Tomistoma, False Gharial, Sunda Gavial (Tomistoma schlegelii)
Mohamed bin Zayed Species project number 12255301
This pilot project targeted three high priority sites, designated by collective research, planning, and logistical preparation, for the endangered Tomistoma crocodile (Tomistoma schlegelii). Ten days were spent at each survey site to conduct necessary and intensive efforts in research and conservation. Alongside forestry officers, post-graduate research assistants, and local hired people, this pilot project was a huge success in bettering our knowledge for the species and future actions that could benefit the species survival into the future. Through actions taken in community education and awareness, our pilot project has also helped promote the importance of Tomistoma and hopefully has created a long-lasting, relevant interest (on a local and international level) for the species conservation.
This pilot project targeted three high priority sites for the species in Sarawak, Malaysia and had goals to conduct necessary habitat assessments, crocodile eyeshine surveys, local interviews, and provide for educational presentations in local communities. Through direct research partnerships and collaboration, our nonprofit had further goals to build upon future, collective conservation efforts for the species. All of these goals would allow for a more comprehensive understanding of the species potential and presence at each survey site and the potential for future long-term projects that could benefit sustainable research, management, and conservation for the species.
Research Sites and Study Periods
This pilot project targeted the rivers and swamps around
• Maludam National Park
• Loagan Bunut National Park
Data was collected using a variety of methods and can be designated into three categories including Habitat assessments, Crocodile surveys, and Local interviews.
Habitat Assessment: This area focused on obtaining a better understanding of habitat health and anthropogenic influences at each of the study sites. Specifically, our nonprofit’s research crew focused on assessing habitat health through an environmental assessment form that covered all aspects of the environment. Water quality analyses were also conducted at each habitat assessment site using an Xplorer GLX water analysis device provided by the Biology department at the University of Redlands in Southern California. Boat surveys at each study site also utilized sonar river mapping using a Humminbird 998c Fishfinder device, which gave an unprecedented understanding and recorded catalogue for each location. Through all of these different tools, our nonprofit’s research crew was able to obtain an entire, comprehensive understanding of the locations we conducted our surveys.
Crocodile surveys: Night eyeshine surveys were conducted intensively during each study site. These surveys lasted 3-5 hours each night if the weather permitted and were conducted while on the survey boat alongside a crew made up of a front spotter (with 12v flood light), two to three recorders/observers, and an experienced boat driver. Eyeshined crocodiles were approached by boat and photographed to determined species.
Our crew also implemented a series of simple camera traps during six separate days in our pilot project to see if we could also photograph crocodiles.
Local Interviews: Local interviews were conducted amongst many individuals within the local community at each location and were an important means of better understanding the local perspective and outlook towards the environment, crocodiles, and conservation. Interviews normally last 5-15minutes for each person and although rather informal and unobtrusive, tackled important questions like whether the species has been seen in the area recently and topics relative to habitat change over time, outlooks towards crocodiles and endangered species, crocodile-human conflicts, and environmental health. These interviews were either recorded on paper or through video for future review.
Although our nonprofit is still in the review and processing of all the material and data obtained during this pilot project, there were a few relative and important findings that we can confidently address from an initial review of our findings.
• Each site had recent and historic sightings of the species (i.e. The species was known by locals at all three sites)
• Each site represented a series of different habitats where the species is known to exist (i.e. rivers, lake, peat marsh).
• All sites contained an abundance of Saltwater Crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus).
• Maludam N.P. and Engkilili both had serious issues with habitat degradation and destruction from legal/illegal activities (i.e. agriculture, logging, and/or fishing).
• Crocodiles, including Tomistoma, were only known to be eaten in Engkilili.
• There were no records of Tomistoma attacks at any of the three locations.
Engkilili - September 24th to October 4th 2013
Background: The Batang Lupar and surrounding river systems and swamps near Engkilili is predicted to be one of best places for finding the endangered Tomistoma (Tomistoma schlegelii) in Sarawak. The area has historically been well known for the species being present, including sourcing many of the adult Tomistoma in a local crocodilian park near Kuching. The area has also had varying reports of breeding nests and individuals over the past 50 years, which is one of the only areas in Sarawak boasting such reports. The area and habitat itself can best be defined alongside its importance and uses by local people for agriculture and sustenance. In this regard, this important area has seen significant habitat change along the rivers and peat swamps, notably by the planting of rice paddies, rubber, pepper, and other agricultural plantations.
Designation: This area is not designated as a natural park, refuge, or reserve.
• Regularly came across Saltwater crocodiles
• Big issue with habitat fragmentation and Saltwater crocodile conflict
• Large Tomistoma reported recently at a nearby swamp site
• One Tomistoma surveyed and photographed!
• To early to tell yet about water quality and more specific measurements or data collected
Educational Presentations: S.K. Engkilili (Primary School)
Initial Outlook: There is great potential for future efforts and action based on the areas potential for harboring a predicted sustainable Tomistoma population.
Maludam National Park – October 10th to October 19th 2013
Background: Maludam National Park is the largest section of peat marsh forest in Sarawak, and has also been a site with a recent sighting of the Tomistoma. Maludam National Park was established in 2000 and covers over 430 square kilometers of peat marsh habitat, with even some recent plans by the Sarawak government for extending the park’s boundaries. Unfortunately, there is not a great deal of previous knowledge or research for the species in the park, so this site was important to better understand. The habitat is designated as a peat marsh forest and is accessible by the Maludam River, which extends from the ocean all the way into the upper reaches of the park. There are other notable swamps and harder to access habitats located in other reaches and boundaries of the parks perimeter, but with logistical constraints to pursue such areas, we designated our research primarily on the main river which provided for the most optimal use of our time and effort. The river is rather shallow and narrow, at times the vegetation touched the boat on both sides and there were plenty of obstacles to avoid. Luckily, we were had a very successful trip and gained a lot of valuable insight into the habitat and it’s potential for holding viable populations of Tomistoma.
Unfortunately, the area has been known and used as a means for illegal logging, with many sections within the national park being cut into by illegal loggers. This produces challenges for both conservation and management, as enforcement and personnel to manage the park appears to not be inadequate for preventing these problems. Local people also note that there park is accessible through other entrances, which has proved burdensome for locals and park officials trying to prevent further deforestation.
Designation: This area is a designated National Park.
• Heavy logging pressure outside and within park boundaries
• Difficult to impossible for the local people and agencies to enforce
• Downriver to ocean had noticeable contamination and river pollution
• Many Saltwater crocodiles observed, including one <5m in length
• Tomistoma reported in uppermost reaches of the park, but none were recorded during our surveys
• Three camera traps were used
• Many notable endangered and protected species in the park
Educational Presentations: SK Maludam
Initial Outlook: The area has notable conservation concerns that not only affect the potential for Tomistoma, but of other endemic and threatened species including the Red Banded Langur and Proboscis Monkey. Maludam National Park is the last known site to hold a viable population of the Red Banded Langur. Effort is needed here!
Loagan Bunut National Park
Background: Loagan Bunut National Park is a National Park located in the northern portion of Sarawak, roughly 3 hours inland by car from Miri. The drive to Loagan Bunut offers a display of the many palm plantations that are so ever important to the local economy and livelihoods of people in the area, but also show signs of a shifting change to the natural environment. Loagan Bunut itself is a remarkable example of a protected national park in Sarawak. The park is well defined and managed by not only the park department, which is operated by the Sarawak Forestry Corporation, but also by the local people who retain rights to the parks land and resources. The park has a well-established headquarters, built by the Sarawak Tourism board, that boasts a wide array of facilities and accommodation options for tourists. Unfortunately, tourism has never become big within the park, perhaps due to logistics and the seasonal drying up of the lake during peak weather conditions for tourists. The lake again dries completely multiple times throughout the year and can be best defined as an extremely flat and shallow lake (rarely exceeding more then 3 meters in depth throughout the year). The area is well known for it’s rich animal biodiversity, including many different species of migratory birds throughout the year.
Fishing is the way of life for the local people living within the park boundaries, with notable Selambaus (floating fishing huts) along the rivers defining the cultural and physical importance of the lake and nearby rivers for the local communities. The lake has an abundance of fishes and the local people have their own laws built around ensuring sustainability within the fish stocks found within the lake.
Designation: This area is a designated National Park.
• Fishing methods were generally short-term (i.e. no ghost nets observed). Selambaus and cast nets caught fish alive and gill nets or hook lines were checked, assumedly daily by local fishermen.
• Gill nets were noted by not primarily means for catching fish. These nets are known to cause mortality in crocodilians, but all nets observed were well maintained and there were no recent reports of a dead Tomistoma or crocodile being caught.
• Huge potential for Eco-Tourism
• Tomistoma rarely seen by locals with a predicted presence as “doubtful” by the Forestry Department
• Recent photograph of Tomistoma in park spurred interest
• Abundant fish stocks. Provided for and sustained an abundance of wildlife.
• Many noted Saltwater Crocodiles, but no Tomistoma were observed.
• Three camera traps set up.
Educational Presentations: SK Long Lapok (Primary) and SMK Tinjar (High School)
Initial Outlook: Loagan Bunut National Park is a phenomenal area displaying well balanced conservation between the forestry department and local communities. More worked is needed to understand presence of species within the park.
Published Material and Awareness Projects
This pilot project was able to successfully produce and implement a wide array of interesting and important materials and methods that have aided to the success and interest for our efforts and that for Tomistoma conservation. One of the primarily materials developed for our efforts include that of a children’s book called “A Crocodile Named Tom”. This book, that although simple and geared for younger children, details some very relative messages about the importance of conservation, animals, and of endangered species like the Tomistoma. Through funding obtained from the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund and a few private donations from a public fundraising program, we were able to develop and print 175 of these books to bring along during our efforts. The books were given to children, or at times to the school’s library directly, at the school’s we visited during our trip and again, were a means of helping promote awareness and interest for the Tomistoma. Our nonprofit aims at having the book published to not only help promote awareness for the species internationally, but also as a means to help financially support future educational efforts in Sarawak.
Outside of the book directly, elementary school children in Sarawak were able to also color in their own Tomistoma crocodile. This is an interactive project that has taken place in schools in the U.S. all the way to schools in Belize, so it was very exciting to see children in Sarawak relating and having fun with their own Tomistoma artwork. These papers are important as they not only relate the species to the children in a creative way, but also provide a long-lasting way for the students to identify with the species. For example, children could not only name and give a story to their own Tomistoma, but they could color in their Tomistoma in any way they wanted – from princesses to dragons, we have received all types of interesting and imaginative artwork.
Another awareness project, which is now currently in development and processing, is the creation of an interactive, virtual survey program for our website that displays videos and sonar readings from survey transects at each of our survey locations. This is a rather exciting and new way of relating our work and our different study sites in Sarawak to people around the world. The virtual surveys will allow the viewer to be in the front seat of their very own research survey and will allow them to switch between recorded views made throughout the survey transects (including an above water video, three different sonar readings, and a map with a track of the survey route). Our nonprofit was really hoping to have this finished by this pilot project review, but it has taken a lot more hard work and time to compile then ever expected. Our nonprofit is very excited to share our virtual tours once they are finished (we hope to release our first study site’s virtual tour within a weeks time), as they truly might be a first of its kind for relating the general public to crocodilian conservation and Tomistoma efforts in Sarawak.
During our pilot project, our nonprofit’s survey crew was able to present to five different schools in Sarawak, including primary schools in Kuching, Engkilili, Maludam, and Long Lapok and one high school nearby Loagan Bunut. In total, we reached an expected 850-900 school students and produced important presentations the related animals and the environment to all students involved. Three of the five schools had two of our postgraduate research assistants also participate and give their own perspective and insight to the students. This was an important means of relating the possibilities and potential for students interested in science to pursue meaningful research and degrees through higher-level education.
Presentations lasted from a half-day to an entire day at each respective school, with the high school having repeat presentations for each grade level of students involved. Our nonprofit has equal goals in community education and awareness to that of our goals in research, so these presentations provided for an amazing opportunity to promote awareness for the species in a way that is central to our nonprofit’s cause and aspirations.
Main Limitations and Obstacles
The main limitation to our work, and essentially all work for the Tomistoma species, is funding. If we had additional funding for this project, or met our funding goals, we would have been able to spend more time at each location, conducted more intensive surveys to areas that logistics made difficult, and perhaps would have been able meet or take on more forestry officials or postgraduate students for our work. The last point is very important, because with the time and funding we did have, our nonprofit was able to provide training and insight into crocodilian research, safe capture, and management to all personnel who took part in our efforts. With additional funding, we could have been able to meet with other forestry officials or regional departments that we had associations with and provide a seminar on the importance of crocodilian research and conservation and for practical lessons in safe capture methods and transport of problematic crocodiles.
Sarawak is a state that holds great opportunities for conservation. There is great interest and respect for crocodiles amongst many people in the country, an aspect that is often the main opponent against conservation action. Crocodile poaching is minimal as it is often a taboo to touch or kill crocodiles, so the outlook and perspective towards crocodiles is ideal for conservation.
Besides habitat accessibility and habitat fragmentation, there were no other notable obstacles that could be of primary detriment to future conservation efforts for the species. There were no cases noted of any public opposition towards our pilot project or towards our nonprofits plans and activities in Sarawak.
Project 12255301 location - Malaysia, Asia