Malaysia: Nature lovers trail after poachers in bid to deter illegal hunting

Natalie Heng The Star 22 Jan 13;

Volunteers are reclaiming the wilderness from poachers through recreation.

IN THE fading light, Muna Noor’s 4WD is hurtling down the tarmac. The road is long and narrow, and dramatic limestone karst formations rise up on either side of us.

It will take at least five hours to get from Kuala Lumpur to Taman Negara Sungai Relau in Merapoh, Pahang, but Muna does this drive as often as she can because when she’s at home, all that she can think about is, the jungle.

“I just keep thinking that every week, if I don’t do it, there could be poachers out there. Every time we go into the forest, we make a difference. What we do, it really counts.”

Our destination is the Sungai Yu Tiger Corridor, an important but unprotected stretch of forested land, 15km south of the entrance to Taman Negara Sungai Relau. Tigers pass through this area when they move between two of Malaysia’s great tiger landscapes – the forests of the Main Range and Greater Taman Negara.

Rich in wildlife, the area is vulnerable to poaching because it is surrounded by stateland forest which anyone can enter without a permit.

This spot has never been frequented by hikers as there are no attractions, such as waterfalls, nearby. Neither do the orang asli, who live further away, frequent it – which leaves the forest nice and quiet for poachers.

“The idea is that if we can get more people to use these forests for recreation, this will deter poachers from setting up traps there,” explains Muna.

A friend had introduced her to the Cat (Citizen Action for Tigers) Walks which she now leads. Formerly the editorial director of a new media publishing house, her life has always been fast-paced. After leaving the company and before starting her new job, she had time to spare and so dived head first into the world of tiger conservation.

Started by the Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers (Mycat), Cat Walks are made for people like Muna – urban dwellers who feel helpless and frustrated with news of the forest being drained of its wildlife by illegal hunters. Instead of just giving their cheques to the conservation body of their choice, and wondering how much money will go towards administration costs, they can get out into the field, and make a direct impact.

The walks take place along jungle routes that are quiet and secluded, and so, preferred by poachers. Many of those who hunt in the Sungai Yu corridor are thought to be opportunistic.

Therefore, the idea is that if they know they are being watched, they would be deterred from poaching. The Cat Walks have made a difference, because every time trekkers encounter suspicious activities, they make a report to the Wildlife Crime Hotline (019-356 4194 / report@malayantiger.net). In 2011, such reports resulted in raids, arrests and the removal of snares.

Mycat senior programme officer Ashleigh Seow is the guy who identifies potential Cat Walk trails. To do so, he says, you have to think like a poacher. He finds new routes by driving up and down the road, exploring potential access points, and studying maps. Once he has found a good track, he maps it out on the GPS for the next Cat Walk.

Cat Walkers are made up of volunteers. Any reasonably fit member of the public can join the leisurely, weekend hike. And it’s cheap.

“Usually, people have to pay a lot of money for guides and experts like Ashleigh, who has so much knowledge and motivation,” Muna points out.

Volunteers often carpool from Kuala Lumpur (or some other departure point), or take the bus or train. “All you really need to pay for is petrol and accommodation, which, if you stay in the hostel at Taman Negara, costs about RM15 a night.”

All walks of life

When we pull up at our destination in Taman Negara Sungai Relau, night has fallen, so we grab a quick Milo and then it’s time for bed. The next morning, we meet the rest of the volunteers. Six employees of pewter company Royal Selangor are on the company’s second trip, organised under its corporate social responsibility programme. Product designer Tan Jooi Chong, 59, is the most experienced of the group. A nature guide with the Malaysian Nature Society, he first heard about Cat Walks through a fellow guide, Seow. He then put forward the idea of incorporating Cat Walks into his company’s campaign, and now they plan to do one company Cat Walk every three or four months.

Also in the group is David Chin, 55, who learnt about Cat Walks from The Star’s Do Good. Volunteer campaign. Chin has done two walks and now that he has retired from working in the welfare industry, he hopes to lead some walks in the future. Both Tan and Chin are relatively experienced nature walkers, but there are some in the group who aren’t. For Hilda Rozali, a communications retail executive who usually spends her free time curled up with a book, this will be her very first time in the jungle. It is the diverse mix of people – students, travellers, retirees and managing directors – that make Cat Walks fun.

After breakfast, we load ourselves into a convoy of jeeps. We drive past breathtaking landscapes before pulling up into a small track off the road, where Muna gives us a prep-talk. She started off as a Cat Walker, before attending a Cat Walk trip leader workshop, where she learned to read maps, use a GPS, identify animal tracks and potential snare and trap sites, as well as what to do if a trapped animal is encountered. This will be the second Cat Walk that she is leading.

“Animals you are most likely to encounter: leeches. Your best friend? Mud … (it) gives you a much better chance of spotting animal tracks. And if we encounter an elephant, remember, NO flash photography. We don’t want to accidentally startle them and risk being charged at.”

Following instructions, everyone sets off up a steep slope, diligently making sure the person behind us is visible at all times. As soon as we make it to flat ground again, we find our first trap – a small, inconspicuous loop of string that tightens like a noose when set off by small animals. Muna whips out her GPS, and starts taking down the coordinates to be submitted later to the Wildlife Crime Hotline.

Alias, an orang asli from a local Batek tribe who is guiding us, has keen eyes, and soon spots dozens more traps up ahead. One was tightened around a small bone – Seow suspects it to be that of a great Argus pheasant, a large ground bird.

“The first time we visited the trail up ahead, we found an Argus feather, so we named the logging road the Feather Trail. And then we found this side trail, and lots of bird traps, so we called this place, Bird Valley.”

The traps keep appearing, and soon we find something more chilling – a metal wire snare, along with the dug-out hole it had probably been set up at.

“Wire snares suggest hunters are looking for big, strong animals,” explains Seow.

The number of traps we discover along this route surprises even Muna, who says this is more traps than she’s encountered on any Cat Walk thus far. Most of the traps have already been deactivated, possibly by a Mycat researcher who has previously been through. Seow thinks the Bird Valley trail might have actually been created by poachers, because it doesn’t go anywhere.

“There is no village around here, the trail just leads to an old logging road.”

The Wildlife and National Parks Department (Perhilitan) has since sealed the logging road off, preventing jeeps from driving in via the road.

A gruesome find

As we continue walking, everyone is excited to find bear claw marks up a tree. But as we round the corner, things take a dark turn. Lying on the ground is a foot-long skull, tinged green with algae. All around it are bones and what look like large, curved, cat claws. Silence falls as the group collects around the area and Seow asks Muna to send pictures via her Blackberry to alert the Wildlife Crime Hotline, which would then inform Perhilitan. Everyone seems a little shaken, most of all Muna. This is precisely why she is so committed to doing Cat Walks, to deter poachers from going in there and setting up traps.

Perhilitan officers arrived at the scene about two hours later. They note the location so that they can investigate further. The Cat Walkers move on, filled with conviction.

The rest of the three-day trip was full of fun activities – lunch and a swim by the river, an excursion to a cave, and camera-trap maintenance, with opportunities to check out the amazing footage (there were tigers, elephants and panthers).

We ended the trip exhausted, but filled with memorable experiences. But most of all, we left knowing that what we had encountered in the forest was proof that what Muna said was true: What we do counts.

(After studying pictures of the skull, Mycat thinks it could be that of a black leopard. It says poachers could have intentionally left the animal to rot, in order to attract a bigger predator, such as the tiger.)

To join a Cat Walk, go to facebook.com/the malayantiger or malayantiger.net or contact Wong Pui May at may@malayantiger.net or 03-7880 3940.

Local threat

RESEARCH by the Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers (Mycat) has revealed the disturbing absence of tiger prey species such as the sambar deer, in the Sungai Yu Tiger Corridor. It says the locals generally know who the poachers are. While conducting research, Mycat was told where the poachers live, and that wild meat could be found in restaurants along Federal Route 8 (Gua Musang Highway).

“When Mycat conducted school outreach programmes in Sungai Yu, we found that the children are familiar with snares and know how and where they are set,” said Mycat general manager Dr Kae Kawanishi.

The local poachers are opportunistic, and are likely to stop if they know they are being watched, according to Kawanishi. Though the Wildlife and National Parks Department has previously raided a restaurant and houses in the area, people tend to start poaching again once the fear has dissipated because most of the time, illegal activities go undetected.

MYCAT wants the Pahang Forestry Department to gazette the stateland forests in the corridor as Permanent Reserved Forests. “The importance of the corridor has been recognised as it has been identified as Primary Linkage 1 in the Central Forest Spine Masterplan,” Kawanishi adds.

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