Nurturing young environmentalists

Nurturing young environmentalists

There were no stars that night but the children dazzled. Fully charged, 100 of them recited poems, sang songs and danced on the beach, marking the completion of an environmental programme and the start of a new chapter in their lives.

As the children of Langkawi performed in front of their families, teachers and friends, they were stepping into their new roles as facilitators to many hundreds of students on the island.

After spending six months to learning about the ecology of their island and working to preserve her delicate environment, they will in turn teach others about its ecosystem, its fascinating flora and fauna as well as sustainable development.

It’s a tough calling for these young teens but one where they will shine in for their guru is none other than the Jungle Wallah of Langkawi, Irshad Mobarak.

A resident naturalist at a resort on the island, Irshad is one of the five DiGi Amazing Malaysians 2007, selected for his tireless efforts to preserve the environment of Langkawi.

Each year DiGi selects five Malaysians — one each for natural, cultural, art, built and social heritages — who stand out in their daily lives as Malaysians who are exceptional.

A former banker, Irshad quit his job 16 years ago after a trip to Langkawi and what followed suit.

“I had a dream. I was standing at a crossroad. There was a woman there who was very sick. She had many children,” he recalls.

After much though, Irshad made the decision to save ailing Mother Nature. He has since remained on the island, learning first-hand from scientists who stopped here to do research. A popular character in Langkawi, he has undertaken many projects like educating fishermen on sustainable marine ecosystems that would eventually ensure the future of their livelihood.

He has a soft spot for the Great Hornbill and spends a lot of time monitoring them and keeping an eye out for poachers.

Started in June last year, the DiGi programme involved 100 children who dedicated time and energy as volunteers. Divided into three groups, they worked every other Saturday to restore and sustain the natural heritage of the island.

The first group, called the Wildlife Rangers, collected soil and water samples from various locations and compared the different levels of bio-indicators such as dissolved oxygen, phosphates, nitrates and pH readings.

The second group, Nature’s Scribes, documented the range of animals and plant species. Their findings will be published as brochures for tourists.

Finally, the Tree Doctors collected seeds and saplings from the jungles. These have been planted in strategic stretches to create “wildlife corridors”.

“Years of development have taken away much from Langkawi. About 49 per cent of wildlife has already been lost,” laments Irshad.

For him, the ever-shrinking jungles of Langkawi is a major concern. Originally one verdant swathe of land, today it has been divided into five individual pockets of habitat, each cut off from the other. This means that the variety of wildlife is now confined in these five individual areas, a situation that can bring on a host of problems, some already at danger level.

“The five separated habitats cause inbreeding, which weakens animals and plant species, eventually leading to extinction. The hornbill, for instance, is an indicator species. Fifty-three per cent of its diet comes from the fig tree, another 17 per cent from other types of fruit and 30 per cent from lizards, small snakes and insects. “No forest, no hornbills,” states Irshad plainly.

With 5,000 trees to be planted and nurtured all over the island, it’s a big 10-year plan but one that Irshad has pinned his hopes on as these wildlife corridors will provide animals with a bigger habitat.

“Langkawi is presently on the threshold. It could go any way,” he says, a glint of hope shining in his eyes.

On the morning of the last day of the programme, the children arrived in three school buses at the foot of Gunung Raya, for the launch of their mobile activity centre where meetings would be held and projects carried out.

The brand new Interpretive Centre is a 12m long cabin colourful, hand-painted mural of animals found on the island.

The location of the activity centre is significant. At 890m, Gunung Raya is the tallest peak on the island, offering 5,000ha of pristine forest with a diverse variety of animals and plants.

Currently the cabin holds a good collection of books for hardcore environmentalists, modules, magnifying glasses, binoculars and nets. The recently-cleared land before the cabin would be developed into a camping-cum-star gazing spot.

The Malaysian Nature Society, which heads DiGi’s environment project, would continue planning activities for the children. From the start, its team of five people has been flying in every month to work with the children.

“Developing an interest in conservation work should start at an early age. Children are naturally curious about plants, birds and animals,” says Irshad. “We should take the opportunity to teach them about why it’s important to preserve and sustain the environment.”

Over the last six months, he noticed changes in the children. If, at first, they volunteered “for fun” or because somebody told them to, they now display genuine concern and a deep understanding of how nature works.

“The best way to get children to love the environment is to take them out into the jungles, the hills and the mangrove swamps and show them her wonders,” Irshad says.

Like all children, they had fun getting their hands dirty, walking through the mangrove swamp, planting trees, even getting a leech bite or two. They enjoyed removing plants from black plastic bags and planting them in a hole in the ground to create the wildlife corridors.

But Irshad noticed in their quick steps, the alacrity displayed and the smiles on their faces, a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. They were indeed doing something for this place they called home.

“The children know it’s a two-way relationship. We take care of nature and she provides for us,” he says.

Sunday People – News Strait Times
by RACHAEL PHILIP – Feb 24, 2008.