Some 40 years ago, the area that is today known as Tun Sakaran Marine Park in Sabah was identified by Dr. Elizabeth Wood of the Marine Conservation Society as an area of remarkable marine biodiversity.
Proposals were made in 1977 and 1992 to establish a State Park in the area. Due to obstacles faced including claims for land compensation, concerns regarding possible exclusion of locals from the islands and loss of fishing rights, the project had to be temporarily put on hold.
History & Evolution
The Semporna Islands Project (SIP) was launched in 1998 to try and find a solution to these problems. Tun Sakaran Marine Park was finally gazetted in July 2004. Named after the then Head of State of Sabah, Tun Sakaran Dandai, it is the largest marine park in Sabah, Malaysia.
Up until today, the natural and largely untouched beauty of the marine park attracts nature lovers and scuba diving aficionados from around the world throughout the year.
The richness of marine life in Tun Sakaran Marine Park has led to comparisons being drawn, by the UK’s Marine Conservation Society, between the area and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
The region is known for its high biological diversity and is an active ground for spawning, breeding and growth of terrestrial and marine life.
It is almost certain that Tun Sakaran Marine Park has the highest species diversity compared to any other site in Malaysia.
This includes at least 528 species of reef fish, 240 species of marine invertebrate, 6 species of seagrass and 70 species of soft coral.
However, it is not just under the sea that life flourishes.
The fantastic seascape, and the many species of sea birds and rare forest birds, including the beautiful black-naped fruit-dove, augurs well for plans to promote Semporna to non-divers.
Bajau Laut (Sea Gypsies)
Tun Sakaran Marine Park is the first marine protected area in Malaysia where locals live within its boundaries, own some of the land and rely on its resources.
The island communities comprise a mixture of Bajau Samal (settled Bajau), Bajau Laut (nomadic sea gypsies), and Suluks (originally from the northern Sulu archipelago).
The settlements on the islands are made up of semi-permanent houses, shacks and some permanent structures.
Power is supplied by generators to some homes, and cooking is done mainly with gas or wood. Rainwater is collected or water obtained from streams on the high islands, from wells or from the mainland.
There are no medical facilities on the islands and the only school is on Pulau Selakan, for primary age children.
Many of the children who live on the other islands remain unschooled, and all students have to travel to the mainland for secondary education.
The local community visit the mainland for essential supplies, but all the settlements have access to small ‘tuckshops’ that sell basic items such as snacks, drinks and tinned food.
The population stood at 2501 in a 2006 Semporna Islands Darwin Project census, with the majority (44%) living in Pulau Sebangkat.
This represents a 17% increase from a 1999 census which recorded 2061 people, spread between 12 villages and about 100 stilt houses in diffuse clusters on the Sebangkat-Selakan reef top.
Jobs & Occupations
For many years, the main economic activities of the sea gypsies living in the park have revolved around the extraction or cultivation of natural resources.
Feedback from 243 islanders in November 2005 showed that the main occupations were:
- seaweed farming (56%);
- fishermen (31%);
- fruit planting 2.5%;
- cottage businesses (2.1%);
- sea-cucumber collectors (2.8%);
- live fish traders (0.8%);
- seaweed buyers (0.4%);
- boat building (0.8%); and
- housewife (3.2%)
It is common for people to have several jobs, and no one was unemployed. During the time of the project, there were no jobs in the tourism sector – the few visitors who came to the Park were brought in by tour operators based on the mainland.
Seaweed farming has been encouraged to prevent the people from over-exploiting the marine resources. The local fishermen turned seaweed farmers who now earn more than before, act as the Park’s eyes and ears, as they realize that destruction of coral reefs and the eco-system would adversely affect their seaweed farms.
Community Service & Volunteering Opportunities
Tun Sakaran Marine Park’s main objective is to protect the environment and promote sustainable use of natural resources within the area.
Many organizations and volunteers including WWF Malaysia, the Semporna Islands Project, the UK Darwin Initiative and the Netherlands Centre for Biodiversity (NCB) Naturalis, just to name a few, have been working hard to ensure that the unique treasures of this area may be enjoyed by generations to come.
Among the projects involving conservation and management of Tun Sakaran Marine Park include:
- WWF Malaysia’s Sulu-Sulawesi Marine Ecoregion Programme – Semporna Priority Conservation Area (PCA)
- Netherlands Centre for Biodiversity (NCB) Naturalis, WWF Malaysia & Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) – Semporna Marine Ecological Expedition
- UK Darwin Initiative, Marine Conservation Society & Sabah Parks Authority – Semporna Islands Project