The Problem-Solving Ecologist Puts his Mark on RER
Tony Sebastian is not one to shy away from challenges. He seeks them out. In his more than 30-year career as a wildlife ecologist and conservation planning specialist, he has built a reputation for being outspoken yet pragmatic, has displayed a willingness to confront entrenched opinion, and is strongly driven to achieve meaningful environmental outcomes.
From restoring the crane habitat in Iran’s Southern Caspian region, writing the wetland restoration guidelines for China, to his present work with APRIL’s team of ecologists to restore and nurture the ecologically-rich Kampar Peninsula as an adviser to Restorasi Ekosistem Riau (RER), he commits to a dogged determination to deliver once he sets his sights on a goal. “Purpose is about willpower to do it,” he says.
His belief matches APRIL’s ambition for the 150,000-ha RER project. “Landscape scale restoration is highly ambitious and expensive. Governments struggle with restoration on their own. The task is simply too big. There is no doubt partnerships are required for restoration”. He adds: “The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals clearly recognise the need for a system where businesses and communities can flourish at the same time as protecting priceless species and ecosystems. I really don’t think there is any other way”.
“Not anyone can do it. Big companies are the ones with the resources to manage land at this scale. What is needed is to give these companies the incentives to do so. APRIL’s expressed commitments demonstrate this necessary determination, and resonate with my own objectives and principles.”
His fascination with the environment began at a young age when his biologist father gifted him a pair of binoculars. “Dad gave me a guidebook too, and by the time I was 12 years old, I had seen most of the birds in my area using those binoculars,” Tony recalls.
“We lived in a town called Marudi, along the Baram River, not far from Borneo’s Gunung Mulu National Park. The giant rainforest was at my doorstep. Deer entered our backyard, snakes slithered into our bedrooms, and owls flew into our kitchen. It was never a dull moment,” he adds.
By the time he entered school, he had made up his mind to work with birds and forests.
His fascination with birds saw him studying the white-bellied eagle, providing the material for his dissertation. In a career defining moment, he would join the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) while a student, eventually becoming its President 20 years later.
Established in 1940, the MNS is Malaysia’s largest and oldest nature society. As President, he would lead the society’s charge for the preservation and management of Malaysia’s single largest forested landscape, prompting public scrutiny and eventual government action. His leadership generated media attention and established his reputation as one of Malaysia’s most outspoken advocates for conservation. “During my time in this role, I learnt that making an impact not only had to do with applying scientific knowledge, but it is about managing and inspiring people,” he says.
His work has taken him to 17 Asian and Mid-Eastern countries. Among his more memorable stints was a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) project in Iran between 2000 and 2004. He recalls the stunning scenery of coniferous forests and alpine meadows, from beaches to rice fields and orchards, to snow-capped peaks. Amid this varied and magnificent landscape, a huge task lay at hand – to restore the Siberian crane habitat there. Ecologists did not want this to go the way of the Caspian tiger, which was last seen in the 1960s, and officially declared extinct in 2003.
“It was a deeply sombre conservation project, because the crane was eventually lost. The world did however learn some valuable lessons about restoring habitats and saving species,” he says.
Years later, in 2007, an Asian Development Bank (ADB) project took him to northeast China’s Amur wetlands. The team was tasked to restore farmlands back to wetland. “It turned me into a bit of a wetland restoration expert,” he says, adding that he subsequently wrote the National wetland restoration guidelines for China in 2011.
By then, he had clocked in decades of rich experience and with it, a priceless global view on tackling environmental issues.
So, when APRIL invited him to be one of its advisors to the RER programme, he jumped at the opportunity to bundle up his wealth of knowledge and take it back to his home region of Southeast Asia, where it had all started. He joined the RER in 2016 as a Technical Adviser to the programme, and member of the Advisory Board.
“RER is chiefly about managing an intact forest landscape. APRIL’s explicit desire to do this is an assurance of sustainability,” he says. “When you have reached their size as a company, your obligations to the world are equally large.”
As RER’s Technical Adviser, he says that large companies should keep in mind that to be efficient and credible, you need to build your own capacity. “Through that, you are taking ownership of the project. You are building your strength, and equipping yourself with the core capability to drive the process.”
He feels that restoration is misunderstood, and there is a need to explain the idea.
“Landscape restoration will never be about replicating the forest’s original state. We need to set our objectives and work towards them. Restoration is really about re-establishing ecosystem functions, where these have been degraded or lost.”
RER is already making a significant progress, he notes. “It has taken several years, but we now have a much more comprehensive understanding of what the Kampar wetlands are. What lives in it, how it functions, and where things need fixing. This baseline is the most important thing to be done, because we cannot restore the landscape without understanding its nature and functions intimately.”
He is buoyed by progress. “Kampar is a large landscape, which makes it all the more worth restoring. With large landscapes, the positive impact is greater and the work is more efficient – you have more chance of success when you are operating at large scales.
“The clue is in the title – landscape scale restoration. We need more businesses with the resources and motivation to join this movement and help protect wide swathes of rich biodiversity, and at the same time, thrive commercially.”