Nature Escapes

The Setiu Swamp Ecosystem in Terengganu is a Coastal Wetland Haven

Wetland Romps in the Setiu Swamp Ecosystem of Malaysian Coastal Habitats

By Rick Gregory

The Setiu swamp ecosystem seems like an unremarkable wetland at first sight.

Located just south of the Kelantan border, it offers a rich variety of mixed swamp forests, dryland hills, beach ridges and unhurried rivers that support plant and animal communities with special adaptations.

The Terengganu coastline is a languid landscape that defines the east coast of Peninsula Malaysia. Its fishing villages are separated by scenic stretches of mangroves, nipa palms and coconut trees that thrive in sandy beaches.


Between the South China Sea and the hill forests lies a speckled array of habitats - lagoons, marshes, deltas, freshwater swamps, Melaleuca forests - that offer refuge to threatened species.

The swamp ecosystem serves as feeding and roosting areas for seasonal water birds and stopover sites for migratory birds. And of course sea turtles still find their way, although in far lesser numbers, to the beaches of Terengganu.


Adding to Setiu's ecological value are the presence of endangered river and painted terrapins that travel down river to nest in the sandy shores of the river mouth and coastal beach fringes.

In the 1980s, 56 wetland sites were identified as important for conservation in Peninsular Malaysia. The Malaysian Wetland Directory categorized seventeen as priority sites because of their national significance, including the Setiu swamp ecosystem.

These wetlands were part of the Malaysian Tropical Forest Conservation Project (MTFCP) run by the Coral Cay Conservation (CCC), a not-for-profit group headquartered in the UK. Having done biodiversity surveys on Pulau Perhentian, CCC headed to the coastal mainland to collect ecological data on Setui.

"The aim of the project was to conduct rapid biodiversity assessments of different habitats within the Setiu Wetlands," explained Rebecca Wilson, the MTFCP Expedition Leader. "We wanted to compile a detailed species list and highlight species distribution." With oversight from the Department of Wildlife and National Parks in Terengganu, volunteers engaged in wildlife observation and live trapping exercises.

The work demands patience, persistence and plenty of volunteers to carry out the day-to-day tasks. Mist nests, set up in forest pathways, captured birds at dusk and fruit and insect bats at night.

bat bat

Small box-like mammal traps, baited with peanut butter, covered with leaves and hidden among tree roots, caught rodents. Each captured animal was measured before being let go.

For many the ordinary drudgery of trapping and netting turns into a daily lottery with excitement built up before each excursion into the jungle to check traps. "I liked the mist netting," said Kristen Furley, a gap year student volunteer who's spent only one week on site, "especially when we caught something."

For volunteers the hot days and mosquito-filled nights were soon forgotten at the sight of a stork-billed kingfisher or a white-rumped sharma.


On Saturdays, local school-aged kids wandered over to the CCC domicile to study English names of animals, while at the same time imparting Malay terms to volunteers. "I'm surprised how well the project was received in the village," said Lorna Bousfield, a biology graduate volunteer. "That's an aspect of the project I wasn't looking at when I applied."

This interaction goes a long way towards goodwill and good communication, both crucial for achieving conservation goals.

The Setui wetlands are spread out and not easily defined by tree line borders and river boundaries. It looks like no man's land with sparse habitats scattered in an untidy arrangement.

But in essence its sporadic parts make a greater whole that functions as a dynamic swamp ecosystem. That is unless its parts come under attack by alteration and degradation

Aquaculture schemes near the mangroves threaten the natural bounty of clams, crabs, oysters and fish by tainting the waters with antibiotics. And fertiliser runoff from oil palm plantations only adds to the unhealthy chemical mix that can lead to toxic algal blooms.

By identifying its resident and migratory species, mapping out its habitat types and inventorying its major wetland animals, the MTFCP is another step towards strengthening the ecological argument to conserve Malaysia's wetland wonders.

Check out Setui and the painted terrapins on your next trip to Terengganu.

[Please check into CCC's official website - - for more information on conservation programs for volunteers worldwide.]

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