Why would someone rush out of the city on Friday after work to drive deep into the night and get up extra early the following morning just to go for a walk? Because it’s not just any walk; it’s a CAT (Citizen Action for Tigers) walk where participants volunteer to help protect Malaysia’s wildlife. And indeed community participation – a hallmark of many SOS funded projects, is what makes the difference.
The idea behind protecting Peninsular Malaysia’s remaining tiger populations from poaching is simple: get people into the forest, to experience wild nature firsthand. As the saying goes, people only protect what they know, which is the rationale driving the success of the CAT Walks so far organised by the Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers (MYCAT), an SOS grantee. With the discovery of a tiger pugmark from an individual animal possibly new to the region on the first CAT Walk of 2013, it seems the future is bright for community conservation in Taman Negara according to Kae Kawanishi, General Manager of MYCAT. It is also the first time since 2010 for any CAT volunteers to encounter a tiger sign, making the sighting extra special. Being in the jungle, for many of the participants is an adventure in itself, but to make such an exciting discovery will serve as excellent motivation to other volunteers, she asserts.
Suffering from a lack of government resources to regularly patrol and manage the vast areas of jungle in its landmass against poaching, the call for community conservation has surfaced in Malaysia’s national press several times in the past six months. Already MYCAT is one step ahead on the trail, implementing the CAT programme since 2010. Initially offering walks lasting a few hours for the general public once a month, it grew to include specially organised events catering to company personnel as CSR and team building exercises and also the CAT Trailblazer – a week-long jungle trek with park rangers for the more adventurous volunteers. One of the first corporate volunteers to the CAT Walk programme, Royal Selangor signed up for repeat visits for its staff members, with company representative Tan Jooi Chong explaining:
“We jumped at the chance to conduct a CSR program with MYCAT. It was a wonderful trip of exploring and learning. When we checked the camera traps, seeing a tiger, other wild cats and elephants was so exciting. We enjoyed ourselves very much and look forward to the next three CAT walks when more staff will participate.”
Summing up the success of the project so far, Kawanishi explains: “Give people the opportunity to become part of the solution and they will embrace it. If it is a positive experience, they spread the word.” A case in point is a junglecraft enthusiast who resides in Malaysia, Paul Colclough. He participated in one of the first CAT Trailblazers, and has since created two promotional films for distribution online to help promote and explain the value of the initiative to a wider audience.
While open to all, so far CAT trips seemed to attract urban residents for whom the prospect of getting ‘away from it all’ might appeal. Word of mouth is key, and leveraging online tools like Facebook and YouTube, along with the Tiger Roadshows at local public places, such as night markets and shopping malls has helped to raise awareness on MYCAT conservation programmes among various audiences. CAT Walks used to consist of a weekend stay in the forest of Taman Negara including a hike or two, but the programme has been refined and expanded to include training up volunteer team leaders and camera trapping activities as well. It is hoped that with a team of specially trained volunteer leaders, MYCAT can operate a CAT Walk every weekend, creating a consistent presence along the trails and paths through the forest bordering the western side of Taman Negara National Park. Meanwhile all participants get to experience very real conservation work on the ground, learning how to navigate in the forest terrain using compasses and GPS units, as well as checking camera traps for evidence of wildlife passing through the area. Of course there is also the more serious work of surveillance walks, and searching for and deactivating snares which are later removed by law enforcement officers from the Wildlife Department.
While exciting and generally enjoyable, the discovery of a sun bear’s skull and bones beside an old wire snare proved a sobering encounter for one team of volunteers. The poachers had left the animal to die an agonising death, illustrated by the deep claw marks on the tree trunk to which the snare was attached. While saddening, the event underscored the need for continued and enhanced on-the-ground protection if tigers and other wildlife of Taman Negara are to survive the onslaught of poaching.