Coastal cleanups & waste management in Pengudang, Bintan

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On Sunday, in lieu of the Earth Day celebrations, our team co-organized a local beach cleanup and mangrove planting event along the coast of the Pengudang village in Bintan. It was great to see so much enthusiasm from everyone. We had school groups participating, NGOs, even government officials as well and everyone signed their names onto a pledge to take strategic steps that would contribute to the fight to end plastic pollution. The event was a collaboration between Banyan Tree, ISKINDO KEPRI, Pengudang Bintan Mangroves and Kabupaten Bintan. The coast here is adjacent to a huge seagrass bed, and a feeding ground for dugongs.

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Seeing so many people involved was really heartening…a reminder that coastal cleanups don’t just help to clean up the environment, it also serves a larger purpose to educate and inspire the public to enact change. This is the power of Gotong Royong, the Indonesian term to work together as a community to make a difference, and it is heartening to see the drive of the local community to participate in tree planting and other environmental events. Shout out to the amazing team at the Banyan Tree Bintan Conservation Lab, my colleagues Pak Henry Singer, Renald Yude and Adlan Bakti for organizing the event! Thanks too to Pak Iwan Winarto for helping us out. Here are some of the photos from our event.

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Signatures of NGOs, government officials, students and businesses together to end plastic pollution. GREAT NEWS ALERT! Banyan Tree Hotels and Resorts has also made a bold pledge to reduce to eliminate all single-use plastic as well by Earth Day 2019, and we are now phasing out all use of plastic straws and bottles at the resort. This is an excellent example of how tourism industries can lead the way in promoting environmentalism. Read more about this pledge and the interview with Dr Steve Newman, our Group Sustainability Director over here!

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Plastic bottles accounted for the vast majority of waste that was found. All of these bottles were separated from the rest of the trash and given to a recycling facility later on.

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Our wonderful participants having fun while keeping the beach clean…Even the rain didn’t dampen their spirits!

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Too many small styrofoam pieces to pick up 😦

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Fishing nets were one of the most largest types of waste collected, and their micro-fibres were found embedded in lots of sand

 

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IMG_7140Presentation on why plastic is such a problem in Indonesia and how we can combat it (e.g. committing to reusable bags and bottles)

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Local dance and martial arts (Silat) performances

The more rubbish we collected, the more I was starting to realize that we were truly fighting a losing battle. To be honest, it felt like we were trying to shift a landfill into garbage bags. I learnt from my team that solid waste disposal is truly one of the biggest challenges that Bintan faces. One estimate I found was approximately 400 tonnes of solid waste produced by the island’s 230’000 residents a day . The island’s solution to solid waste management is to put all of it into ‘sanitary landfills’, and there is currently little to no formal collection of wastes in non-resort areas. There have been steps to improve such landfills; installing a methane gas collection and energy production system at the Ganet TPA landfill in the capital of Bintan, Tanjung Pinang, but leachate from this landfill alone could be polluting up to 0.684 km of waters in residential areas. For most residential areas, waste is typically disposed off in ‘backyard landfills’, so each kampong (Bahasa Indonesia: village) designates an area for waste to be dumped. Sometimes, this waste is burned in open fires, but most of the time, it is left to degrade on its own. In some coastal communities, unfortunately, this waste easily makes its way into mangroves and the sea. It’s great that Bintan is taking steps to start capturing methane in its landfills, and definitely a step in the right direction, but is that enough? According to the Waste-to-Energy Research and Technology Council in Columbia University, there is a hierarchy of waste management systems which starts at the top (reducing waste completely), and ends with open landfills and burning.

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As far as I know, there are no incineration plants for solid waste in Bintan. The benefits of installing incineration plants in Bintan are twofold—firstly, it helps reduce the quantity of solid waste and the chances of waste leaching noxious chemicals into the natural environment and secondly, it can produce energy when heat from combustion is used to produce electricity. Why hasn’t it been done? Well…because it costs a bomb. To put things into perspective, Singapore’s waste to energy incineration plant and landfill at Pulau Semakau cost a whopping SGD$ 610 million. Singapore produced around 7.70 million tonnes of solid waste in 2017, an average of about 21’096 tonnes a day. We produce around 50 times more waste per day than Bintan, so perhaps Bintan does not need something quite as elaborate and costly. But how feasible would it be to create a simpler incineration plant here and how much would that cost?

Anyway, I digress. As part of the organizing team, we requested for the event to be as plastic free as possible. That meant providing cups that participants could drink from by filling it up from a large container, rather than distributing plastic bottles. We asked caterers to prepare lunch boxes with cardboard instead of the usual styrofoam that they use. It was difficult to be completely plastic free for the event (E.g. the latex gloves that we distributed for hygiene, cutlery that came with the lunch was still plastic), but on a whole, I felt like it was a pretty good attempt. Imagine my dismay at the end of the entire event, where I realized that some of the same participants who had just helped us cleanup the beach 30 minutes ago now left their lunch boxes strewn all over the floor, plastic cutlery in the grass, gloves lying around, when trash bags were put up around the site and were definitely easily accessible.

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Our attempt to reduce plastic use at our own event

Some of the team and I spent the end of the event picking up after ourselves. ‘Oh the irony’, I sighed to myself, ‘that we had to do a cleanup of our cleanup event’. I take it as a lesson learnt, that the next time we organize such an event, that we need to be explicitly clear to everyone to clean up after themselves. Perhaps…it’s easy to forget that the first step of conservation and environmentalism is to start with ourselves? What use is taking part in events or organizing these monthly activities frequently, if we offset all this good work with our everyday bad habits? It’s definitely something to think about for sure, and I certainly hope that this cleanup will be one of many more events to come, and if you’ve got ideas on how to change the mentality people have toward plastic and waste, do leave a comment below! Next time round, we will be trying to improve our cleanups by measuring the waste collected, maybe we could even do something similar to ICCS? Something to think about I guess!

 

Disclaimer: The views reflected on this blog are mine, and do not represent the thoughts, intentions or plans of my employer/Banyan Tree Bintan. It’s a stream-of-consciousness, spontaneous collection of what I did and what I thought so my horrible memory can get a bit more help. I hope you find this interesting or inspiring in some way or another, and feel free to let me know if there are any errors/mistakes in my posts! Thanks!

Life on the water’s edge – Mapur Island

Today, we visited one of the local islands, Mapur. Mapur Island is situated within Kabupaten Bintan, an area of 4729.05 km² that is protected for its rich marine biodiversity. It is located approximately 16 kilometres east of Bintan and is famous for some dive sites such as the Igara Wreck that sits at the bottom of the sea at 40m. This is considered a locally managed marine area, a system of community-based management. I’ve seen some dive companies offering opportunities to explore the area, but most of these are from liveaboards and through day trips. It’s really nothing like living together with the community.

Going onto Mapur is like stepping back into time. It’s rustic nature and quaint little kelongs (houses and fish farms on stilts) are particularly charming. Most of the residents within the island rely exclusively on fishing for their livelihood. There are multiple methods for catching fish, but one of the most common methods is to set fish traps made from chicken wire along the seabed with a bit of bait.

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Fish traps hanging underneath a house in Mapur

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Rooster perched on top of a fish trap

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Some of our Seedlings youths from Bintan, really bright kids who join the CSR team at Banyan Tree Bintan to learn about environmental issues and to partner with resort staff for a vocational mentorship program.

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Our cosy home for the night that was literally on the water’s edge!

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Taking a walk in the morning around the island. Thanks for the photo Francisca! 🙂

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After we had settled into a new home for the night, we took the Seedlings out to snorkel. There was heavy rain and it was so cold and windy outside that jumping into the sea felt like going into a jacuzzi. All the same, even though there was very heavy rain, that didn’t dampen our spirits.

Most of the youths we had from Seedlings weren’t strong swimmers, so we took some time on a sandbank to teach them how to snorkel with a life vest. For those who were more confident, we taught them how to float and try basic swimming strokes so they could keep themselves afloat.

Snorkelling trip with the Seedlings (Photos: Henry Singer)

I was so proud of them for overcoming their fear of the water. Everyone started off rather shy and hesitant at first, but by the end of the day, they were splashing around and having a whale of a time. It was also heartening to see a giant clam and coral nursery a short 5 minute boat ride away from the stilt houses on Mapur.

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That’s a pretty good sized clam right there! One of 50 clams protected within Mapur’s clam conservation program. As we were snorkelling along the reef, it was great to see a giant clam every now and then peeking out from the reef!

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Visibility wasn’t the best in the water especially after the rain, but it was clear that the fragments of Acropora they had on their table nursery were thriving particularly well.

I learnt that these conservation projects were led by the organization Balai Pengelolaan Sumberdaya Pesisir dan Laut (BPSPL), or in English, the local Centre for Coastal and Marine Resource Management and carried out by Lembaga Pengelola Sumberdaya Terumbu Karang Desa Mapur or the Coral Reef Resource Management Institute of Mapur Village. Mapur Island, being part of the Marine Protected Area, is of high conservation priority, planned with the hopes that such conservation projects will increase the welfare of communities and the area’s potential for tourism. Apart from protecting the clams in nurseries, efforts to raise awareness among the locals to refrain from hunting these clams have also been put in practice.

Giant clams are among some of my favourite marine animals because of the striking iridescent flesh they have within their shells. The colours are so unearthly, it reminds me of the Milky Way. For giants, they’re shy and sensitive to light, retreating if you try to come too close. They are filter feeders, but also rely on symbiotic algae for an extra dose of nutrition.

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Infographic courtesy of the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute

Giant clams are particularly threatened around the world, and in Asia, are often harvested for their shells and meat. However, they are incredibly important reef-building animals and luckily, the protection of these beautiful molluscs have stepped up in recent years. In Indonesia, two species of giant clams, the fluted giant clam (Tridacna squamosa) and boring –as in embedding rather than uninteresting– giant clam (Tridacna crocea) are considered locally endangered. Mapur alone is currently home to four species of clams (From most common to least common: Tridacna crocea, T. maxima, T. derasa and T. squamosa). 

One of my favourite overviews of giant clam conservation by Dr Neo Mei Lin in her TED talk over here:

 

Thank you to the Banyan Tree Bintan Conservation Lab for organizing such an amazing trip! And I can’t wait to explore more of the waters around Bintan soon!

 

A new journey…Bintan, Indonesia

After my six month stint in the Maldives, it was time for me to return to an area closer to home. I was fortunate to have the incredible opportunity to work as a Conservation Specialist in the Banyan Tree Bintan Conservation Lab. In the Maldives, there’s an incredible amount of research and monitoring done on a regular basis. In Indonesia, they have been accomplishing so much in terms of community outreach and raising environmental awareness, but more needed to be done in terms of research. My task was to establish an avian and forest habitat monitoring program aligned to the lab’s citizen science birdwatching program. In addition to this piece of research, I will also be helping out with guest activities such as nature walks, conservation talks, etc.

1. About Us

Where I’ll be spending a lot of time over the next three months (Bintan Conservation Lab)

The team here is small but incredibly effective, led by Mr Henry Singer, our environment naturalist, who has been running the lab here for more than a decade. Renald Yude, who supervises marine conservation activities and runs the Seedlings Youth Mentorship Program and Adlan Bakti, who runs terrestrial conservation in the lab. I also worked with one of their interns from the Bogor Agricultural University, Revani Utami, who helped out with the operations and conducted her research on characteristics of sea turtle egg-laying sites.

One of the most remarkable success stories and testaments to the resort’s success in community engagement is the turtle conservation program. I learned that the resort is adjacent to a village called Kampong Baru, a small conglomeration of around a hundred artisanal fishermen and their families. In the past, turtle eggs were often collected and consumed by locals. A study in 2004 observed estimated that approximately >90% of sea turtle nests were collected for consumption. Hawksbills have been observed nesting most frequently on the shores of Bintan between March and September. Today, however, the fishermen use their indigenous knowledge of the sea to aid conservation efforts. They’ve been trained to collect the eggs without damage and then to help with relocation efforts to a safer area where the eggs are free from both natural predators and poaching from humans.

The vast majority of nests are laid on the Northern coast of Bintan, on a long stretch of sandy beach known as Pasir Panjang (the same name as Singapore, except this beach is actually long). One morning, Renald had some incredible news to share. He’d received a call that a large female green had come ashore on Pasir Panjang to lay a clutch of eggs. I remember beating myself up for not being there and seeing the videos of this large female, but knowing we were on the same island for a couple of hours or so still felt pretty magical.

33782009_10209983768104322_8620191567153463296_n33864189_10209983767784314_5322899720375369728_n    Usually, turtles lay their eggs at night, but this female was found in the early morning (Photos from Renald Yude)

As mentioned earlier, Banyan Tree Bintan’s outreach and education work with the community enables an extensive network of people on the lookout for nesting sea turtles. Once these turtles are sighted laying eggs, we receive a call and we’ll be down to collect these eggs in a bucket hours later. The whole process is quite speedy. Then, the turtles are transferred to our hatchery, where they’re protected and accounted for.

24. Sea Turtle Conservation Program

Relocating my first nest of turtle eggs, green sea turtles!

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IMG_8875 2Sea turtle eggs are spherical, and look like a bunch of ping-pong balls buried in the sand!

This is basically how the relocation of the nest happens here in the program after they’ve been collected:

  1. Dig a circular hole at the hatchery that is approximately 1m deep and 30cm wide
  2. Scatter some sand from the bucket to line the bottom of the nest
  3. Slowly transfer eggs one at a time into the new nest, being careful to place it in the same position it was found in, avoid rotating the eggs.
  4. Count the number of eggs as they are placed into the nest, record information about the nest.
  5. Scatter the sand loosely from the bucket on top of the eggs.
  6. Loosely scatter and cover the nest with the surrounding sand, forming a small hill on the top of the nest.
  7. Wait patiently for several weeks!

There are a few things we need to be careful with as the whole process is delicate. When relocating the eggs, I learnt from Renald that it’s important to handle them very carefully, without tilting the egg and to place them in the same orientation they were found in. This apparently increases their hatching success. We also use gloves whenever they are handled to minimize contamination. As one person carefully transfers the eggs into a new hole, the other counts and records information about the eggs.

Green turtle eggs hatch between 45 to 75 days after they’re laid (of which between 50-75% will naturally hatch successfully), and hawksbill eggs hatch around 60 days after they’re laid, so it’s hard to predict exactly when these little hatchlings will first poke their heads out of the sand. A week before they’re due to hatch, we place mesh net around the nest and monitor the nest daily. Most of the nest hatches within the same day, but there always seem to be a few latecomers to the party, so we give them a couple more days or so before excavating the whole nest. It’s important to account for each egg when they are transferred in, so we know we haven’t left a single turtle hatchling behind.

The first mad rush of hatched sea turtles scrambling out of their nests in a race towards the sea. Turtles know their way by instinct and naturally orientate themselves towards the sea! (Check out the Bintan Conservation Lab Instagram for regular updates!).

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Once the hatchlings have emerged out of their nests, they’re transferred into a bucket and measured at our nursery. However, not all of them emerge from the nest at the same time. Some still have their yolk sac attached to the base of their shell or the plastron, so we leave them inside the nest a while longer. Occasionally, some eggs haven’t even hatched too…so we wait another day if needed.

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This little hawksbill was among one of the last of its nest to hatch, and we found him still in his shell as we were checking the nest. Once the whole nest is checked and excavated, these turtles are split according to their species and placed in the nursery.

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One little hawksbill takes its first dive into seawater at our nursery!

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Two more hawksbills who are completely worn out from all that flapping around and are just resting along the surface.

This is their temporary new home. Here, we feed and keep them for around one to three months before releasing them into the sea. It’s a chance for them to gain a little bit more weight and size, and hopefully even harden their shells a bit before facing the oceans on their own. We measure and check on the welfare of these turtles regularly so we can keep track of their growth!

A baby green turtle (Chelonia mydas) on the left and a baby hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) from our nursery after getting measured!

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While they stay in the nursery, we take turns feeding them and cleaning their tank regularly. If we’re lucky, we get a bit of help from our guests (like this aspiring veterinarian, 10-year-old Mia) too!

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A bunch of baby green turtles transferred out momentarily while we’re cleaning the tank!

Before long, it’s time for us to say goodbye. The turtles are released from our beach instead of the sea so that they can imprint on their surroundings and hopefully return here to nest some day. Scientists have evidence that turtles rely on the magnetic field of the earth to navigate their way back to the beaches they nested at. This ability to return back to where an animal is born after years and kilometres of migration is called natal homing. Another new piece of research published a couple of months ago shows that loggerhead turtles sometimes mistakenly nest on the wrong beaches with similar magnetic fields, even if the beach is not within close proximity to the location they hatched from. Even so, it’s remarkable to me that any animal can, whether instinctually or otherwise, be able to ‘remember’ where they came from. I can barely remember any aspect of my life until the age of 4, perhaps, let alone where the hospital I was born in was located.

As these turtles scramble off into the surf, I feel wistful. I’m overjoyed to see them wild and free, but it’s simultaneously sad that turtles have naturally low survival rates. For sea turtles, it’s a tough world out there, and some estimates are as low as 1 out of a thousand eggs that will survive to adulthood. It’s strange to think that if they’re lucky, these little guys we released can outlive me. The maximum lifespan of a green turtle is estimated to be 75 years (although some anecdotal evidence suggests they can live beyond a century).  A part of me hopes they will all outlive me someday, but I know the odds are just not in their favour. 

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These are some of the unfortunate yet important anecdotes that must still be shared. Before the turtles are released, we invite resort guests to come and participate in wishing the turtles all the best as they embark on their next adventure in the open sea. This is also a great chance to share with guests about the urgent need for turtle conservation, the threats to their survival, as well as how they can play a part to help make the oceans a better place for turtles to live in. Many are often surprised that survival rates are so low, but I sincerely hope that this only encourages them to keep the oceans free from litter and to also be more actively involved in an environmentally friendly lifestyle.

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My first time giving the briefing for the turtle release

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The mad scramble towards the sea…all the best little ones!