Alvin Chelliah was born and raised in Malaysia, after finishing his studies he set out to help protect his countries incredible Coral Reef ecosystems. Alvin has been working with Reef Check Malaysia for the past 8 years. Part of the global Reef Check network, the Malaysia team is working towards the sustainable management of their coral reefs. Engaging with different stakeholders, the team uses extensive research to inform site specific management. Alvin is also involved in training divers around the country, promoting Green Fins eco-friendly diving. Alvin has kindly answered some questions for us on what inspired his choices and the work being done by Reef Check Malaysia.
What made you work in conservation? What was your inspiration?
I grew up in the city but I was lucky to be introduced to coral reefs at a young age. I loved how beautiful and colourful reefs were. When I started diving, I was hooked and knew that I had to live close to reefs. But I had also noticed the damage to reefs and I wanted to do something to help protect them. That is what led me to work in conservation.
What steps led you to where you are today?
I did my bachelors and master’s degree in Marine Science before going full time into conservation. But between my studies I also joined a few marine conservation & education programmes as a volunteer. I had volunteered with reef check while doing my Master’s Degree, and when I completed my studies they offered me a job.
What is your favourite aspect of your job?
My favourite aspect is that I’m immersed in nature. Living on Tioman island means I am not only close to the ocean and the coral reefs but also close to a healthy rainforest. This island is bursting with wildlife and to live here is such a privilege.
What was your proudest moment as a conservationist so far?
My proudest moment is seeing the local islanders I have trained and worked with over these 6 years grow and excel in what they do. We formed the Tioman Marine Conservation Group, youth from the different villages on the island were selected and trained and now they are actively involved in conservation activities on Tioman.
What gives you hope for the future of conservation?
The new generation cares. The older generations had a very different view towards conservation and have very different goals in life. To them it was all about making money for their families and we understand because they grew up post world war 2. But the young ones, they truly care about the environment, they understand balance and the importance of caring for the environment and they want to be a part of it.
What advice would you give to young conservationists trying to build a career?
Pace yourself, I have seen too many start with a strong burning passion and then burn out so quickly. Know that not everything will go your way and you don’t have the power to change everything. Focus on what you can do, and do it well. Conservation is a slow process, the seed we sow can take years to fruit.
Why do you think people should care about conservation and the environment?
We depend on the environment to live; society has become so disconnected that we have forgotten this truth. So if we want to live healthy lives we need to conserve the environment. I honestly believe, the only people that do not care for the environment, are those that have never truly experienced it. Anyone that has taken the time to explore and observe nature would find numerous reasons to conserve it.
Can you give us a brief intro to Reef Check Malaysia and your aims
Reef Check Malaysia is part of the global Reef Check network that spans over 90 countries and territories. We in Malaysia are working towards sustainable management of coral reefs. We bring together stakeholders to collaborate on coral reef monitoring, management, research, conservation, and advocacy.
Reef check was initially designed as an eco-holistic survey method to monitor reef health. The need for such a survey method was identified during the 1993 coral reef symposium where scientists realised that there was no standardised data reflecting reef health from around the world. Marine ecologist Dr. Gregor Hodgson designed the survey method and established the Reef Check Foundation in 1996.
With headquarters in Los Angeles and volunteer teams in more than 90 countries and territories, Reef Check works to create partnerships among community volunteers, government agencies, businesses, universities and other non-profits.
Reef Check goals are to: educate the public about the value of reef ecosystems and the current crisis affecting marine life; to create a global network of volunteer teams trained in Reef Check's scientific methods who regularly monitor and report on reef health; to facilitate collaboration that produces ecologically sound and economically sustainable solutions; and to stimulate local community action to protect remaining pristine reefs and rehabilitate damaged reefs worldwide. Reef Check was registered as a non-profit in Malaysia in 2007.
Can you give an insight into what an average day is like on the project?
We have dry days and wet days. On dry days we are usually teaching in the local schools, or conducting training courses for the local community and getting reports, accounts and proposal writing done. We also do spend a lot of time engaging with local stakeholders like tourism operators, local businesses and the general public. On wet days we are monitoring the health of coral reefs, working on our coral nurseries, removing ghost nets installing mooring lines and doing reef clean-ups. Each day is very different because we are often called when there are oil spills, dead or injured animals and even illegal encroachment inside the marine parks so very often we have to drop what we are doing and respond immediately.
How does your organisation interact with the local community?
We have been working closely with the local community to promote their involvement in marine conservation and management. We set up a co-management committee and have been in discussions with the Department of Fisheries (the management agency for the Marine Parks) on how the local community can be involved in decision making.
What are the organisations biggest achievements?
Reef Check is the largest coral reef monitoring network around the world, covering more than 10,000 sites worldwide, with data shared freely with global research initiatives, universities and government agencies.
RCM has established an annual coral reef monitoring programme in Malaysia that covers over 200 sites. We have data going back for 13 years – the only such data set in Malaysia.
We established the first co-management committee in Malaysia that gives local stakeholders a say in decisions that affect coral reef management, and therefore their livelihoods.
We have conducted capacity building training to help local communities to develop new livelihoods, making them less dependent on traditional activities like fishing, and increasing household incomes.
We are part of institutions that advise the government on marine-related conservation issues, including members his of the Marine Parks Advisory Council and the National Biodiversity Roundtable.
What are the long-term goals for the organisation?
Goal 1: Local stakeholders are empowered to participate in management of marine resources
Goal 2: Resilience-based principles are incorporated into marine resource management
Goal 3: The marine management policy and legal framework is strengthened
For more information and to find out how to get involved with and support Reef Check Malaysia, visit their website www.reefcheck.org.my or follow them on social media. It is possible to volunteer and also donate so please do get in touch with the team if you are interested.