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Peatland News

Title: Protect our peat swamps
Date: 24-Sep-2016
Category: Malaysia
Source/Author: The New Straits Times

The functions of peat swamp forests rarely get the attention from researchers because the area is waterlogged, spongy, infertile, unstable and acidic. As such, it is an uneventful subject that will probably yield nothing more than what has been published in journals.

However, Wetland International, a non-governmental organisation, in its study of the peat swamp ecosystem in 2014, has proven that peat swamps offer diverse and often unique flora and fauna not found outside its environment.

A peat swamp acts like a massive sponge that absorbs excess rain, and this function alone is an important natural flood control. It also acts as a carbon sink that absorbs carbon dioxide, which, in turn, reduces the greenhouse effect.

These two functions alone should trigger the urgency to protect whatever pockets of peat swamp areas we have left in the country. Their devastation and loss to development, especially agriculture, could destroy the natural protection against floods and as carbon sinks

These aspects should not be overlooked by the government and relevant agencies, such as the Forestry, Fisheries and Environment departments.

Peat swamps’ importance as a stabiliser to the environment cannot be dismissed and deserves a second look by the authorities who could suggest measures to protect such areas from being disturbed by development.

In Marang and Kemaman, it was observed that large tracts of peat swamp areas have been converted for agricultural use and this development has destroyed the unique peat swamp flora and fauna.

The irony is that despite being infertile, the peat areas were still cleared for agriculture use.The peat soil nourished with fertilisers only adds to the destruction of the habitat as it leaches into the swamp and changes the water quality, which could kill the unique fauna dependent on the acidic nature of the water in the swamp.

The habitat is also threatened by draining of the peat swamp and clearing of the unique forest, which exposes the peat soil to direct sunlight, which often ignites fires in peat forests, contributing to the haze problem.

What is more saddening is that peat swamps are home to thousands of animals and plants, including many rare and critically endangered species under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red lists, whose habitats are threatened by deforestation.

Fish species, such as the rare and endangered Betta persephone and Betta coccina found in one peat swamp locality in Air Hitam, Johor, is facing extinction following the destruction of its habitat by land owners who converted the land to oil palm plantations.

The site at Air Hitam was the subject of two research programmes conducted by Wetland International to locate and identify rare and endemic fish species.Peat swamps also harbour a number of miniature fishes, including Paedocypris progenetica, the smallest known vertebrate, which was discovered by researchers in the swamps near Bukir Bauk, Dungun, in 2006.

The small pocket of peat swamp in Bukit Bauk was saved from destruction following its declaration as an urban jungle by former Terengganu menteri besar Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh in 2006.However, not many people know that 80 of the 219 fish species in the country are restricted to this ecosystem and 31 species are endemic to the peat swamp forest ecosystem in single locations, which means the species are not found elsewhere.

Peat swamp forests are also home to other endangered species, such as tigers, Malayan tapirs, clouded leopards, Asian elephants and Sumatran rhinoceroses. The Sumatran rhinoceros is already on the brink of extinction.The habitat loss for these animals can also be seen in the peat swamps in Kuala Selangor that have been cleared for oil palm plantations.

The survival of ornamental fish species in this location, such as Channa bankanensis and Licorice gourami, depends on efforts to protect its habitat.

Ichthyologists are alarmed at the rate of destruction of peat swamp forests and predict a bleak future for the survival of rare and unique flora and fauna in such environments.

Even with research findings on the diversity and uniqueness of the habitats, including warnings about its future and calls for intervention by the authorities to protect it, ichthyologists can do little to save the endangered fish species.

Maybe it is time for the authorities to consider gazetting buffer zones to protect peat swamp ecosystems. The least that can be done is to introduce clear policies and educate land owners to instil a sense of awareness on the fragility of the peat swamp ecosystem.

Rosli Zakaria is NST’s Specialist Writer based in Terengganu. He is an environmentalist and enjoys capturing the beauty of flora and fauna in their fragile environment. He draws his inspiration from cross-country drives on and off-road adventures

Read More : http://www.nst.com.my/news/2016/09/175651/protect-our-peat-swamps

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