As Cities Went into Lockdown, Who Was Protecting the Vulnerable Wildlife?

Living through a pandemic can be strange, confusing, challenging. An insider look at new challenges that await.

Just like people, the impact of the coronavirus on wildlife species can be unequal.

As healthcare workers charged in front of the battlefield to fight COVID-19, I saw another group of the pandemic’s frontlines: those who worked hard to shield vulnerable wildlife and communities from the crushing impact of the struggling economy and movement restrictions.

For many endangered species like the hawksbill turtles in Peninsular Malaysia, where poaching might be more rampant during isolation, they had to depend entirely on wildlife protectors to fend for themselves.

I began to find out how our field teams were coping.

In Malaysia, new challenges in training new frontliners 

Since COVID-19, Yana, WWF conservation staff who leads the Turtle Guardians programme in Melaka, expressed new challenges on the field. When the Malaysia government declared a Movement Control Order (MCO), WWF personnel were not allowed on the ground.

“Despite movement restrictions, turtle egg poachers were still lurking around,” Haziq, WWF-Malaysia’s Marine Conservation Officer, explained.

Thankfully, the turtle guardians managed to obtain permission from the Department of Fisheries to continue patrolling the beaches during the nesting season which started in April. What this meant: Yana had to depend fully on the community turtle guardians to safeguard the turtle eggs from sneaky poachers at night.

“Not being able to be on the ground with the turtle guardians was already challenging. We now have three new turtle guardians this year and due to COVID-19 restrictions, we have to rely on our experienced turtle guardians to help us train the newcomers.”

Pre COVID-19, here’s an experienced turtle guardian Zainal (second from right) assisting a newly recruited turtle guardian during a training session.

“We made use of WhatsApp to stay in touch and gave advice on the problems they faced. Turtle guardians were reminded constantly to maintain social distance and we provided them with hand sanitisers, turtle nesting forms and turtle tags,” Yana shared.

Community turtle guardians stand at the frontlines to protect turtle eggs from being poached despite the country’s lockdown measures.

More effort was needed to talk through conflicts – as Yana highlighted that people tend to misunderstand things when communication could only be done through a phone call or WhatsApp message.

Around the world, we heard the news of rare giant turtles returning to empty beaches to lay their eggs. In Singapore, a mummy hawksbill turtle was spotted laying her eggs last week at the popular weekend hotspot East Coast Park! This came to little surprise as the circuit breaker measures ensured no human activities were allowed.

For Yana, however, she has yet to notice a sudden peak in the number of nesting turtles on the beaches.

Though the current financial situation is bleak, WWF prioritises on the Turtle Guardian programme and focuses on making sure the turtle guardians continue to receive their needs. 

“Things will not be the same as before but I am looking forward to being back on the ground!” Yana concluded.

In Indonesia, missing out on critical opportunity to tag sharks

Similarly in Indonesia, cities in West Papua are in lockdown where access is limited.

When COVID-19 first hit West Papua, the first two cases were reported in Sorong. Incoming flight passengers to West Papua, who usually have to make transits at Makassar (one of the most impacted locations in Indonesia), were suspected to be early carriers of the coronavirus.

Ranny, a WWF shark and ray project manager who is currently based in Bali, continues to work from the field office twice a week, rotating with her colleagues. 

As CITES-listed species, hammerhead sharks are of both international and national concern despite little information on their critical habitats in Indonesia. In West Papua, the sharks are fished for their fins as bycatch, which could then be sent to Singapore (transit via other cities like Surabaya, Makassar or even Jakarta) for consumption or re-export. Singapore remains one of the key countries that still consume shark fin soup.

COVID-19 has a major impact on the economic viability of fishermen and women in Indonesia and around the world today. 

At South Sorong and Bintuni Bay in West Papua, WWF aims to identify the critical habitats of hammerhead sharks and engage the government to establish and manage the areas that are really important for the sharks as pupping ground or nursery.

The pandemic has delayed some important field activities – including the shark tagging field trip which was supposed to happen in April. It was strategically scheduled then as it was the pupping season where the bigger sharks would go to shallow waters to release their babies.

Tagging the sharks will allow Ranny and her team to collect data and identify critical areas on shark habitats to better protect the species in the long term.

“As part of our survey work to collect data on observer boats, our field team sent me this picture (above) on 9 April. These are baby hammerhead sharks caught as bycatch in a gillnet,” Ranny explained.

Part of the work was to collect data by going on observer boats to conduct socio-economic surveys for strategic decisions to be identified and made in major villages.

Though there were new restrictions, the enumerator (a person hired in taking a census to estimate the population) was still recording data. But with fewer observer boats that were going out, lesser sharks were recorded too.

Data collection on landing sites of sharks and rays is still ongoing. Here’s Daniel Rahmat, an enumerator intern from the Diponegoro University.
©Daniel Rahmat, WWF-Indonesia

For Ranny, working from home posed a huge challenge for her as tagging activities and all other practical tasks could only be done on the field. However, meetings with stakeholders and data cleaning have shifted online.

“Our shark tagging equipment in Jakarta was supposed to arrive at Bali this Sunday. We wanted to disinfect them after Hari Raya,” Ranny shared.

In the Philippines, alternative livelihoods are saving lives

For local communities in the northeastern part of Palawan in the Philippines, fishing and agriculture make up the main sources of livelihood.

But when the national government declared community quarantine in mid-March, this spelt bad news for many fishermen who were not allowed to fish initially. Even when they were allowed to, it was only in nearshore waters. Even so, stories of fish spoilage and underpricing were common.

Community villages in Araceli, Philippines.

What the lockdown meant for the fishermen we work with was that they were as hard hit as anyone,” Marivel Dygico, a WWF staff who helps manage marine protected areas in the Philippines shared.

Where transportation to and from the Dumaran Island was restricted, this too impacted the economics of the fishing activities as fishermen would not be able to bring their catch to their usual landing sites — usually at the nearest city or island with bigger populations like Palawan or Coron.

Exports were also put on hold. As local fishermen were unable to sell their fish, they were not able to afford daily necessities like water, rice and vegetables.”

When sold, live reef fish make up the highest income per kilogram.

With the main income gone, the pandemic also brought to light the need for increased food and water security in the islands, including water tanks and backyard vegetable gardening. This was especially felt in small islands.

Where seafood abounds for local consumption, food became less of an issue. In Cagayancillo, backyard gardening and seaweed farming were also allowed to continue and that helped produce the cash needed to buy everyday essentials. 

During this time, alternative livelihoods provided supplementary income and services like handicraft, heritage food products, and water catchment.

Most importantly, WWF-Philippines has helped identify and implement projects that provided water tanks and foodsheds which could increase the resilience of communities in these islands, not only during the current health crisis but also during storms and strong monsoons when the islands could get isolated.

Women in the communities were engaged in seaweed farming at Cagayancillo.

With the travel restrictions, storage facilities to store fish were also needed as they were often spoilt or sold below market value.

“For as long as these communities remain free from infection, I think they are managing the situation well,” Marivel added.

If you like reading this, see how our face-to-face fundraisers are adapting to COVID-19, why quitting is never an option for these seven women and the low down on Singapore’s amped-up new climate targets.

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  • Seemant Chawla, May 28, 2020 @ 1:51 pm Reply

    Nice to see the work been done in the current situation across the regions. Happy to be a part in a small way.

  • Manish Gayan, May 28, 2020 @ 11:43 pm Reply

    I feel its high time shark fin consumption should be banned in Singapore.

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