Ecotourism has long been identified as a route to secure local buy-in to a conservation ethos. In the main, this has meant using catch-and-release angling as the specific money spinner. However, a different approach has been in play for the last 10 or more years in the wilds of Borneo; or just outside the small hill town of Ranau, at any rate.
We have looked before at the Tagal system (see http://mahseertrust.org/supporters-area/ and download Tor ezine 2015) under which local village communities in the Malaysian state of Sabah, on the tropical island of Borneo, are encouraged to protect their local river. In return, they have fish stocks sent from a central hatchery, and gain the income from whatever tourism model they decide to follow.
Kampung Luanti, at the foot of Mount Kinabalu, is on the main road from the capital city, Kota Kinabalu, to the popular tourist destination of Sepilok, with its orangutan and proboscis monkey sanctuaries. Driving along AH150, also known as NH22, with Malaysia’s highest mountain towering behind you, there will suddenly appear a large mahseer sculpture on the left-hand side. This is both a welcome to the attraction, and a celebration of a Tourist Board award in 2006 for the innovation of this project.
Mr Jephrin Wong, former Deputy Director of the Sabah State Fisheries Department was instrumental in setting up the Tagal schemes, and even he was amazed to find that fresh mahseer stocks enjoyed having a nibble on his toes when he released them into the River Moroli. “It is quite a strange feeling,” he said. “I often bring my family here now we have discovered the delights of a fish spa.”
The idea of a fish chewing away at flaky bits of skin is quite common in other Asian countries, but usually done by dipping feet into tanks. Here at Luanti, the fish are completely free to swim away down the river, but instead they choose to stay and take the rich pickings from tourist’s feet, or even whole bodies.
The success of the fish spa in Luanti has lead to other Tagal villages following suit. It has also been instrumental in more locals being infected with an entrepreneurship bug and opening thriving businesses alongside the fish spa office. Restaurants, fruit shops and craft sellers have all bought into the expansion of the project, and all understand the benefits of keeping a healthy stock of mahseer in a well kept river habitat.
With success stories like this, and tourists willing to spend up to £5 for 15 minutes fish pampering, the days of mass slaughter of fish in Borneo’s rivers may be long gone.