Whale Sharks Protected and Local People Supported in Southeast Asia Thanks to WWF Denmark

From conservation of wildlife and the rainforest on Borneo, Danish WWF representative Lene Topp is turning the attention towards the sea.

       Meeting WWF Verdensnaturfonden’s (the Danish division of World Wide Fund for Nature) representative on Borneo the immediate assumption will be that the work concerns rain forest issues – which are very much in focus these days with the recent discoveries of new species as well as the decision by the Southeast Asian countries Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia to protect what is left of the forests on Borneo.

       This was also true up until only a few years ago. Lene Topp was indeed previously involved in WWF’s Danida-supported initiatives on the island, in both Indonesia and Malaysia and with the successful Heart of Borneo in focus. But these projects stopped in 2006.


Borneo as a regional base

These days, it turns out, the WWF Denmark employee and her volunteering husband Claus, who titles himself the  ‘office boy’, use Borneo as a base for the work in the region (covering the Philippines and Indonesia), having turned the focus to new areas where support is highly needed.

       “One side I am responsible for is the Danish-supported projects and right now we have a Danida supported marine project in Indonesia and would like to develop our project portfolio there,” says Lene in Kota Kinabalu, a seaside town in the Sabah province (East Malaysia) where she and Claus stay, just back from a field trip to remote Papua Guinea.

       “Kota Kinabalu is a good location and we had already been here for three years and were feeling comfortable. Communication is easy with broadband and so on and things are running very well.”

       They moved to Borneo from Denmark in 2002 when Lene was working on the projects as an expert and WWF Denmark’s person in charge. When new projects were started they decided to stay, using Sabah as their second home abroad in between trips in the region.

       On Borneo the efforts by WWF continues but the Danish section is no longer involved..

“WWF Malaysia became too rich so there’s no more support to them from Denmark,” explains Lene.


The Coral Triangle projects

       So she started looking around for areas in need for support where WWF could run programmes.

       “I became aware there was a big need for support in the Coral Triangle. It’s a huge ocean area covering 5.7 million square kilometers. It stretches from here on the east coast of Sabah to the whole Philippines in the north and all the way to the Solomon Islands in the east – and covering the whole of Indonesia. The area is the richest with corals in the world.”

       Significant for the area is the high number of coral speciess (over 500) and a lot of migrating animals.

       As a result Lene is looking after projects in Indonesia. One field site is along the east coast of Borneo, an other further east near Timor.

       “We’re also about to start work on sea turtles in the eastern part of Indonesia.”

Saving whale shark
Furthermore, one exciting programme supported by private donors from Denmark concerns the world’s largest fish, the whale shark. In the village of Donsol in the Philippines the local people today partly earn their livelihood out of whale shark-tourism.

       The project, which came about when Lene and Claus heard about the whale sharks while on a holiday trip to Philippines, is a perfect example on how WWF connect work on saving endangered species of animals and plants with development support.

       Lene explains: “When WWF go into an area where we find something interesting there’s also a lot of people living there. WWF Denmark is very much focusing on working on poverty issues and on supporting local communities in their efforts to manage their resources in a sustainable way .”

       “The overall vision is to create an environment where nature and people are living in harmony.”

       “Compared to other organizations, I guess that is our strength trying to combine the development and conservation aspects,” says Lene.


Developing whale shark tourism

       In Donsol the locals asked WWF for assistance to develop whale shark tourism. So the focus on this specific species relates directly to the development of a local tourism industry in Donsol. Fishermen take out tourists to see and snorkel with the sharks, which are coming in huge numbers to the bay during a period every year.

       “Of course we have an interest in saving these animals – both for the sake of the whale sharks and of the people of Donsol. We are therefore working on getting more knowledge about these migrating animals. We need to know where they go when they leave Donsol, to be able to negotiate with other countries to protect them.”

       “During the season the locals really concentrate on the tourism around the whale sharks. So even though a lot of  attention lies on the whale sharks it is also focusing on people,” Lene explains, who is responsible of keeping an eye on the progress of projects and be the link to the donors – but not of implementing them.

       “That is taken care of by our partner offices out here in the region.”


Meeting the demands of different donors

       Often supported also by the state through Danida, each project has to fulfill various criteria.

       “We are a conservation organization but Danida’s main objective is poverty elevation. It can be very positive, as we with Danida support can take a broad view and cover most of the needs for an area.”

       Within one programme different donors with different priorities can be used and consequently the big picture is covered.

       “Some donors like to support the biological side while others like to support more people-focused needs. It’s our job to put these efforts together. ” concludes Lene.

          “We’ve just been to Papua, as we are planning a new project over there. There is a huge need as people die from malaria, diarrhoea and other things that could be prevented. We want to make agreements with these people about protection of the surrounding  environment . In return we will facilitate support for coverage of their basic needs. Such agreements have already been tried before in the area, and it really worked well. You give a little and get something in return.”


About Joakim Persson

Freelance business and lifestyle photojournalist

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