Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Of hiking the Malaysian jungle and saving tigers



It might have been one of the shortest trips I have ever done in terms of actual distance covered: In 3 days a group of 16 hikers only covered only 12 kilometres in the pristine jungle of Malaysia. However, in this short period of time, one can see and learn more about Malaysia than in a week in the class-room. The trip, organised by Outdoor Gear Malaysia for some of their clients also served a higher purpose.
Tiger populations worldwide have seen a dramatic drop. What used to be 100 000 tigers world-wide has become a mere 3200 animals in the wild. One of the problems is poaching. Here the Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers (MYCAT) has taken an ingenious approach to protecting the animals. Poachers obviously don't like other people. To deter poaching, MYCAT organises trips to the rainforest areas that connect Taman Negara with the Malaysian Main Range. Obviously, when you populate the forests poachers will stay away as the area is becoming too hot for them. While on these trips, hikers are armed with a hotline to report any poaching (the 24-hour Wildlife Crime Hotline - 019 356 4194). Making noise is actually part of the program. Instead of stalking around the bushes, these trips under the Citizen Action for Tigers (CAT) program are meant to be fun. There are different grades of difficulty for these trips. Some are headed by volunteers and are more like a walk in the park as the idea is just to have people around the forests, while others are a bit more challenging as they lead deep into the undergrowth.

The beauty of the approach MYCAT has taken is that the "CAT Walks" can be anything, tailored to your own needs. Our trip was organised for a provider of outdoor gear, Outdoor Gear Malaysia. The company wanted to allow customers to try their tools in a real live environment. The party set out on Friday evening with a first overnight in a dorm at Taman Negara Sungai Relau, just south of Gua Musang town (GPS  4deg 40’50.18” 102deg 03’25.00”). The next morning, the group assembles at 7am to head into the rainforest. The assembly point is opposite possibly the world’s longest wildlife viaduct, that is being constructed to allow tigers and other wildlife to cross from Taman Negara into the main range. This has been made possible through the lobbying of conservation groups who worked closely with the Malaysian government. This particular stretch of road is elevated to form a ‘wildlife corridor’ for animals to pass from one side to the other and therefore crucial for the populations of various species.
Ashleigh, MYCAT Senior Programme Officer is our "guide". With a wealth of experience in trekking and vast knowledge of the outdoors, he starts with safety briefings and explanations on the environment found during the trip. As we head into the forest, we make regular stops for him to explain about animal trails, snares, traps, poaching and how to manoeuvre in the forest. As we cross a deforested area, the group sees with own eyes at what price economic growth comes. An hour later we are deep in the jungle. The canopy of the prime forest blocks a lot of sunlight and it is getting very humid as there is literally no wind movement on ground level (Didn't my wife say it was much colder in the forest?).
Progressing into the forest, we cross ravines (small ones, admitted) and rivers. We see traces of human activity (most likely poachers): discarded cigarette packs, wires and other tools needed to make traps for tigers and other animals. We move on as MYCAT is not out to escalate the situation. You may have been to Bukit Nanas in Kuala Lumpur, which is also prime forest, but what you will find here is completely different. The jungle is so dense that you will have no orientation, "visibility" is just a few meters. By noon the group rests on the banks of a river and the first people take a dip in the crystal clear water. We head further into the forest to find our first camp site.
At around 5pm we are setting up our first camp. Tasks are being handed out: someone is to start a fire, another one to set up clothes-lines to try our shirts. Tea is being prepared and the smell of food floats through the air. Camping takes on a different shape as tents are frowned upon. One sleeps in hammocks. One of the advantages is that you won't get washed away in case of heavy downpours. Also, most animals don't climb up trees. Lengthy swims are being taken at the river and equipment is being tried (Look, these ropes reflect light, but only when you shine directly onto them!). Fresh water is being "produced" by using a special canvas sack that filters sediment. The water quality would be good enough for consumption at this point, but most people are using either UV light or chemical treatment just to be sure. The 7pm Cicada, about fist-size, circles the camp. The cicada's sound is that of a Kancil honking while driving through our campsite. With no artificial light other than from our headlamps or the campfire, it gets very quiet around 8pm and most people retreat to get some sleep. Rain around midnight wakes me up. A thunderstorm is rolling in and heavy raindrops hit the canopy without seeming to reach the ground.
Coffee smell wakes up the group and within an hour the camp is broken down and everyone is ready to go. The trail is taking us through the forest to another site "just 1.5 kilometres from here". We will need all day to cover this distance. As we go along, Ashleigh explains why one should always walk along the ridges of hills, lets people try to eat specific leaves and explains how Orang Asli live and hunt in the forest. The Orang Asli tribe in the area support the CAT program as they understand that the aim is to protect the forest and wildlife.
MYCAT's office is located in Petaling Jaya, Selangor and anyone interested in a trip to the forest is encouraged to join them. There are trips happening all year around with most taking only two days while extended programs can take a few days. Companies may send staff as regular volunteers, thus making it a CSR activity.
Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers (MYCAT)
Challenges to tiger conservation are multi-faceted and finding solutions to the problems faced by the species requires an integrated conservation approach, which is the foundation of the establishment of MYCAT in September 2003.

MYCAT is an alliance of the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS), TRAFFIC Southeast Asia, Wildlife Conservation Society-Malaysia Programme and WWF-Malaysia, supported by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia for joint implementation of the National Tiger Conservation Action Plan for Malaysia.
Vision
A 22nd Century Malaysia in which viable populations of tigers thrive in the wild in perpetuity.

Goal
The recovery of tiger populations through collaboration and cooperation.

Objective
To provide a formal yet flexible platform for information exchange, collaboration and resource consolidation among conservation organisations united by the shared vision of achieving thriving wild tiger populations in Malaysia.

The roles of the MYCAT Secretariat’s Office are to:
1. Facilitate communication between the partners.
2. Coordinate collaborative efforts and manage joint projects
3. Assist the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment in monitoring the
implementation of the National Tiger Conservation Action Plan
4. Consolidate information from the partners to disseminate to the public

See: www.malayantiger.net or www.facebook.com/themalayantiger for more information, or contact MYCAT Secretariat’s Office at mycat.so@malayantiger.net.