As parts of Terengganu flood for the second time in as many years, the islands where I’ve spent so much of my life recently have not been spared. During FxPedition Perhentian Islands we spent a lot of time staying in the middle of the village. We spent many nights eating out at the local restaurants, and we played football with kids and adults alike on the village beach football pitch (though the less said about my performances in goal, the better).
I’ve stayed in the village twice now, and quite a lot has changed between times. This year there was a few new buildings by the jetty, and the beach football area had been enclosed off by fencing and concrete structures to hold back the tide. A concrete bridge of sorts was built to link a new motorcycle path to Long Beach to the village. Importantly, the parts that needed updating, especially the sewage system, hadn’t been. The problems with the open sewer system and wider sewage disposal issues are not new, and I can find English-based papers citing the issues all the way back in 2001. Shockingly, a paper specifically mentions how yearly flooding is common on the islands due to overcrowding and lack of government investment that was promised in the 1990s (Ghani, Yassin and Ahmad, The Social Sciences, 2010). Conversely, a Malay language report suggests that this year’s flooding is unprecedented in scale.
We found out early yesterday that little, if anything, has changed. Some 30 homes were flooded, and aspects of public infrastructure were badly affected. If the images are anything to go by, it looks like the open sewer system has been badly damaged, and if that water has been flowing through the village then it represents a serious health hazard to local residents. These are genuinely devastating floods, and the economic losses will be significant. It it not just the locals that have been affected, as I understand that the island’s only health clinic and police station has also been affected. The response from government agencies has been good, with the Coastguard and Navy assisting to evacuate affected people to Kuala Besut, as far as I can tell, as well as assessing the damage to the village.
They wouldn’t have to do that, though, if the government had properly invested in supporting the residents where it is actually needed it. Whilst flooding on this scale may be rare, papers show that it is not uncommon. Upgrading the sewage system (that has shown to impact drinking water quality and thus health) would be a sure start. I’m sure Malaysia has enough skilled Geographers to assess flood risk, and I can only help that studies are carried out to work out how to protect the village from the next event. The Perhentian Islands are an excellent financial resource for Malaysia- it is damn time that the government treated the residents with the respect they deserve. The islands may be a beautiful paradise for tourists in summer, but what about the poor residents during the monsoon season? Having lived with them, I can tell you that the islanders are tough and resourceful and will respond to these difficulties with courage- it just seems evident that more could be (and should be) done to help them.
Sadly, the islanders are not isolated in their plight, with some 23,000 evacuated across Terengganu state. My thoughts are with them and the islanders at this challenging time.
I am well aware that criticising the Malaysian government is risky, but if no-one ever says anything then nothing will change. The people of the islands deserve better. The first slideshow’s images originate from myself and Joshua Gray, the rest are taken from social media. The opinions expressed above are solely my own.
An article written by Martin Hughes-Games attacking the Planet Earth II series has provoked great controversy in wildlife and conservation circles. It has been billed as an attack on 90-year old Sir David Attenborough (a cardinal sin in the wildlife world), and his views have been derided by many. To many of us Attenborough is our god- the person whom inspired many of us to pursue education and careers in this field, and thus criticism of the great man genuinely hurts. It feels unpalatable, like when people (quite rightly) point out some of Churchill’s (voted our greatest Briton) awful mistakes. Whilst I disagree entirely with his claim that ‘I fear this series, and other’s like it, have become a disaster for the world’s wildlife’, Hughes-Games does, unfortunately, have a point.
Hughes-Games is wrong in places. He states that: ‘The justification, say the programme makers, is that if people (the audience) become interested in the natural world they will start to care about the natural world, and will be more likely to want to get involved in trying to conserve it. Unfortunately, the scientific evidence shows this is nonsense’. He then uses figures from ZSL about nature’s ‘58%’ decline since 1970, stating that because this period runs parallel with Attenborough’s tenure as a living deity since Life on Earth began in 1979, then the programmes should have had an effect on it.
The first rule of science is that correlation does not equal causation, and Hughes-Games ignores it here. That there has been a recorded 58% decline in vertebrate populations worldwide has squarely nothing to do with the BBC, with wildlife filmmaking and certainly nothing to do with Sir David Attenborough. That scientific evidence says absolutely nothing of the effectiveness of Attenborough’s programmes, as he tries to imply. Hughes-Games sweeping assertion that the NHU’s programmes haven’t inspired people to get involved in conservation is utterly erroneous.
Whilst it would be easy to sweep that aside anecdotally, I’ve carried out a very brief poll of ‘A Focus On Nature‘, an absolutely brilliant, 1800 strong community of young ecologists and conservationists trying to make their way in the conservation world.
‘Did David Attenborough, and the BBC Natural History Unit programmes help inspire you to pursue a conservation/wildlife/environment-based career?’
I had 52 responses in an hour, and it is evident that the results clearly show that Attenborough and wildlife documentaries have helped in some form to inspire a generation of environmentalists, naturalists and scientists to work in their respective fields. If I were to ask anyone on my Geography course, on on Environmental Sciences, Zoology, Conservation and Biology courses who their inspiration was, I doubt the word ‘Attenborough’ would be far from anyone’s lips.
In this instance, then, Hughes-Games is evidently misguided.
Where he is right, however, is that it is time for a paradigm shift in wildlife filming, and the BBC Natural History Unit is not excepted from that. When Hughes-Games writes that ‘the fantasy should be balanced by reality’, he is absolutely on the money. Recent NHU documentary series have focused on either animal behaviour or locations-remember the amazing ‘Shark’, ‘The Hunt’, ‘Africa’ and ‘Patagonia’? There has been mention of human issues in these documentaries, and brief coverage, but not enough has been done to expose the size of problems on a global scale, or even within these locations. Like Hughes-Games said, the NHU should of course continue to make these jaw-dropping documentaries showcasing the beauty of the natural world, and covering the various developments in zoological and ecological science- there is no need for them to stop.
There is room for a new type of programme, however, that demonstrates the scale of the issues facing the natural world. The NHU tried something similar a long time ago in 2000 with State of the Planet, long before the era of HD, 4K and drone videography we are in at the moment. We need documentaries to expose deforestation, reveal the cost of pollution and to look at poaching in all its grisly detail. Wildlife documentaries are traditionally things of beauty, but I’d argue that we now need documentaries to be ugly, to shock too. Perhaps this requires a different breed of videographers and directors to take this more confrontational approach, but we certainly now have the technology for it. Drones are fantastic tools for showcasing the scale of deforestation, for example.
Whilst these documentaries will be difficult, it has be done and with great success. Virunga, the tale of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s eastern National Park as it struggles to fight against poachers, the SOCO oil corporation and the M23 rebel offensive is a fantastic, award-winning example. The earlier Blackfish and The Cove are perhaps the other two stand-out wildlife/nature documentaries in this genre, whilst the more recent Ivory Game is another fantastic watch. Only Leonardo DiCaprio’s Before the Flood has tried to illustrate the scale of global issues however, with impressive results.
There is an argument to suggest that perhaps the success of the Plant Earth series amongst others is due to the very same utopian ‘escapism’ that Hughes-Games so despises, but I don’t think that is good enough anymore. In the face of rapid deforestation with no quarter given for habitat and wildlife, coral reef bleaching on an unprecedented level and significant climatic change, it is time for our wildlife documentaries to take the gloves off, and show the real world to the public. Will it work? There’s only one way to find out.
That Hughes-Games has written this timely article is a good thing, as it has sparked a healthy, impassioned debate around wildlife filmmaking and it’s purpose. Ultimately, whilst poor Attenborough doesn’t really need to be in the article, would anyone have read it if he wasn’t?