A passionate local community turns Setiu Wetlands into a model eco-tourism hub
“We call Pak Harun the fish listener. Like most of the folk who live around Setiu, he makes a living as a fisherman but uses a very special technique. From his wooden boat, he will skindive into the water and use his ears to listen to fish sounds. By doing that, he can tell what kind of fish is abundant in a particular spot. He is so accurate that other fishermen often follow his trail!”
Who knew that Malaysia had a real-life Aquaman? Certainly not our group of urbanites, gathered in a motorboat on a mangrove river cruise. Our guide is Alex Lee Yun Ping, founder of Terrapuri Heritage Village, a boutique eco-resort sitting on a piece of land flanked by the South China Sea on one side and the Setiu Wetlands on the other. The mangrove tour is one of Terrapuri’s most popular day tours, as it offers visitors a fun yet educational opportunity to immerse in Setiu’s hidden charms.
Less than an hour’s drive from Kuala Terengganu, Setiu Wetlands is a region many Malaysians may not be familiar with – or have even heard of. Most travellers come to Terengganu for its powder-white beaches and idyllic islands, but scientists have long been excited about Setiu for a different reason.
Here, the meeting of ocean and rivers flowing from the hinterland into the coast have shaped a unique terrain where a whopping nine ecosystems coexist in a single location, namely the sea, rivers, sandy beaches, estuaries, islands, mudflats, a lagoon, freshwater swamps and mangroves.
As our boat glides across the waterway, Alex points out birds and animals that our untrained eyes would never have picked up on their own. On our two-hour journey, we spot monkeys, monitor lizards, kingfishers and an eagle. They’re just a handful of the 29 species of mammals, 161 species of birds and 36 species of reptiles and amphibians that call Setiu home. This is also the world’s only place where a viable population of the endangered Painted Terrapins (Batagur borneoensis) is found.
In addition to providing refuge for wildlife, Setiu’s network of interconnected habitats is crucial to the survival of the community: they work symbiotically to filter water, act as storm buffers and provide food and raw materials for its residents.
“Although Setiu is one of the poorest districts in Terengganu, the locals can survive off the mangrove because it is incredibly rich in terms of natural resources. The villagers call the mangroves their grocer,” says Alex.
I understand why during the various pit stops our boat makes along the cruise. At a fish farm, we learn that Setiu is a major source of baby groupers for the country’s aquaculture industry. Setiu’s economic significance becomes even more evident at a village famed for its cottage industries. Traditional products synonymous with Terengganu, such as budu (fermented fish sauce), fish crackers, belacan (shrimp paste) and handicrafts made from kercut and nipah, long-stemmed grass that grows wild in swampy areas – they all draw their raw materials from the wetlands. Clearly, if something happens to the wetlands, the consequences would be grave.
The local inhabitants may be dependent on the wetlands, but for the past few decades, they have also been exerting pressure on it. In the last century, the world has lost about half its wetlands due to intensive farming, deforestation, industrial pollution and the demands of a growing population. Setiu is not spared: A World Wildlife Federation study found that nearly 20 percent of its natural vegetation, particularly swamps and mangroves, were stripped between 2008 and 2011 due to uncontrolled land use.
To reverse the situation, private stakeholders, NGOs and government agencies have been working to increase local sensitivity towards conservation. Drawing on his experience as a veteran tour operator, Alex has largely focused on improving the locals’ livelihoods by using eco-tourism as a vehicle of change. Shortly after Terrapuri opened in 2011, Alex began actively engaging locals as boatmen on his day tours, gradually increasing his menu to include a daytime river safari, a night-time firefly cruise and customised tours to visit local boat-makers.
He explains, “The locals may not realise it, but they are a treasure trove of indigenous knowledge, which foreigners find fascinating and unique. We want to attract eco-tourists who will encourage local communities to rediscover and appreciate their heritage and motivate them to play an active role in safeguarding the treasures within their community.”
SLOWLY BUT SURELY
Little by little, the efforts are paying off. After undergoing workshops and retraining, local fisher folk have become Setiu’s eco-warriors who understand the importance of protecting their mangroves. “If in the old days, they would simply chop down the trees to obtain wood, now they help us to replant them,” Alex says.
There are also physical signs of improvement, such as more regular sightings of certain species. “For years, the population of tiger prawns – which fetches lucrative prices – was dwindling. We explained to the fishermen that baby prawns grow along the mangroves and swim out to the sea only after six months, so preserving the mangroves is crucial to their survival. Now that the fishermen are enjoying improved catchment, they are very happy.”
Setiu scored a major victory when local lobbyists successfully persuaded the state government to gazette 400 hectares of the wetlands as Terengganu’s first state park. Corporate players have also put their skin in the game; national oil corporation Petronas gave Terengganu RM8 million (USD1.9 million) to conduct eco-training for the locals and to build a boardwalk for the state park.
PLEASURES AND TREASURES
Accessible both by river and road at Pengkalan Gelap, the State Park is anchored by a short but well-signposted boardwalk that cuts through an otherworldly-looking mangrove swamp. I can barely keep up as Alex rattles off a string of interesting nuggets. Pointing to an innocuous-looking tree with small neat leaves, he says, “This is known as the buta-buta (blinding) tree. The seeds are beautiful and look like marbles, but if you touch them and accidentally rub your eyes after that, you will not be able to see anything for an hour.”
“Don’t worry, there is an antidote of course,” Alex smiles at our alarmed expressions. Stopping at the dramatic-looking fan palm (daun palas), whose leaves are commonly used to wrap Malay kuih, he says, “It is the dew from the palas leaves. The villagers will store the dew in a bottle and keep it around for emergencies.”
Traversing the wetlands of Setiu, I’m struck by the magnitude of its rich bounty. The true heart of this place is hidden in plain sight, revealing itself slowly to those who care to know. Changing attitudes, incentivising good practice, forging a consensus between the local government, private sector and civil society about the need to support conservation efforts – Setiu faces daunting challenges, but the passion demonstrated by its community gives me hope.
My thoughts are interrupted by an excited Alex. “Look!” His eyes light up with childlike wonder as he holds up a heart-shaped leaf larger than his palm. “This belongs to a sea hibiscus. At Terrapuri, we use the leaves to wrap kuih. You should come when the flowers are in season; they drop and float on the river, turning it yellow to welcome you. It’s really beautiful. By the way, do you know that according to the ancient locals, flowers symbolise hope?”
Indeed. And where there is hope, there is life.