Discovering the fish of the Sabangau Forest and what they mean to local communities


OuTrop’s PhD student, Sara Thornton, has spent the past six months researching the fish of the Sabangau Forest. Here, she tells us what she has been up to, her unexpected discoveries and her exciting project plans for the rest of the year.

It’s incredible how fast the past six months have gone by! The project has definitely been keeping me and my wonderful team of assistants busy. Apart from the regular equipment failures, which have become the norm (but granted, the heat, humidity and working around water is not a great mix for any electronic equipment), the project has been going very well.

Fixing a fish trap while local fisherman and project assistant, Dudin, looks on. Photo by Julie Lasne/OuTrop

We have been sampling the river with 20 traps every month, consistently catching (and returning) over 1,000 fish each time. We did three months of sampling in a man-made canal called ‘Canal Bahkan’, which enters the forest from the Sabangau River. Here, we found a combination of river and forest species, along with many different snake species as well (which is always exciting!).

The sampling in the fish ponds (or ‘bejes’; a sustainable livelihood project) has also been continuing on a monthly basis. Along with the water analysis this will give us valuable information about how well they are working. We are now up to a species count of 44, and my research assistants have taught me how to identify each of these by their local names. This was more of a crash-course, and with many of the fish sharing some very similar names, it was quite a challenging one!

Walking catfish of the Clarias genus. Photo by Sara Thornton/OuTrop

With the wet season in full swing, we finally started sampling in the forest in February. Every day so far we have caught some huge walking catfish of the Clarias genus (nearly 50cm in length!), as well as the usual by-catches of crabs, snakes (what I believe are red-headed kraits), and some lovely Asian leaf turtles! Clearly, this project is proving to be great at seeing a diverse range of wildlife and not just the fascinating fish diversity, which we have here in Sabangau.

A surprise discovery – Asian leaf turtle in the fish trap! Photo by Sara Thornton/OuTrop

But, this project is not just about the fish surveys. The other part is trying to understand the different benefits and values associated with the river and fishing. This includes economic, but also more abstract cultural benefits and values. I have been gathering information through structured interviews, which are being conducted by the local Community Patrol Team in villages surrounding the Sabangau River and the ex-Mega Rice Project Area (a deforested area east of the Sabangau Forest). This will allow us to gain information regarding how much people depend on fish as a source of protein, how much they spend on buying fish, and how much they earn from selling fish. By compiling this information together I hope to get a better understanding of the economic importance of fish to these local communities.

Exploring the cultural benefits and values is more challenging: you can’t assign numerical values to these, and fully understanding and properly representing these benefits and values can be extremely tricky. I plan on approaching this part of the project by using various activities such as listing, ranking, mapping and photography with focus group discussions in the local communities to try to untangle these more abstract, but extremely important benefits of fish and the river.

So, that is the plan for the next couple of months, and more project news will follow in a future blog post!

Project assistants, Dudin and Iwan, check the fish traps on the Sabangau River. Photo by Sara Thornton/OuTrop

Find out more about Sara and her fish project here.