By Howard Lee
Most stories start with a little whisper, a friend’s share on Facebook. Such was the case for The Dorsal Effect, a personal effort by Kathy Xu to increase awareness about the harm of shark finning and to hit at the root of the issue – the shark fishing industry. Kathy has spent much of her time and resources trying to set-up an ecotourism business for the people of Lombok, Indonesia, in a bid to move them towards more sustainable sources of income. I threw Kathy ten questions about the project to see if she would, erm, bite…
Tell us a little about this project.
The Dorsal Effect started after I have been volunteering with Shark Savers Singapore for two years now. I decided to do something on the supply side of the shark finning industry beyond the demand side work that we are already doing in educational outreach, where I go to schools to give presentations and talks to students about shark conservation and the need to stop eating shark fin soup. After making a few trips to Lombok to check out the shark finning and fishing situation in Lombok, Indonesia, I decided to quit my job as a secondary school teacher and focus on building an ecotourism business to turn things around, with a two prong approach of helping save the depleting shark populations, and giving the shark fishermen, who are being exploited by boat owners, a chance at earning sustainable and meaningful livelihood that could provide their future generations with a chance to learn English with increased tourism in the area, too.
How did you guys came together, and how long have you been working on this?
I am currently working on this on my own and have been looking around for potential partners, although I have been very blessed with very giving and helpful friends who have been giving me advise and help along the way as they believe in the cause for saving sharks as well.
What is your goal for doing this?
So that our future generations can still see sharks alive and have a chance to realize how misunderstood these beautiful creatures really are. To give people a chance to take action by coming on trips with us beyond just saying no to shark fin soup.
You know the usual refrain – There are bigger bread-and-butter issues in Singapore to worry about, why waste your time trying to save animals, and in a far-away place, for that matter?
Haha! Very good question indeed, because since giving up the job, I have been worrying about money every once in a while and wondering if this will all be worth it. I must admit to having been frustrated several times along the way so far, but I’m still trying to keep sane and focused on the cause. I just came back from a third trip to Lombok, met with some people and tried to made some headway with the project. There are lots of follow-ups to do but the trip has given me direction again after having been feeling a little lost and frustrated in recent months.
How far away are you from your goal? What were some of the challenges you have encountered?
With a big dream like this, it would take several years to turn the lifestyle around in Tanjung Luar, Lombok, I’d reckon. With every trip I make to Lombok, I find it extremely hard to talk to enough fishermen and boat owners and trying to sound as friendly as possible without them seeing me as a foreigner and threat to the way things are. Language barrier plays a very big part as well, and the fact that Tanjung Luar supplies seafood all around the region makes it hard to shift things there. The fin traders are also a challenge since my business model does not yet include having them getting a part of the pie. I’d need to refurbish the shark boats to make them tourist safe and friendly as well but the boat owners are an elusive bunch. For ecotourism to be a viable alternative livelihood, I would need the help of the government to preserve the waters around Lombok as a shark sanctuary so ecotourism can safely be carried out – that engagement remains difficult, since I am only one person. I am hoping to seek the help of the Indonesian embassy in Singapore to move things forward.
You are travelling to see this through, organising eco-tourism groups, and there are no doubt other expenses involved. How do you get the money for this?
As mentioned earlier, I have already given up my day job to commit to doing this, so expenses is the greatest challenge to me so far, but I really do see potential in Tanjung Luar especially since tourism is going to boom in Lombok in a couple of years with more direct flights into Lombok from more countries, so I seek a wide customer base other than those in Singapore. About money, I have been putting myself in several business and start-up and social venture competitions and programmes, and meeting with as many people as possible through networking sessions to try make headway in terms of meeting potential investors or winning seed money funding. I am currently still with SIF’s Young Social Entrepreneurs Programme after making it through the first round of presentations. The final pitch will be in October after a series of business clinics, so hopefully I can win some seed funding for The Dorsal Effect through that.
Do you see any future business potential for yourself in this? Thinking you might be gunning for a for-profit social enterprise here.
You are right, there, and of course I do see potential – I have to, right, since I have given everything into this already?
Worst case scenario – What if you do not manage to raise the funds you need?
I don’t want to think about that for now, jut ploughing my way through as much and as far as I can.
What else are you working on besides The Dorsal Effect?
I am currently still running the educational outreach arm of Shark Savers Singapore and still making presentation to schools as I believe the demand side is still an important part to stop the trade of shark fishing and finning. I love it best when students come up to tell us after the presentations that they will not eat shark fin soup ever again and would go home to tell their parents about it.
What message do you have for Singaporeans who are thinking of doing something similar?
It will be tough and I am still working at it without results yet. But if you believe enough in something in spite of whatever inadequacies you have, something will come out of it, even if it is not going to be what you first envisioned. Allow the business model to change as and when you get good advise from others who are better and in the know, but never lose sight of the first love and reason for why you are doing it. It will be awfully tough without the money but hey, that would make great stories for the grandchildren next time, even if you fail eventually, right?
More information about The Dorsal Effect can be found at www.thedorsaleffect.com. Support the project by liking Kathy’s Facebook page (www.facebook.com/