In its decade long research into frogs and toads in Borneo, the Institute for Tropical Biology and Conservation has achieved much including highlighting conservation priority areas, setting up Asia's first Frog Museum and is now working on popularising biodiversity for environmental conservation with 'Anurans Tourism'.
Travelling for over 10 hours on coach and followed by uphill forest trekking to an elevation of more than 850m above sea level for six hours to sojourn amidst pristine nature for a week long of specimen collection is not the job description of most people. On the contrary, it is not just a tacit onus of each and every anuran researcher from the Institute for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ITBC), Universiti Malaysia Sabah, but a pleasurable one too.
Anurans (Amphibia: Anura) are amphibians in the Order Anura which stands for tailless amphibians, or simply frogs and toads. Often deemed as colourful organisms, anurans are also momentous as a component of environmental food web, excellent environmental health indicators, biological control agents for pests (especially insects), and a source of alternative food and medicines for some.
Being a centre of excellence entrusted to spearhead terrestrial research in tropical biology and conservation, ITBC has acknowledged the imperativeness of anuran research since the naissance of the institute in June 1996. For slightly more than a decade now, ITBC is still marching assertively ahead in anuran research at state, national, regional as well as international levels, and blazing a trail for many novel facets of anuran research to play a part in paving the way towards global knowledge expansion. As articulated by Ali bin Abu-Talib, the fourth Caliph of Islam, ‘There is no wealth like knowledge; no poverty like ignorance’.
One of the governing factors enabling ITBC to grow from strength to strength in anuran research for the past decade has been its pool of anuran researchers. Even though without its own anuran researcher before 2003, ITBC under the leadership of Professor Datin Dr. Maryati Mohamed, succumbed to no such situational setback and decided to involve Associate Professor Dr. Abdul Hamid Ahmad, (then) a Lecturer from the School of Science and Technology (SST), Universiti Malaysia Sabah, in a couple of the initial researches. The undertakings were also participated by Ahmad Sudin, Science Officer of ITBC, and Lucy Kimsui, previously a Laboratory Assistant of ITBC, both with strong predilection for anuran research.
In 2000, ITBC received its second postgraduate student working on anurans: Kueh Boon Hee. Kueh was a recipient of the Danish Cooperation for Environment and Development (DANCED) Full Scholarship for his work on the biogeography and distribution mapping (using WORLDMAP Programme) of anurans in Borneo for conservation area prioritization.
The research that was successfully concluded in 2002, pinpointed 22 conservation priority areas in Borneo for complete representation of anuran species richness and narrow endemism, and four suggested new protected areas (following GAP Analyses): Tubau and Sungai Mengiong in Sarawak as well as Sanggau and Kubu in West Kalimantan. The data are much useful for the management of protected areas, and moulding of informed decisions by policy makers pertaining to landuse in Borneo that galvanizes balance between materialistic development and environmental conservation.
The two-year research also included studies that produced several primary anuran inventories for a few localities in Sabah. The anuran inventories are important as baseline data on anuran diversity in order to propel future anuran researches. Inventory-based studies at the limestone area of Tabin Wildlife Reserve (TWR) in October 2000 (which recorded a new locality record for TWR: Metaphrynella sundana), eight populated areas in West Coast and Kudat Divisions between December 2000 and April 2001, southern edge of Maliau Basin Conservation Area in May 2001, and Trus Madi in November 2001 (that contributed voucher specimens for three species to ITBC) set up primary anuran inventory for the respective locality. The localities have been intentionally chosen to epitomize both the protected and non-protected areas in response to the necessity for geographically comprehensive inventory-based studies for an extremely anuran species rich region like Sabah (and even Borneo).
The pool of anuran researchers began growing in 2003 when Kueh was appointed as a Lecturer/Researcher of ITBC, the first to specialize on anurans in the institute. Subsequently, Kueh was joined by Dr. Abdul Hamid and Anna Wong Yun Moi in 2006 (both were previously affiliated to SST). As crucial to the steady advancement of anuran research in ITBC as the researchers are the postgraduate students. Maximus Livon Lo Ka Fu commenced his postgraduate research in 2006 on the prevalence of chytrid fungus on anuran species in Crocker Range, Sabah under the supervision of Kueh, Associate Professor Dr. Markus Atong (School of Sustainable Agriculture, Universiti Malaysia Sabah) and Jodi Rowley (School of Tropical Biology, James Cook University, Australia). Another postgraduate student is Jane Francesca G. Volin who is working on the diversity and distribution of anuran species along Crocker Range, Sabah since the second half of 2006 under the supervision of Kueh.
Collaboration with other researchers in the nation and other countries is utmost vital in upholding the advancement of anuran research in ITBC too. Active research collaborations establish extended pool of anuran researchers for ITBC. Professor Dr. Indraneil Das (Institute of Biodiversity and Environmental Conservation, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak) and Professor Dr. Masafumi Matsui (Graduate School of Human and Environmental Studies, Kyoto University, Japan) are the two earliest research collaborators with ITBC. Professor Das and Professor Matsui are prominent researchers on the anuran species of Borneo, Malaysia and even Asian region. They conduct extensive research on anuran taxonomy, biogeography, ecology, natural history and conservation biology, and possess impressive list of publications under their names. Collaboration with them has helped ITBC in the verification and augmentation of anuran specimens in BORNEENSIS, reference collection centre of ITBC, up to the current status of approximately 1,900 specimens representing about 90 species (out of the 104 species found in Sabah and 150 species found throughout Borneo).
The specimens include those of the species endemic to Borneo and Sabah such as Kalophrynus baluensis, Philautus aurantium and Philautus bunitus. Succeeding international research collaborations have been built with researchers like Dr. Kanto Nishikawa and Tomohiko Shimada from the Graduate School of Human and Environmental Studies, Kyoto University, Japan, Lisa Schloegel, Dr. Peter Daszak and Dr. Alex Hyatt from the Consortium for Conservation Medicine, USA, Associate Professor Dr. Jean Marc Hero from the School of Environmental and Applied Sciences, Griffith University, Australia, and the latest, Professor Dr. Alexander Haas from the Biozentrum Grindel und Zoologisches Museum, Germany.
However, research collaboration with local researchers and institutions is never neglected by ITBC. Incessant research collaborations have been evident between ITBC and local institutions like Sabah Parks (with Maklarin Lakim, Paul I. Yambun and Frederick Francis), Sabah Wildlife Department and Sabah Museum (with Lo Sui Siong @ Albert) since 1996.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said ‘Science does not know its debt to imagination’ and indeed, imagination is the root of each of the finest creation and greatest innovation known to mankind. ITBC has never shied away from exploring novel spectra of anuran research. Such distinctive trait of ITBC is conspicuous when, in 2003, Kueh embarked on a research to prospect (the potential) and eventually, introduce anurans as a new nature tourism product for Sabah, in particular and Malaysia, in general.
The nature tourism product is dubbed as ‘Anurans Tourism’. Potential prospecting of anurans for ‘Anurans Tourism’ is firmly founded on seven criteria, namely endemism, rarity, reliability of sightings, morphological attractiveness, behavioral enticement, safety and linkage to local cultures.
Preliminary outcomes indicated that anurans fulfil the criteria, and showed 67.8% of affirmation by a cohort of international tourists from Asia, Australasia, Europe and North America interviewed for ‘Anurans Tourism’.
‘Anurans Tourism’ has also been introduced to state tourism agencies, tour operators and local mass media via conferences, seminars and promotional excursions. The concept of ‘Anurans Tourism’ was even presented to The Honourable Mr. Shigeru Sumitani, Administrative Vice Minister of the Environment of Japan and his think-tank when Kueh went on a training in ‘Conservation and Management of Terrestrial Natural Environment’ in Japan in September 2005.
At present, Kueh proffers consultation through special lectures on anurans and ‘Anurans Tourism’ to a renowned pioneer tourism training institute in Sabah: Borneo Tourism Institute (BTI). Inevitably, gone were the days when environmental conservation was the sole responsibility of conservation biologists professing the grave need to conserve the nature from laboratories. Under the contemporary context, environmental conservation means sustainable utilization of natural resources which complies with the unavoidable materialistic development for the social well-being of local communities that at the same time, boosts more collective efforts for perpetual environmental conservation. One of the strategies underlining sustainable utilization of natural resources is through nature tourism.
In order to corroborate its endeavour to popularize biodiversity for environmental conservation, ITBC has also handpicked anurans as a model organism group to educate the general public on nature and conservation.
Hence, in November 2002, Professor Datin Maryati mooted the idea of setting up the ‘ITBC Frog Museum’, the first of its kind probably in Asia, as a centre for Education for Sustainable Development (EfSD), especially for the younger generations of Sabah. ‘ITBC Frog Museum’ that is being run by Kueh and Ahmad since its launching in December 2003, constantly receives visits from schools and colleges in Sabah, and tourists as well.
The newest feather in ITBC’s cap relating to anuran research is the appointment of Professor Datin Maryati, on behalf of ITBC, as the Chairperson of the Technical Sub-Committee of Faunal Biodiversity (Amphibia) in November 2005. The appointment directly recognized ITBC as the leading institution to consolidate and coordinate data, specimens, publications and lists of researchers on amphibians (merely anurans and caecilians as Malaysia does not house salamanders and newts), as well as the reference institution for researchers, local and international, interested to conduct amphibian researches in Malaysia.
The technical sub-committee is a part of the Technical Committee of Faunal Biodiversity headed by the Director General of the Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia, which is under the National Biodiversity Inventory Committee headed by the Secretary General of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, Malaysia. The abovementioned committees are superintended by the National Biodiversity-Biotechnology Council chaired by The Right Honourable Dato’ Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Prime Minister of Malaysia.
A decade is a period neither long nor short. It is considered long when noting that majority of the achievements by ITBC in anuran research from the perspective of human resource growth, research collaboration expansion, research progression, innovations, popularization of biodiversity using anurans as the model organism group to culturalize environmental conservation and national recognition in 10 years time were actually accomplished in the later half of the decade.
Conversely, it is regarded as a short period when realizing that there are still much to be done and attained in fulfilling the aspiration to be known regionally and internationally as the best in anuran research for ITBC, in particular and Universiti Malaysia Sabah, in general. From whichever point of view, nothing can prevent anuran research from hopping into a bright future spanning over many more colourful decades to come!
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