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Kingdom of the seahorse

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‘You know Paul - he’s not your usual conservationist’: Paul Ferber, founder and director of Marine Conservation Cambodia, is striving to protect seahorses from the nets of fishermen. Photograph: Karim Iliya

As the country’s seahorse population is decimated by trawlers off the coast of Sihanoukville, a breeding project hopes to save the ‘dragons of the sea.

Two ornate, stylised seahorses, their necks arched, seem to float on Paul Ferber’s chest. They gaze into each other’s eyes as if to begin the animal’s courting dance.

The unique and rather extraordinary mating routine was one of the reasons the conservationist “became a little bit obsessed” with the creatures.

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Marine Conservation Cambodia believes it may have discovered a new sub-species.  Photo Supplied

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Of the six batches nursed, two have been lost to power cuts.  Alexander Crook

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Marine biologist Zac Calef inspects a tank as part of the seahorse breeding program.  Alexander Crook

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Experts say the breeding habits of seahorses have changed due to trawling.  Alexander Crook

With heads bowed, they touch noses before swirling around each other. They then halt, the two tangerine and coral bodies forming a heart shape, before the female impregnates the male with her sack of eggs. He then carries the offspring for weeks, before giving birth to a batch of around 300 “fry”, or baby seahorses.

Ferber, the founder and director of Marine Conservation Cambodia (MCC), one of the country’s oldest marine conservation projects with research based around the islands of Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloan, wants his tattoos to make a statement about the illegal fishing that plagues Cambodia’s coastline, stripping the country of its seahorse population at an alarming rate.

“I got [the tattoos] in 2008, when MCC was born, and we were starting up our conservation work. They said to these guys, ‘I’m here to look after the seahorses’. The word got around pretty quickly, so [the tattoos] were very much symbolic of the work I was doing and what I wanted to achieve . . . And if I turned up, the fishermen would do a runner.”

The protection of the creature was the raison d’etre for the creation of Ferber’s organisation, which has worked with the government and other NGOs to help establish Cambodia’s first 300-square-kilometre Marine Fisheries Management Area (MFMA) flanking Preah Sihanouk province’s coastline, which is still being developed.

After spending years diving and scouring the sublime reefs of the Perentian Islands in northern Malaysia and southern Thailand, when Ferber arrived in Cambodia in 2007, he was less than impressed with the quality of diving.

“After the first 10 or 15 times I agreed it was s—, but when you go further out and explore, it’s absolutely stunning. I’ve always been obsessed with finding the things that are hard to see or find . . . and when we went deeper and further out, we found schools and schools of seahorses . . . They hadn’t really been seen or talked about before, and it put Cambodia on the diving map.”

Ferber and others identified up to seven seahorse species in the grassy seabeds around Sihanoukville,  Kampot and the islands.

However, experts say the number of seahorses in Cambodia is rapidly dwindling. With ocean floors scraped by illegal trawlers and fishermen, the delicate animals are caught, then dried and sold for up to 10,000 riel a piece. They are then used in traditional medicine in China and Vietnam – one of the most common ingredients used to treat impotence, kidney and urinary infections, high blood pressure and even baldness.

The Fisheries Administration in 2008 listed seahorses as an endangered species, making it illegal to fish for them.  However, the director of the department, Ouk Vibol, says the decimation of seahorses is still underway, and it will take years to restore swathes of the creatures’ habitat.

“Over recent years, there has been a great focus on freshwater endangered species, and the Fisheries Administration conservation efforts in this area have been seeing very good progress . . . MCC have been researching Cambodia’s seahorses and marine habitats for over four years, and now this has brought attention to the decline of Cambodia’s seahorse populations . . . and is the reason we listed them as endangered.”

MCC diving research teams have only recorded two species in the last few years, a further sign “numbers are dropping dramatically”, according to Ferber.

Last June, he and marine biologist Zac Calef secured a licence from the Fisheries Administration and started their ambitious seahorse-breeding program, the first marine breeding project in the country. The results have caught the attention of international experts.

Although the project is still in its infant stages, the pair successfully bred a pair of Hippocampus Spinossisimus six times – the latest brood hatched last Wednesday – and eventually aim to re-release the animals back into the wild when the MFMA is enforced. They also believe they have discovered a new sub-species.

Last year, Neil Garrick-Maidment, the executive director of UK organisation the Seahorse Trust, and Irish marine biologist Kealan Doyle visited the breeding project, set up in a room adjacent to Ferber’s Sihanoukville home.

“You know Paul – he’s not your regular conservationist. You see the tattoos, the shaved head, then you start to talk to him over a beer and you realise his passion for marine conservation is just phenomenal. He is really just so passionate about Cambodia’s environment.

“The creatures here are just so, so different and unique. Some of the research they have uncovered are world firsts,” Garrick-Maidment said.

He and Doyle have been integral to a global push, via documentaries screened on Chinese airlines and through social media, to stop seahorse poaching and to encourage “conservation through cultivation” – in other words, the intention to meet the demand for specimens through cultivated seahorses.

Doyle last year spent months in China visiting traditional medicine shops undercover and discovered that globally the number of seahorses has been declining at a rate of 80 per cent since the early 1990s and has been greatly underestimated. He said the number of seahorses being sold in Guangzhou alone was 20 million per year – the number CITES  (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) list as the worldwide figure.

One of the biggest revelations MCC’s research has uncovered is the way breeding habits of seahorses, who are known to be monogamous, have evolved in Cambodia, according to Garrick-Maidment.

“Because of the trawling, there has been nothing for them to live on, on the seabed. Seahorses usually stay in the one area and are highly territorial. But in these areas, they are forced to live on pencil urchin, which moves around, so they are not forming partnerships or territories – they are basically becoming promiscuous, which is a huge revelation. We’re watching this species evolve directly due to the trawling.”

He said he was shocked at the devastation the waters surrounding Sihanoukville had encountered.

“The reports that I have been sent by Zac and Paul show that Cambodian waters have been completely denuded of seahorses. The amount of pollution and rubbish there too, I was stunned, I wouldn’t dip a toe in the Sihanoukville waters. The breeding and the re-release will make a big difference to the local population, as long as it goes alongside the MFMA protection. There’s no point putting the seahorses back into the wild if they are fished out again.”

Back in the breeding facility, the delicate Hippocampus Spinossisimus hovers, weightless, almost aglow with vivid leopard spots.

“They’re true chameleons, they can change colour and completely camouflage . . . which is why they’re so hard to find in the wild . . . so elusive,” Ferber says. “They’re just fascinating.”

Calef breaks open a capsule of Doxycycline and tips it into another tank of 13-day-old fry.

“Much of this just hasn’t been done before, so we’re coming up with solutions, such as if they get bacterial infections or are sick . . . and even ways to replicate habitat, ourselves,” he says.

Diseases come on quickly and spread rapidly, killing the animal before any signs emerge. Of the last fix batches of seahorses nursed, two were lost due to power cuts. Two large fry have survived from the third batch – which they believe is a new sub-species but are awaiting confirmation. The fourth all died, and about 60 per cent have survived from the final batch, which is still young.

“Experts have said that it took them many, many broods before they managed to have one survive, so we’re having success at the very early stages, which is exciting. Only one or two out of a thousand survive in the wild,” he said.

In the next few months, Ferber plans to move the mission into Sihanoukville’s new “state-of-the-art”, JICA-funded aquaculture centre.

“I would agree with Kealan, that if the trawling continues and there’s no protection, that they’ll be wiped out. The last trawler I spoke to said they hardly picked up any in their last bi-catch, which is a huge worry and a sign they are depleting. They used to get over 50 per catch, and now it is usually under 10.”

It’s sad news for a creature Garrick-Maidment believes formed the foundation of Chinese legends.

“If you look at old artistic pictures, you can see the resemblance. Look at the beautiful sea dragons off Australia – when they feed them, it looks like smoke [is] coming out in plumes out their gills, just like a fire-breathing dragon.

“Seahorses are a very enigmatic animal; they have so many secrets, not much is really know about them, but we’re learning a great deal every day.” 

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