29 October 2003

SGP logo"At Likas the students see more things," she said. "At the lagoon they saw only birds. Here there are mangroves, crabs, mudskippers."

Though it covers a mere 24 hectares, and is bordered by homes, apartment buildings and a sports complex, the Likas Sanctuary provides refuge for a rainbow of bird life: from purple herons to emerald doves and yellow-breasted flowerpeckers. That patchwork of mangrove forest, open water and dense fern swamp is also home to mud lobsters, water snakes and various other animals. More than 80 species of birds either reside or winter in the sanctuary, among them the endangered lesser adjudant stork and Chinese egret. In addition to dozens of resident bird species, such as the brahminy kite and white-breasted waterhen, the area is visited during the winter by many migratory birds from northern Asia, among them five egret species, more than a dozen types of shorebirds, and peregrine falcons that fly there from as far away as Korea.

Just as impressive as the diversity of the avian life found in the sanctuary, however, is the collection of citizens who have banded together to work for its protection. Retired businessmen, housewives, teachers, a landscape architect, a driver and a radiologist are among the 50 volunteers working with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) on a project to manage the sanctuary and educate people about it. That innovative experiment in community conservation was launched by WWF Malaysia in 2001 with funding from the GEF Small Grants Programme (SGP), which is implemented by the UNDP.

Though created in 1996, the Likas Bird Sanctuary was only opened to the public in 2000. It is administered by a committee made up of representatives from various government agencies and private organizations, but WWF Malaysia was put in charge of its day-to-day management after lobbying for the estuary's protection and advising the government during construction of the visitor's center and boardwalk. Once the sanctuary was opened to the public, the people at WWF began thinking about how to involve the citizens of Kota Kinabalu in its management.

"We wanted the place to be run by the community and for the community," said Tan Hui Shim, who set up the volunteer program for WWF Malaysia,

Early in 2001, WWF solicited volunteers from the general public with a campaign that used posters, fliers and newspaper ads announcing: "To all nature lovers out there, your love is not enough. You have to act." More than 50 people responded to their call for volunteers willing to donate 10 days of work per year. Those volunteers have since participated in a series of workshops on such themes as environmental education, community outreach, and wetland management.

Hui Shim said the plan is that the volunteers will help WWF in three areas: management of the sanctuary, on-site environmental education, and community outreach/fundraising. She said the fact that the volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds, and range in age from 21 to 60, has made it challenging to work with the group. But the variety of experience and professions does have its advantages.

WWF Malaysia's Director, Geoffrey Davison, noted that the volunteers' varied professions means that each one has something different to contribution.

"They provide us with a pool that we can draw on," he said.

Nicholas Fung saw one of the newspaper advertisements and convinced his wife, Flora, to join with him. Whereas Flora is helping to arrange the library, which will contain more than 600 books, Nicholas, a retired political organizer, is more interested in outreach. He lamented that in Malaysia's political circles, interest in the environment is all too often limited to how it can be exploited.

"That's why we need to educate people," Fung said.

Hui Shim noted that many people in Kota Kinabalu are still unaware that the sanctuary exists, although visitation has grown steadily, topping 10,000 people last year. She said school groups are responsible for a significant portion of that number - one visits the sanctuary nearly every week - though they also get families and many repeat visitors.

Jeanie Yong was actually wearing two hats as she led her students through the sanctuary, since she is also one of the 50 volunteers. She explained that in addition to bringing her own students there, she is trying to promote the sanctuary at her school. She has put up posters and distributed information packets to the other teachers, which she plans to do at other schools as well.

"That's why I volunteered," she said. "So that we can get more people to know about these wetlands."

Davison said that, though hardly a pristine area, Likas provides a "snapshot for visitors to see an interesting ecosystem and the pressures upon it." He explained that the bird sanctuary can serve as a link to the WWF's other projects in Borneo, such their conservation work in the wetlands of the lower Kinabatangan River and efforts to protect the endangered Asian elephant and Sumatran rhinoceros.

Hui Shim explained that in addition to providing information about the sanctuary, the visitors center will eventually contain information about the all the WWF's projects in Malaysia. She hopes the volunteers will become interested enough in those projects to support them as well.

"We're using the bird sanctuary as a training site," she said. "Hopefully, the people being trained will not merely help the bird sanctuary but will be more concerned about other environmental issues. We sort of open their eyes."

Hui Shim said the plan is that the current volunteer training will have an impact far beyond the 50 people participating. She wants to see this initial group recruit and help train a second generation of volunteers. She noted that many volunteers are also involved in other community, professional, or religious groups, which could become sources of future support for the sanctuary.

The project has already been an exercise in networking, which has benefited the sanctuary in various ways. Several government offices have assisted WWF in its conservation and education work there, among them the state Wildlife Department and the Kota Kinabalu Municipal Council. A Rotary Club outfitted the interpretation center on the boardwalk, the Ministry of Tourism paid for the printing of brochure, and the local water company donated money for improvement of the sanctuary's education center.

Davison noted that the joint management of the reserve - government agencies and an NGO - and the growing participation of the community and private sector, makes the project a model for the establishment of partnerships for conservation

'It's a good example of how to get things working together," he said.

According to Hui Shim, the goal is to extend lessons learned at Likas to WWF's other projects, while capitalizing on the sanctuary's location within the state capital of Sabah to raise environmental awareness among people who might otherwise have little contact with nature.

"What I hope for, at the end of the day, is that if the government ever decides to remove the area's protected status, that it wouldn't only be the people at WWF protesting. I would want to see all the people of Kota Kinabalu on the streets," she said.

Article by: David Dudenhoefer