Project Partner Interview – MareCet Malaysia

Dr Louisa Ponnampalam
Chairperson & Co-Founder, The MareCet Research Foundation
Research Fellow, University Malaya, Kuala Lumpar

Dr Louisa Ponnampalam is a Malaysian marine conservationist whose work focuses on the ecological research and conservation of small cetaceans and more recently, dugongs. Currently a Research Fellow at University Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Louisa is also Chairperson and Co-Founder of grassroots NGO The MareCet Research Organization, the first and only NGO in Malaysia currently focused on marine mammal research and conservation.

MareCet approaches conservation through scientific research, community outreach and education, policy advocacy and management consultancy. In 2014, Louisa was awarded the prestigious Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation, and as of 2015, is a project partner of the GEF Dugong and Seagrass Conservation Project. Louisa’s GEF dugong project is on the overcoming of knowledge barriers on dugong ecology and status in Johor, for the overall goal of establishig Protection for its local population’s critical habitats.

Please tell us a little about Marecet and the work that you are doing?
The MareCet Research Organization is a non-profit, tax-exempted non-governmental organisation established in 2012 that is committed to increasing scientific knowledge, implementing conservation actions, strengthening policies, and generating awareness on marine mammals and the greater marine environment. A brainchild of two young Malaysians, Dr. Louisa Ponnampalam and Fairul Jamal, MareCet is the first and only NGO solely dedicated to the research and conservation of marine mammals in Malaysia, a field very much in its infancy in the country. The name MareCet (pronounced ma-rei-set) is derived from the combination of the words Mare and Cetacean. The word Mare is from the Latin language that carries the meaning, ocean, while Cetacean is the scientific grouping of whales, dolphins and porpoises. By combining the two words into MareCet (with Cet being a shortened form of Cetacean), the name signifies the two main focus of the organization: (1) The ocean, in general and (2) marine mammals, in particular.

MareCet currently runs the Langkawi Dolphin Research Project, Matang Dolphin Research Project and Dugong Research and Conservation Project, and have an upcoming semi-interactive public exhibition called “Marine Mammals Alive!” featuring all things marine mammals. MareCet also engages in make public speaking events that is aimed at sharing information with the public and raising awareness on marine conservation issues. One of MareCet’s latest venture is The Blue Classroom; a marine-focused education programme that promises to be fun and educational for students and anyone who seeks to learn more about our beautiful underwater realm. MareCet believes that in order to make positive impacts for marine conservation, engagement with government authorities, industry and local communities and building local capacity are the keys to success. As such MareCet is often involved in roundtable discussions on conservation policies, working plans, local community workshops, and recruits local volunteers in our activities and surveys. Although a young NGO, MareCet is already the proud recipient of various prestigious international grants, award and has many local, regional and international linkages with research and conservation organizations and scientists.

One of my main work focus is the dugong project which is being funded by my Pew Fellowship and also the GEF project. The project site is in the vicinity of the Johor east coast islands (particularly Sibu and Tinggi Islands) and adjacent mainland, where the only viable population of dugong exist, owing to extensive verdant meadows of seagrass. A previous survey which I’d done in 2010 revealed that the main concentration of dugongs, especially mom-calf pairs lies just outside the boundaries of the existing marine park, and I’d also found that they area had a very high density of sea turtles. Therefore my project is using a multi-pronged study approach to investigate the ecology and status of the local dugong population, with the overarching goal of establishing extended protected areas for the dugongs and their seagrass habitats that are not currently within marine park boundaries. Our multi-pronged approach involves ecological methodologies, social science and stakeholder engagement and consultation and will ensure that the establishment of the said protected areas will be done with the backing of scientific data (not just drawing circles on the sea!).

What can you tell us about your work on Acoustic survey research and what have you learnt thus far?
We are working with the very awesome Dr Kotaro Ichikawa from Kyoto University who specialises in dugong acoustic studies. He’s spent many years studying the dugong’s vocalisation patterns and movements (using acoustics) in Trang Province in Thailand , and so we are very happy that he’s on our team. For starters, we’ve managed to record the first ever dugong vocalisations in Malaysia and while this component of the dugong project is still in its infancy, we have been getting some rather interesting and good dataset. Using acoustics to study dugongs enables us to make up for the inability to observe the animals during nighttime, and so assists with understanding where they are at and how active they may be (or not) during that period. It also provides complementary data (to visual surveys) on the movement patterns of the animals and allows us to begin understanding how they are using their habitat. In our 2-year sampling thus far, we have discovered the ‘vocal hotspot’ where single animals appear to gather at different times throughout the day and night to vocalise. This ‘vocal hotspot’ is approximately 18m depth and is barren at the seabed, so it is still a mystery as to why that area is where the dugongs gather to vocalise. We have also found significantly higher rates of vocalisations over the seagrass meadow during the night, for which we do not yet understand the ecological significance. In a nutshell, our results so far shows movement heterogeneity at a micro-scale habitat level among individual dugongs. As the seagrass meadows in my project site are subtidal, we are trying to establish the periods in which dugongs enter to feed, and for this, we have deployed stationery acoustic recorders in areas with fresh/relatively fresh feeding trails to record dugong grazing sounds. Our analysis of this aspect is still ongoing and we do not yet have any results.

What advice can you give to our project partners when it comes to field research?
(1) Gather a passionate, hardworking team;
(2) Always do a site reconnaissance before commencing fieldwork for the first time;
(3) Understand the local conditions (environment, local communities, etc.);
(4) Engage local communities in your field surveys, build local capacity;
(5) Support local businesses (e.g. rent a boat from a local, not a commercial outfit, if available);
(6) Always safety first;
(7) Take some time out during the field research to meet with the local communities and local governing authorities, give presentations to them and school kids about what you’re doing and why, and get them to also share their own experiences with dugongs and seagrasses

Anything else you would like to say to our readers?
Conservation is not a one size fits all recipe. What works for conserving dugongs and seagrass in one place may not work for another. It is therefore best to tailor conservation expectations and strategies to local conditions, comprehensively taking into account the governance system(s), stakeholders and local communities’ perceptions on conservation and their socio-economic standings, and assess the drivers of conservation problems first before attempting to fix them. All too often, conservationists (whether one is a scientist or otherwise) jump into the latter without understanding the former, which leads to inappropriate conservation strategies that results in less favourable outcomes and impacts. Also, research alone is NOT going to do any good for dugongs and their seagrass habitats. Conservation should be supported by sound science, but that is where scientists need to ensure that the results of their studies are translated into comprehensible terms and intentionally reaches the parties that are in the position to impact positive change. When executing conservation action, some quarters believe that a top-down approach is the best way forward. Others believe that working with communities is the most important (or only!) method to effect change and enable the improvement of dugong and seagrass status. And it may be so, depending on where one is working. However, my team and I believe that a matrimony between the two approaches meeting at a halfway point is a better way forward. Furthermore, social scientists need to play a bigger role in conservation; perhaps the general notion that ecologists and biologists are mostly the ones with the answers to conservation should no longer hold true. Social scientists’ role in the conservation process needs to be better recognised, but social scientists themselves (at least in Asia) need to embrace an ecologist/biologist’s interest for conservation, and acknowledge that they (the social scientists) are the ones with the skills to negotiate with people efficiently. After all, conservation issues are human issues, caused by humans. What good are the results of a scientific study on dugong entanglement rate (for example) if we go no further than providing a numerical value? We need synergies between various fields of studies in the animal and human dimensions to make dugong conservation effective.