General Manager of Reef Check Malaysia Julian Hyde explains the developing plans of how they are bringing the Tioman community together in the name of conservation:

Reef Check Malaysia (RCM) was registered in 2007 to contribute to sustainable management of Malaysia’s coral reefs. Since that time, it has trained over 600 volunteers to assist in its annual coral reef survey programme, covering over 200 reef sites around Malaysia. It has conducted education programmes for schools around Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah, and established reef rehabilitation projects at five locations.

Despite these successes, much remains to be done. Experience with marine conservation in countries around Southeast Asia has demonstrated that effective, sustainable coral reef management needs community involvement. But this is not necessarily a common practice in Malaysia, where the approach to conservation is mainly “top-down” rather than the “bottom-up” community-led model. Reef Check Malaysia is now focusing on encouraging local communities to participate in management of the natural resources that their livelihoods rely on.

Its longest engagement has been on Tioman Island. RCM first worked on Tioman in 2007, when it was one of three locations selected for the first annual coral reef survey programme. In 2008, Tioman was the location chosen for RCM’s pilot school education programme, which was extended to other islands in 2009. Assessments of the damage caused by the 2010 bleaching event led them to conduct resilience surveys around Tioman (and two other locations), with the data being incorporated into the marine park management plan for the island.

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“Experience with marine conservation in countries around Southeast Asia has demonstrated that effective, sustainable coral reef management needs community involvement.”

Cintai Tioman programme

The findings of the resilience surveys highlighted the need to improve management of the island’s reefs, and subsequent discussions with a range of stakeholders indicated weaknesses with the current approach. The outcome of these discussions was the Cintai Tioman programme. This five-year programme has two main objectives. The first is to build resilience of the island’s coral reefs by identifying the various impacts damaging coral reefs (such as sewage pollution, trash, environmentally unfriendly tourism practices, coastal development, sedimentation, large tourist numbers, etc.) and finding solutions to reduce or eliminate these impacts. Eliminating these so-called “local impacts” not only makes reefs healthier and more productive in the short term; it also helps to build resilience to external, global threats such as climate change, something local managers have no control over. More resilient reefs have a higher chance of surviving these external impacts.

The second main objective of this programme is to build capacity of the local community and to empower them to take on a greater role in the management and conservation of coral reefs around their island. RCM noticed the lack of involvement of the local community in the management of the island and how disconnected marine parks management is from the villagers and the businesses on the island. By empowering the islanders, RCM hopes to be able to slowly bridge this gap and get the local islanders, business operators and marine parks management working together. 

The programme started in early 2013, since then RCM has implemented a number of initiatives. The first issue that was addressed was waste management and recycling, as these were considered to be “easy wins”. Today, there is an effective recycling system in place which involves schoolchildren, resorts, shops/businesses and households. This has helped reduce the amount of trash going to the incinerator and aims to get people to reduce the amount of plastic they use. RCM is now expanding this into composting of organic waste.

Another important initiative is to reduce the impact of tourism through responsible tourism programmes. The Green Fins programme for dive operators was introduced in 2014 and some 50 percent of dive operators on the island are now members. Green Fins promotes responsible behaviour among dive operators and their customers, and members pledge to reduce their environmental impacts across a range of business activities. In 2015, RCM launched a responsible tourism programme for resorts on Tioman. Based on the ASEAN green hotel standards, the system helps resorts to identify their impacts on the environment and provides them with ideas to reduce these impacts.

"Today, we have an effective recycling system in place which involves school children, resorts, shops/businesses and households. This has helped reduce the amount of trash going to the incinerator and aims to get people to reduce the amount of plastic they use."

“Today, there is an effective recycling system in place which involves schoolchildren, resorts, shops/businesses and households. This has helped reduce the amount of trash going to the incinerator and aims to get people to reduce the amount of plastic they use.”

A community dependent on its coral reefs

RCM has designed a comprehensive long-term education programme for the primary and secondary school on the island to teach students about coral reefs and why they are important to their island. As part of the education programme, RCM has also conducted swimming classes and snorkelling trips to give the kids an opportunity to witness reefs at first hand. Astonishingly, island kids aged 12–13 years old have never seen fish or corals alive on the reef! Realising this, RCM has made it its aim to also ensure that these children will be able to experience firsthand the beauty their island has to offer, and to instil in them a sense of awareness and appreciation of their role in keeping the reefs healthy.

The same goes for the local community. Currently, almost everyone living on Tioman Island is dependent on coral reefs for their livelihoods, be it as a boatman, divemaster, resort operator or restaurant waiter. However, many still do not see the importance of protecting their reefs. The RCM team on Tioman has been working on identifying ways to diversify income stream for locals so that they are not 100 percent dependent on coral reefs to survive. For example, during extreme bleaching events, tourists may not want to go snorkelling or diving; islanders should be able to offer different services, such as terrestrial guiding or traditional handicrafts.

RCM has also run several special skill training programmes for islanders to increase employability and improve quality of their service. Some of the training includes first aid training, eco-diver training and snorkel guide training.

"Astonishingly, island kids aged 12-13 years old have never seen fish or corals alive on the reef! Realising this, we have made it our aim to also ensure that these children will be able to experience first-hand the beauty their island has to offer, and to instil in them a sense of awareness and appreciation of their role in keeping the reefs healthy."

“Astonishingly, island kids aged 12–13 years old have never seen fish or corals alive on the reef! Realising this, RCM ha
s made it its aim to also ensure that these children will be able to experience firsthand the beauty their island has to offer, and to instil in them a sense of awareness and appreciation of their role in keeping the reefs healthy.”

Looking to the future

RCM also wants to get islanders more involved in decision-making and management of resources within the marine park, which addresses the second objective as mentioned earlier. Instead of a top-down approach, RCM is introducing the concept of co-management, where there is a sharing of power and responsibility among all stakeholders. Co-management has generated the most success for conservation strategies in marine protected areas around Southeast Asia, such as the Bunaken National Marine Park in Indonesia.  

As part of this initiative, over the last few months RCM has been training a group of islanders in a variety of tasks which are closely related to management of the marine park itself. These include reef surveys, rehabilitation projects, mooring buoy maintenance and reef clean-ups.

The team, now working together as the Tioman Marine Conservation Group, has received funding from the Department of Marine Parks to start to work alongside marine park officers in helping to improve management of the reefs around Tioman. Since April 2016 the team has been involved in a number of projects to install and replace mooring buoys around dive sites in Tioman, bleaching surveys, and crown-of-thorns starfish monitoring and management. They have also conducted three major “ghost net” removal projects.

This is a big step forward in the move towards greater community involvement in marine park management. The Tioman Marine Conservation Group has proven useful as a resource of trained personnel on the ground willing and available to help with efforts lead by dive shops, NGOs and government departments. The response from dive operators has been very positive, and they are happy to see locals getting involved in such efforts and to know that the Department of Marine Parks was not only supporting the involvement of the locals but also funding them.

The Cintai Tioman programme is making great strides in changing the way managers and communities view marine management. At the request of the Department of Marine Parks Malaysia, RCM is now looking for ways to replicate the project in Perhentian, in recognition of the success of the project. RCM is also working with the community on Mantanani Island to help them to improve management of their marine and terrestrial resources.

Cintai Tioman is sponsored by Yayasan SIME Darby and UNDP SGP, and has been running for two-and-a-half years now.


reefcheck-logo-75Reef Check was established in the USA in 1996 to raise awareness of the importance of, and threats to, coral reefs. The local chapter, Reef Check Malaysia, was registered as a non-profit organisation in 2007 to engage with the local community as well as protect, restore and revive coral reefs in Malaysia.

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