Sabah’s Hidden Gem

Far away from Kota Kinabalu across the ocean is an island blessed with sandy white beaches, surrounded by expansive blue waters glimmering all day. As we get closer to the island, the water turns clearer revealing the seabed along with its treasure in the form of eclectic fish swimming. Upon closer observation is the sad reality: plastic bottles and food packaging scattered across the beach; tourists crowding the tiny island.

Mantanani is a group of three islands located some 40km off the coast of Sabah in the district of Kota Belud. It is home to a traditional fishing community of Bajau Ubian descent, numbering just over 1,000 people. No ambient app is needed here as the sound of crashing waves plays on repeat to keep you relaxed. 

Once idyllic and rich with biodiversity, the island has become busy and over-commercialised. There are a few resorts scattered across the island inviting tourists to spend the night, but more come on a day trip – and there are more coming than the island can take. 

Resources around the island are also stretched thin due to fish bombing and overfishing. Bajau Ubian are natural fishermen and the community relies on the sea for its protein source and livelihood. The decreasing number of fish has not only affected their diet, but also made fishing an increasingly difficult occupation.

Closer to the shores of Mantani, one notices fragments of pale lifeless corals destroyed by homemade explosives. 

Despite its grim situation, Mantanani is changing for the better and it is led by the community themselves with guidance from Reef Check Malaysia (RCM).

RCM is a non-profit focused on coral reef conservation and management in Malaysia. When they heard about the fish bombing cases near Mantanani island in 2012, they knew they had to investigate. Since then, RCM has been working with various stakeholders on the island,  most importantly the community, to improve the situation. 

RCM aims to build a sustainable community by empowering them to work on the issues themselves. Identifying the problem is the first step towards solving it and the community knows what they need to sort out.

The decline of fish stocks forces the community to look for an alternative as their livelihood. One of the solutions is to learn how to farm and plant crops on the island; another is to develop a production facility for virgin coconut oil. Some of the younger members of the community are also actively involved in tourism on the island, acquiring scuba licenses so that they could get hired and guide tourists for diving. Some of the licensed divers are also working on a coral rehabilitation programme with RCM to restore the sea back to its natural state.

Trash has long been one of the major issues on the island but steps are being taken towards building a proper waste management system. As of 2018, basic recycling bins made of wire mesh are located in front of many homes to promote recycling. Beach cleaning has become a routine for the community where during the 2019 International Coastal Clean-up Day event, villagers collected over 350 kg of trash which were transported to the mainland for disposal.

But they are not stopping there. One of their biggest plans is to declare Mantanani as a Marine Managed Area to improve the state of marine resources around the islands. By doing so, the community’s food security and livelihood are secured, and reefs are healthy for visitors to explore which in turn boosts the local economy.

Slowly but surely, the community is making the change they want to see on Mantanani island and that is a positive start.

Mantanani used to be a place rich with biodiversity. Some of the villagers recall seeing curious dugongs making an appearance out of the blue, swimming together with the children. While the community isn’t asking for the dugongs to come back, they do want their home to be taken care of, their source of income and livelihood secured. And they are working on it together.

This article was contributed by our partner, Reef Check Malaysia (RCM) to commemorate #EarthDay2020 for #EarthWeek. Hasanah and RCM are working with local communities on Mantanani island to protect underwater ecosystems through education and coral rehabilitation programmes.