2019 Environmental Review: Southeast Asia

The year—and the decade—in environmental terms, is coming to its end, with some species and entire ecosystems in their death throes. For starters, Malaysia recently lost its last Sumatran rhino, the poaching of Sabah’s pygmy elephants is rapidly increasing, Australia’s koala bears are being incinerated in wildfires, dugongs are dying in Thailand, Laos has lost all of its tigers, orangutans are being shot up and blinded by bullets, and the Mekong River is being strangled by hydroelectric dams in Laos and China.

A smorgasbord of rare and spectacular species—and the habitats in which they live—are being erased. Nowhere on Earth can the effects of man’s dominance over the planet be seen with greater clarity than in Southeast Asia.

There are so many disturbing news reports popping up on so many outlets that it can be overwhelming to try to keep tabs on everything that is happening when it comes to environmental issues. Nonetheless, I have attempted to create linked-soaked summaries on a country-by-country basis consisting largely of small press releases that could have easily slipped by in hopes that a more complete picture could emerge from the dark room of dismal news. We’ll open with one of the countries with some of the most disturbing recent reports, Malaysia.


Perhaps one of the most symbolic reports concerning wildlife in the 21st Century comes from Malaysia in the death of Imu, the last Sumatran rhinoceros of the country. She died in captivity after having been taken from the jungle for safety from poachers. A long health struggle ensued, with news outlets around the world covering her recent demise.

But it’s worth asking how we got here. Chinese demand for rhino horn stretches back millennia, with Southeast Asia becoming an easy source after China wiped out its own rhinos. In other words, Sumatran rhinoceros, which are now only found in a few pockets in Sumatra and perhaps in Kalimantan, were hunted out of their jungle redoubts to satisfy superstitious Chinese demand long before wildlife conservation NGOs ever existed. These smallest, hairiest and gentlest of rhinos had been mercilessly persecuted for a long time, and November 2019 was the end of the road for the species in Malaysia.

Elsewhere in the country, the government voted against protecting sharks in the waters off its coast, baby sharks are being caught and sold en masse in Miri, and pygmy elephant poaching is escalating and in gruesome style with head, feet, and skin being hacked off an animal in Sabah. A Critically Endangered Malayan tiger dizzily wandered into a village, apparently suffering from canine distemper disorder, which is often spread by domestic hunting dogs entering forests with poachers.

Poachers have their sights set on Sabah’s bantengs, an indigenous Orang Asli was arrested with elephant tusks in Kelantan, and yet authorities are fighting hard to protect Sabah’s Tabin Wildlife Reserve, and the government recently gazetted one million hectares of Sarawak’s ever-dwindling forests as a protected area; however, the ongoing construction of a Pan Borneo Highway across Malaysian Borneo will undo some of this. Finally, the majestic Helmeted Hornbill continues to be relentlessly poached out of existence in the country.


While the Amazon fires grabbed global headlines, Indonesia’s forest fires have been raging as well, turning key elephant and tiger habitats into plumes of smoke in Sumatra. A journalist who wrote critically of palm oil was found dead in Medan in what was almost certainly murder.

Elsewhere on the island, the insidious trade in songbirds is making the forests become increasingly silent, while down in South Sumatra province a farmer was attacked and killed by a Critically Endangered Sumatran tiger. The same tiger is said to have stormed into a tourist tent and attacked them in an earlier incident. Up in Aceh in November, a blind orangutan, still alive, was riddled with two dozen bullets, while earlier in the year an orangutan named Hope was found to have 74 bullets in her body.

Five sea turtles were found dead within two weeks of the opening of a coal-fired power plant in Bengkulu, and Indonesia appears to be backing away from its tough stance against illegal trawlers and foreign poaching vessels. However, a new toad was identified in the Barisan Mountains of Sumatra, and it appears that Kerinci National Park—home to tigers, tapirs and allegedly, the orang pendek or tropical yeti, is getting a reprieve from a spate of road-building.

A gorgeous new species of honeyeater has been named in Alor Island, while in other good news a dam project has been cancelled in Gunung Leuser National Park in Aceh. Nonetheless, the plan to relocate the Indonesian capital from Java to Borneo will almost certainly result in large-scale environmental destruction.


Over 60 percent of Cambodians rely on fish for their daily protein, with much of it caught freely in the Mekong River and Tonle Sap Lake, but both of these water sources are in serious trouble, with Tonle Sap fisheries down 50 percent in 2019 and the Mekong at its lowest level in 100 years thanks to a drought and an upriver dam-building bonanza.

But on a positive note, the Irrawaddy River dolphins on Cambodia’s stretch of the Mekong in Kratie are faring better these days, and wild bantengs—with the help of Wildlife Alliance and a nearby local community—are hanging tough in an isolated patch of forest in Kampong Speu province. However, Kep residents are complaining about the destruction of a nearby mountain that has turned into a stone quarry, triggering a slew of environmental problems.

Chinese gold miners are poisoning a river in Kratie, and China’s Shenzen Institute has been tasked with creating a development “masterplan” for Sihanoukville, a province has seen an utterly transformative onslaught of Chinese investment. It is difficult to imagine that the strategic position of Sihanoukville on the Cambodian coast was not carefully considered by Beijing, and so rabidly has China shredded the charm of this beach town that the popular travel web site Travelfish as downgraded it to a half-star destination.

Back in January, I saw a dead slow loris splayed out on a motorbike in Virachey National Park, and a friend of mine recently saw more dead lorises openly for sale in the Ban Lung Market in Ratanakiri.

Prey Lang forest—Indochina’s largest lowland forest—continues to be hammered by illegal logging, and overall, the Kingdom’s forest cover has shrunk to 47 percent (it was 73 percent in 1975).


Way down south near Koh Libong island in Trang province an endangered and orphaned dugong became an internet sensation among the Thais after a video was released showing the four-month old pup hugging a local vet in the water. The baby dugong later died, having a stomach filled with plastic. Plastic waste in Thai seas and beyond is increasingly turning the oceans into minefields for marine life, and a Thai marine expert put forth proposals for dealing with the plight of the dugongs, which number around 250 in Thai waters. The government hopes to increase that number by 50 in the coming years. Thai fishermen admitted to killing 30 dolphins in Malaysia waters, but over 10 black-tipped reef sharks were recently recorded in Maya Bay of Koh Phi Phi in a sign that efforts to restore the ecosystem in this scenic national park are bearing fruit.

In other positive news, rare helmet urchins were found in the Similan Islands for the first time in years, while not far away, another rare sea creature—the giant ray—was spotted gliding through the crystal blue waters. Not far from the ray a huge leatherback turtle was spotted laying a clutch of 104 eggs on a Phang Nga beach. On land, Sa Kaeo police busted an illicit wildlife trader attempting to drive a large haul of wild animals—what some are calling a “feast of wildlife”—including turtles, tortoises, and monitor lizards, to Cambodia.


The rediscovery of the silver-backed chevrotain or “mouse deer” sent excitement through the conservation community, though some wonder whether or not the ancient and critically endangered saola still roams the Annamite Mountains or if it has silently been hunted to extinction; it was last camera-trapped in Vietnam in 2013, and is or was found in Laos as well. On the avian front, Asian openbill storks, black-headed ibises, and other rare birds have been flocking to Back Lieu Bird Garden, while fishermen released a rare turtle back into the sea despite offers from locals to buy and cook it. Back on land, the Vietnam delta is sinking into the sea and action needs to be taken quickly to stop it.


The poverty-stricken, landlocked nation lost all its tigers in recent years, while gold mining and dam-building continue to erode the country’s once-rich natural heritage. Tiger farms are still operating in the once-reclusive country, and the Chinese are well on their way to bulldozing a path all the way to Thailand for their high-speed trains, which the majority of Lao people will never use.

At the very top of Southeast Asia, what remains of the forests of China’s Yunnan province are being hammered for the paper and pulp industry, while over in Myanmar palm oil plantations are encroaching on protected areas in a story all too familiar to the region. Along the eastern border of Burma, the Karen people are working hard towards making the Salween Peace Park a permanent ecological haven for rare species like tigers, leopards, bears. A China-backed dam will flood a Philippine protected area in Luzon, and a snake that hadn’t been seen in Singapore 172 years was recently sighted in Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.

The causes of it all

What is the driving force behind all this? Rising incomes and traditional (unscientific) beliefs in all Southeast Asian countries contribute massively to these issues, as does infrastructure development, which often sees new roads bulldozed into final wildlife frontiers. Having China as a neighbor does not help, as a recent haul of live wildlife shows, and online Chinese message boards facilitate the sales of dead tigers, leopards, helmeted hornbills, elephant skins, and a sad array of other wildlife products.

There can be no doubt that 2020 will be just about the last chance to try and reverse the gloomy trends mentioned here, and to build on the few bright spots that remain. After all, just as I typed this up, it was reported that yet another rare leatherback sea turtle crawled out of the Andaman Sea at Phang Nga in Thailand and laid another large clutch of eggs. Thai authorities roped off her nesting site and it will be protected. And the koala bears that some news outlets said are “functionally extinct” throughout the entirety of Australia? Not just yet, though their numbers are in decline. Wildlife can bounce back if we let it, jungles can grow back if we let them, the oceans can start to be cleared of plastic if we stop polluting and start cleaning them up. It’s got to happen starting right away, in the new decade.

Gregory McCann writes on environmental topics in Southeast Asia and is the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor.