Malaysia: The joys and benefits of observing nature

ROZANA SANI New Straits Times 6 Jun 18;

IMAGINE yourself as a child with low-speed Internet connection at home. You can’t play online games or watch videos. What do you do to keep yourself entertained?

For Universiti of Malaya (UM) undergraduate Tan Kai Ren, the answer was to join his neighbourhood friends explore their backyard every evening after school.

“I have always had an interest in nature and the environment since I was in primary school. My backyard truly opened my eyes to the endless possibilities of biodiversity as it is connected to the Ayer Hitam Forest Reserve, a 1,182.07ha forest under the management of Universiti Putra Malaysia.

“After taking my Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia exams, I became involved in several environmental non-governmental organisations, such as Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers (MYCAT), WWF-Malaysia and EcoKnights, which gave me a better understanding of environmental conservation and further fuelled my motivation to pursue this field,” said the third-year ecology and biodiversity student at UM.

Tan’s latest foray in biodiversity-related activities not only satisfied his love for nature but gave him global recognition in the world of urban biodiversity conservation.

At Malaysia’s maiden showing at City Nature Challenge 2018 — an international effort for people to find and document plants and wildlife in cities across the globe — Tan came out as top observer.

Besides Tan, three other Malaysians made the world Top 5 observers at City Nature Challenge 2018. Second place went to Thary Gazi, a PhD candidate and entomologist at UM, fourth place went to Affan Nasaruddin, founder and project officer of Water Warriors, a UM Living Lab; while Benjamin Ong of UM’s Rimba Project took fifth place.

“Observations basically means the number of observations that have been made throughout the four days of the challenge. I made 4,872 observations throughout the period,” he said.

The City Nature Challenge 2018 was carried out from April 27 to 30 in almost 70 cities around the world, all mobilising their residents and visitors to go out and document nature.

The Klang Valley was the first Malaysian and Southeast Asian urban metro area to participate in the challenge. Coorganised by the Rimba Project and UM’s Water Warriors, the Klang Valley City Nature Challenge (KVCNC) aimed to reconnect urban communities with nature and advocate for urban wildlife and biodiversity conservation.

A total of 685 Malaysians participated. At least 300 of these were school students. The event spanned the entire Klang Valley, defined as the sum of 10 municipalities: Kuala Lumpur, Petaling Jaya, Shah Alam, Subang Jaya, Klang, Sepang, Putrajaya, Ampang, Selayang and Kajang.

To enter the challenge, participants had to download an app, snap a photo of flora or fauna and post it on a specified website.

There were three types of participants: observers, species finders and identifiers. Observers are those who have contributed images or records of flora or fauna. Species-finders are those who are able to find different types of species, while identifiers could identify or name observations made by not only themselves, but also others.

“When Rimba Project founder Benjamin Ong approached me to be part of the team to organise the Klang Valley City Nature Challenge 2018 in Malaysia, he said the goal of the event was to give us baseline data of urban biodiversity in the Klang Valley.

“The data we have collected can now serve as a complimentary checklist of species composition as it is collected by many amateur scientists, which might be useful for actual research work,” he said.

Recalling the effort he put in during the four-day challenge, Tan said despite juggling his final year project with the preparation, it was well worth it.

“During preparation, KVCNC team members were already aware of the goals we needed to achieve for this year, even though this will be our first year participating. Therefore, months before the event, I started to practice using the iNaturalist app to observe and record the flora and fauna around me. The practice gave me a certain advantage compared with other users as I am more familiar with the user interface.

“Nonetheless, the reason for my success is when our team realised that we can upload observations in bulk onto iNaturalist on the second day of the challenge. This allowed us to make more observations in the field by reducing the time needed to upload individual observations.

“Besides that, by minimising my travel on the last day of the event, I managed to do intensive observations around University of Malaya, and recorded almost 3,000 observations on that day alone. This is essentially aligned with the core idea behind the City Nature Challenge, which encourages citizens to map the flora and fauna surrounding them instead of entering the wilderness,” he said.

On whether the challenge had a significant impact in terms of biodiversity and conservation in Malaysia, Tan said it would be an overestimation to say so.

“However, with the help of the Association of Science, Technology and Innovation (ASTI), we managed to organise an interschool competition as a pilot project to encourage students’ involvement in biological science, with an endorsement from the Education Ministry. We envision that the partnership between ASTI and the Rimba Project will have larger influence towards more schools from cities all over the country in the upcoming year.

“Only then can we evaluate the impact of citizen science towards the conservation of biodiversity and determine its pros and cons,” he said.

On future plans, Tan said he would like to be involved in sustainable living and educating people on possible sustainable lifestyles.

“I believe that when people are better informed about the harm we can do towards the environment in our daily lives, we can indirectly save many vulnerable habitats that are prone to pollution and destruction.

“I really hope that I could one day contribute to changing certain policies to strengthen enforcement against wildlife trafficking. Championing urban farming and sustainable food sources will also be in my plans, as it will reduce farm land needed in the future, which will reduce deforestation and wildlife habitat loss,” he said.