Press & Review

A true-blue naturalist

The crowd of primary and secondary school children gathered on a recent weekend at the Berjaya Resort and Spa Langkawi for a nature adventure had a true-blue naturalist as their guide.

New Strait Times.

Langkawi’s wildlife is now in danger of extinction due to habitat segmentation and in-breeding. A man dubbed ‘The Jungle-Wallah’ by DiGi’s Amazing Malaysian 2007 project is helping to arrest this problem.

THE crowd of primary and secondary school children gathered on a recent weekend at the Berjaya Resort and Spa Langkawi for a nature adventure had a true-blue naturalist as their guide.

The guide’s name is Irshad Mobarak. Dubbed the Jungle-wallah (Jungle-fellow) of Langkawi, he is perfect for the job as he possesses vast knowledge about Langkawi’s wildlife, gleaned from years of trekking through its jungles and mangroves.

That day, the walking wildlife encyclopaedia was showing the children a tokay gecko which, at up to 40cm in length, is one of the largest geckos in the world.

He was explaining to them how it is able to stick to surfaces despite its heft.

“In the field of bio-engineering, because we now have better microscopes, scientists know better how the geckos attach to surfaces,” Irshad said.

“No longer is it believed that suction pads or minimum electrostatic impulses between two bodies is involved. Instead, they have discovered that each gecko foot has 500,000 microscopic bristles and each of these bristles is further divided into another 100 to 150 even smaller bristles measured at two nanometers.

“At the end of each 2nm bristle is a spatula shaped tip, so minute that the gecko is believed to be attaching at a molecular level,” he added.

Irshad had clearly succeeded in grabbing the children’s attention. A good start for his project: a six month-long environmental awareness effort involving some 100 children from five schools on the island.

This is one of five projects selected by DiGi this year under its Amazing Malaysians project.

The children have been divided into three groups and each group has been given different tasks to perform from now until the end of the year. They will be performing their assigned tasks on weekends.

One group will be wildlife rangers, performing tasks like tree planting, collecting seeds and looking at birds. Another group will be doing an environmental audit of hotels and built-up establishments and the natural environment.

The last group will be in charge of documenting the range of animal and plant species found in Langkawi and publishing the information they obtain in brochures to be distributed to tourists and other visitors.

Not only is Irshad fully acquainted with information on the wildlife in Langkawi, he is also great at handling children.

“The trick is not to bore them to death. You can be much more informative with adults, but with children, you need to make it more experiential. They need to touch and smell and conduct experiments.”

Irshad will be assisted in the project by three local volunteers and two staff of the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) who will come from Kuala Lumpur every one or two weeks.

And what better place to launch this project than at the Berjaya resort, where jungle meets white sandy beach and mangrove swamp.

The children received their first introduction to the rainforest during the launch. They walked down a nature trail where they collected seeds from the jungle for their tree planting.

They also carried out an environmental audit of the water and soil to determine the impact that development has had on the jungle. They even interviewed hotel staff about the kind of litter the staff had to clean up from the premises.

And at night, they were led on a walk through the rainforest to study its nocturnal wildlife.

An interesting nocturnal creature they encountered was a colugo. Something like a cross between a lemur and a bat, the colugo is about the size of a house cat and is able to glide from tree to tree like a kung fu warrior.

Some people think the beauty of Langkawi lies in its pristine beaches. Others like the duty-free shopping. But Irshad and his team of naturalists reckon that the edge Langkawi has over places like Bali and Phuket is its jungle and wildlife.

The relatively small and cut-off habitat of an island like Langkawi allows for many of its flora and fauna to evolve into unique species over thousands of years.

Irshad, whose specialty is birds, said Langkawi has recorded 190 species of birds and during the children’s stay at the resort, they managed to spot many birds, including brown winged kingfisher, black hooded oriole and mountain hawk eagle which are all native to Langkawi.

In Malaysia, the mountain hawk eagle which can be identified by its very pronounced crest with two feathers can only be found in Langkawi and it is estimated there are only three of them, he said.

But the same conditions that give rise to this uniqueness also lend to greater possibility of extinction. What was once one large, uninterrupted natural habitat in Langkawi has shrunk into five or six isolated zones due to urbanisation, agriculture and road insfrastructure.

This, in turn, has led to in-breeding among the animal and plant species and will result in shrinking of their gene pool.

“Already there are signs of gene pool relaxation in Langkawi. In the last five to seven years, we have discovered cases of albinoism, one each in the macaque monkey and mousedeer.”

One way to counter the negative effects of habitat segmentation, said Irshad, is by constructing wildlife corridors.

Wildlife corridors are either above-ground or underground passages linking two or more habitats, offering a safe passage for wildlife to move freely from one area to another.

“The cheapest way is by bringing trees closer to the road so the canopy on either side of the road will meet and become close enough for animals to cross over.”

Which is one of the things the children in the project are doing. The trees they are planting are mostly figs.

“We hope to see the results in 10 years,” Irshad said.

He says Langkawi is also lucky not to have large animals like elephants or rhinoceros.

“That means we can build underpasses for small animals like boars.”

The animals, he said, also need to be protected from getting run over by cars using signs at the start of the corridors.

“Perhaps those signs can say ‘Slow down. Wildlife corridor’.”

“We also hope to produce maps identifying the corridors and better driving tips,” he says, adding that he has identified 10 potential places in Langkawi for these corridors.

But this is just one of his many long-term plans. For now, Irshad is happy to share his passion for preserving Langkawi’s natural habitat with children from the archipelago, and hopefully influence the way they understand and relate to their natural environment.

“If we can win people’s hearts, then we can win their minds and have a friend of Nature for life. And when they leave for home I hope to have inspired them to make positive adjustments to help Nature,” he said.


Who is the Jungle-Wallah of Langkawi?

IRSHAD Mobarak is a former athlete who has found his true calling in nature conservation.

Now working as resident naturalist at The Datai which is Langkawi’s most exclusive hotel overlooking the Andaman Sea, he considers himself very lucky because his work, his hobby and his passion are all fused into one.

He also believes that taking care of the natural environment is an integral part of being a khalifatul ardh (steward of the Earth) as espoused in Islamic teachings.

In the 80s, the Negri Sembilan-born Irshad was a decathlete and rugby player employed by a bank. He worked for five years with the bank in Kuala Lumpur, only to discover the corporate world was simply not his cup of tea.

The turning point in his life came during a vacation in Tioman Island between 1981 and 1982. He realised that what he really wanted was to be closer to nature.

“So I quit my job, travelled and bummed around for a couple of years,” said Irshad, whose brother is former national hurdler Ishtiaq Mobarak.

And then he found Langkawi. The island’s beauty and mystique inspired him to embark on his own study of its ecosystems.

“I saw the potential for nature-related work. I got a job as recreation manager at Datai and at the same time was involved in conservation work,” he said.

Soon, a new position was created for him, that of a naturalist. And today, after 19 years, he is so well-versed in the subject, he is considered an expert.

As resident naturalist at The Datai, Irshad takes guests of the resort on what he calls “interpretative nature tours” — early morning and night-time walks in the rainforest.

Irshad enthralls the guests with scientific facts and dramatic stories about each of the animals and plants they encounter.

He specialises in bird-watching and carries a pictorial guide to the birds of Southeast Asia almost all the time — handy when guests have trouble identifying the birds he’s trying to show them.

Irshad also does mangrove tours in kayaks or motorised boats.

His pet peeve is the eagle-feeding sessions at the mangrove swamps of the Kilim River. While it is quite a sight to see dozens of white-bellied sea eagles and brahminy kites circling in the sky and swooping down on their food, Irshad feels it’s bad for the birds.

“What you’re doing is habituating the eagles to take food from humans when they usually feed on fish.

Now they are given chicken guts, and these are from farm-bred chickens fed with antibiotics and hormones, making it unhealthy. It may affect their bone development and the integrity of the shells of their eggs.”

Irshad said contaminated feed could kill a lot of birds, as each feeding attracts between 50 to 100 birds. He predicts that someday such a tragedy would occur.

08 July, 2007 by Ridzwan A Rahim