By Kae Kawanishi – General Manager/Head of Conservation MYCAT
A team of MYCAT senior staff came out of the interview room and reported, “Kae, he’s a keeper, but watch out … he’s like you.” By that, they meant that he’s strong willed and very independent (not stubborn and non-cooperative).
Through my 18 years of experience in the struggle to save wildlife in Malaysia, I have realised that if the fate of the Malayan tiger was dependent on the government and a handful of conservation professionals like us, they will go extinct in my lifetime. If the laws are blatantly ignored and often unenforced in the busy capital of Malaysia, what chance do wildlife living in remote forests have?
So don’t expect law enforcement to change the world. We have to give ordinary people a chance to take action and make a difference for causes they care about. If they don’t care about Nature, then they are ignorant of the inter-connectedness of all lives and inorganic natural forces. The best way to appreciate this is through experience, being exposed to these forces and immersed in the dynamic energy of the diversity of lives – out there in the jungle. It doesn’t take days. I can see the sense of self-enlightenment awakening in the CAT Walkers’ eyes after just one weekend in the Sungai Yu Tiger Corridor. The resilient beauty of the Malaysian rainforest is reflected in their eyes – nothing inspires me more than those sparks these days.
We started CAT Walk in 2010 to suppress opportunistic poaching at a critical tiger corridor and encroachment into Malaysia’s largest national park, Taman Negara. This is where I spent the first three years of my life in Malaysia between 1998 and 2001. I fell in love with the forest – or more precisely, how I fit in the forest – in this world.
I wanted people to come and feel the sheer life force of the jungle, be exposed and inspired so that they will return to the city humbled, knowing we are vested with this power and intelligence not just to destroy but to defend and educate, self-driven by our intrinsic love for Nature.
Then CAT Walk caught on! Over 1,000 volunteers from 31 countries came and walked some 2,000 km of the forest, protecting wildlife from snares and documenting the return of endangered species. Their persistent presence over the years has forced the poachers and traders to operate elsewhere. The volunteers patrolling at the border of the park allowed the park rangers to focus more in the interior of the huge park (twice the size of Snowdonia, UK). The regular stream of eco-tourists improves the local tourism economy. And we are happy because wildlife is back.
Through MYCAT’s citizen conservation programme, people are making a difference. With a modest beginning of 10 volunteers in 2005, MYCAT has so far trained over 1,500 volunteers to conduct outreach programmes at schools and public places. We equip the volunteers with the necessary information and materials to educate the public.
In 2013, a young Englishman came to volunteer at an outreach programme in Kuala Lumpur. One of his tasks was to promote and recruit CAT Walkers, and he became one himself in the subsequent month. He returned in 2014 to assist us in surveying the corridor for wildlife and poaching hotspots. At this time, he was with a Malaysian intern, Harrison Ooi, living with and learning from the Bateq, a semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer tribe. He fell in love with the forest and the Bateq way of life, and lived with them on and off as much as his tourist visa and finances allowed. As a man, of course, he would not say he “fell in love” with the forest.
Spirited by the forest, he approached MYCAT again this year, seeking an opportunity to help wildlife at Sungai Yu.
He wrote to MYCAT:
“MYCAT is fighting for tigers, and to restore and secure the ecological linkage that connects the two largest tiger landscapes in Malaysia, at Sungai Yu. The Bateq are fighting to preserve their customs, culture and identity. The forest is an integral part of their identity, a source of history, their sense of place in the world, medicines, food and materials for shelter. Forests are fundamental prerequisites for the survival of both tigers and the Bateq. As an ardent traveller, I have lived semi-nomadically in the forests of the Sungai Yu region, on and off, for the past three years. I have a strong personal connection to the forests here. I see the snares, signs of animals caught and huge beautiful trees felled. I want to see no more. Now is the time for action and I want in on the action.”
Our office is small with five full-time staff and no vacancy. So he continued volunteering, surveying the forest and leading CAT Walks. He reminded me of myself at that age. When I decided to join the Malaysian Wildlife Department to better understand and protect Taman Negara and tigers, I volunteered full-time for 13 months while the government figured out a way to hire a Japanese citizen, living off donations and a grant from the Save the Tiger Fund.
The truth is that while he was “falling in love” with the forest, I was struggling to protect the same forest. So much of it was stripped and damaged by the construction of the elevated highway (Sungai Yu eco-viaducts). The “eco-viaduct” can’t be “eco” unless we bring back the forest, and the next logical course of action towards restoring this ecological linkage was precisely that. But I am a wildlife biologist who knows nothing about reforestation.
With his academic background and working experience in forest management in the UK, this volunteer helped MYCAT to draft a plan to reforest the most critical area of the corridor, which was recently endorsed by the Malaysian government. We were left with no choice but to hire this man for the project. His persistence and patience for his passion were answered.
What he wrote in his job application:
“Ensuring the preservation of the ecological linkage and healthy forests for both tigers and the Bateq to live and traverse, move freely around, in and through, has wide social and environmental implications.
Ecologically, the tiger is a symbol of a larger, healthy, functioning ecosystem. However, their symbolism in the Malaysian context extends even further still with cultural and environmental preservation so intimately entwined. The wild tiger, as part of the Malaysian landscape and national psyche, holds great awe, reverence and power. It is woven into ancient stories and mythology, history, national symbols and identity.
The loss of the tiger would symbolise much more than the loss of this magnificent animal itself. Let us create a society and protect the environment, physically and politically, land and law, to ensure its continued survival.”
What a privilege it is to give someone an opportunity to explore the meaning of our existence and defend the wildness within us and outside, including tigers and their forest. Alex Jack from England will join MYCAT as a full-time staff to lead the Sungai Yu Reforestation Project. His new journey has just begun.
“Have a dream, I will support you.” Those were the powerful words of Alan Rabinowitz, a renowned tiger conservationist, to me when I was finishing up my PhD. Funny, how what goes around comes around.
Where in Asia can you bring back tigers and their forests? Here in Sungai Yu, we will. That’s our dream. The reforestation of the most critical habitat within the corridor requires GBP100,000 for the next three years. If you’d like to contribute, please contact us at email@example.com.
On Global Tiger Day, July 29th 2016, we are launching the reforestation project at Sungai Yu Tiger Corridor. You are all invited.