories is also killing livestock cattle outside of the capital.
In an attempt to shine a positive light on the reclusive land-locked country, we can emphasize the importance of the Thai arrest of Boonchai, which is especially appealing as he might well be into drugs and child prostitution. Still, it’s difficult to see the situation in Laos as positive, especially as it was Thailand who caught Boonchai.
Overall score for Laos: D
Down in Malaysia the election of Mahathir Mohamad could see a re-evaluation of environmentally destructive Chinese infrastructure projects, such as the East Coast Rail link, which are part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Sunda Pangolin has been given the highest level formal protection in the state of Sabah, yet six endangered pygmy elephants were recently found dead in the same state, most likely from poisoning. In the west Malaysian state of Perak, another elephant poaching game was broken up.
On Langkawi island, locals are predicting that the ecosystem will “self-destruct” due to development activities, and yet in Sarawak botanists rediscovered the “lost” fairy lantern flower that hadn’t been seen in 151 years, and a new species of water beetle was discovered in Sabah’s Maliau Basin, which was named after Leonardo DiCaprio for his outstanding contributions to environmental conservation across the world. Also in Malaysian Borneo in Sarawak, a Dayak elder known as “Dragon Beard” drew comparisons between the plight of the orangutans and his ethnic group. Back on Peninsular Malaysia several new species were recently discovered, including a type of “ghost scorpion,” and a moth not seen in 130 years was recently rediscovered in Taman Negara National Park. Malaysia and Indonesia have also finally agreed to cooperate on sperm transplant for Sumatran rhinos, only a few of which remain in Sabah state, and yet demand for biofuels threatens the forest ecosystems upon which all of these species depend for survival.
Overall score for Malaysia: B-
Indonesia is an incredibly vast archipelago consisting of thousands of islands and as such the scope of such a far-spanning nation is beyond the scope of sub-section of an article, so this piece will focus on Sumatra and Java, and to a lesser extent Kalimantan (Borneo) and Bali, and a couple of points beyond.
Where to begin? A glimmer of hope for Javan rhinos comes from extreme southwest Java’s Ujung Kulon National Park, where newborn Javan rhinos were camera-trapped. However, trade in turtles and tortoises is rampant in Jakarta, yet Indonesia has proposed three national parks to be biosphere reserves, including sites in Sumatra and Lombok.
A lot is happening in Sumatra. A tiger that had strayed into Riau’s vast oil palm plantations (which were formerly endless jungle) has been captured after a 100-day chase during which she terrified plantation workers. She is recovering and awaiting release in another, more suitable area. In more tiger news, a Jambi woman was lucky to escape a tiger attack, and in a North Sumatra village locals killed a tiger snoozing under a porch because they suspected it was a shape-shifting “weretiger”; the Sumatran equivalent of the werewolf. An expedition to the Hadabuan Hills in North Sumatra province came back with amazing images of endangered and critically endangered wildlife in an area that had no formal protected status at all, while not far off to the east of Hadabuan Hills the newly discovered Tapanuli orangutan is under threat from a Chinese dam in the Batang Toru ecosystem. And yet, lingering animism in conjunction with Islam may offer hope to some species on the island of Sumatra. There could be as few as 30 Sumatran rhinos in the wild, and Jeremy Hance tells us that it’s now or never: we still have time to save this critically endangered species.
The mangroves on the island’s East Coast, particularly those in the Deli Serdang region, are in big trouble, yet a dedicated group of local activists are hard at work at getting the area turned into a Ramsar site. Finally, a Sumatran expatriate now residing in Australia reflects on the environmental changes that have occurred in his homeland, while European wildlife photographer Alain Compost, who has resided in the country for 40 years now, takes an electric motorbike across Sumatra and into Java in order to highlight the changes that occurred over the years, most of them saddening.
Across the sea in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) a headless orangutan was discovered and it was determined that the great ape had been tortured before meeting its end, while U.S. demand for kratom for opioid addicts is seeing jungle cleared for new plantations. And yet there is some hope in central Kalimantan where a new sub-species of orangutan was recently discovered, and volunteers can help this species fight its way back to stability. Back across the sea, the waters of Komodo National Park are said to be at an ecological tipping point.
Indonesia is struggling to balance conservation and livelihoods,
Overall score for Indonesia: C-
Nevertheless, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte has proven to be utterly spineless in standing up to China when it comes to territorial disputes and China’s reclamation of reefs and rocky features in the South China Sea threatens the integrity of the area’s marine ecology, to say nothing of political sovereignty. The once-stunning Boracay Island, which was probably the country’s biggest tourism draw, has been shut down because unregulated over-development has turned into an open-air sewage storage facility. The horrid Filipino bird trade is now fetching birds from Indonesia, which has its own massive bird problem in its caged bird trade.
Overall score for the Philippines: C
Taking a broader overview, we can see that China’s Mekong River dams in Yunnan threaten the water security and wellbeing of all of Indochina, yet Irrawaddy dolphins are staging a surprise comeback on that very river. Trade in black-spotted turtles is out of control, and Chinese demand for the helmeted hornbill’s “red ivory” seems sure to doom this magnificent species to extinction. The Economist reminds us of Asia’s unquenchable desire for exotic wildlife products, and the catastrophic effects this is having on species far beyond the region’s boundaries. Meanwhile, China’s BRI is posed (if it is successfully carried out) to transform the region at enormous environmental cost.
Most of this is depressing news, and again, this article is just an overview. Many more issues could be covered, such as how just five Asian countries (China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Thailand) dump more plastic into the world’s oceans than all other nations combined.
No Southeast Asian country scores higher than a “B-,” in the author’s opinion, and overall, the situation for wildlife and wild ecosystems looks grim. We are now in the Anthropocene Era, and humanity’s demands for natural resources and wildlife products is having an incredibly profound effect on this region.
What is the answer? I think that local people hold the key to saving their natural heritage. Governments and NGOs are probably not going to be able to save what remains of Southeast Asia’s natural wonders — change is going to have to come from the ground up, from the grassroots, or the region will lose just about everything.
Gregory McCann is the Project Coordinator for Habitat ID and the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor.