At a tiger conservation workshop earlier this year, I heard a lot of doom and gloom expressed by the speakers, field researchers, learned academics and experienced biologists.
The negativity is not new as many are disheartened by the on-going assault on our wildlife and environment fuelled by what appears to be limitless human greed.
However, there is also much hope after attending these sessions. Here are some observations:
Increasingly, I see many young scientists taking part in the discussions. Quite a few are keen to learn, hungry to accept responsibility and passionate for change and to invoke change.
I see some who want to plunge into conservation because they feel a need to correct the wrong-doings evident all around us. Others engage in the science as they believe this will help us make better management decisions.
Still others just want to go out, volunteer, pick up plastics and trash and do their own little bit to save the world. This is such a far cry from the mid-1980s when conservationists were seen as greenies and anti-development hippies.
It is therefore heartening that these young people embrace conservation even when it does not provide much financial rewards.
I also see a concerted effort by many people trying to make sure our wild animals survive. The concerted efforts include trying to make sure forest fragments are better connected through government gazetting or leasing of forested lands.
In addition, increased enforcement have resulted in successful arrests of poachers and wildlife traders.
In wildlife science, there is a greater engagement by young minds to look for better ways to monitor and analyse the data collected from the field.
Social media websites are also seeing more engagement from the public on environmental issues including a greater concern about wildlife. How or whether their ‘likes’ on Facebook and comments or opinions translate into action is unknown.
However, people do make their views heard and in most comments, advocating more environmental protection.
Looking back, in the 1980s, the Malaysian conservation field was full of silos where agencies would not talk to each other, much less work together. The words used by NGOs about government or vice-versa were not complimentary.
But in 2017, the conservationists in public service and in NGOs have engaged with a positive dynamic. Having witnessed the detrimental effects of working in silos, this increased engagement is refreshing. It allows for the “whole to be greater than the sum of its parts”.
There is greater access by non-government conservationists to laws when they are being amended, to policies when they are being developed, to enforcement of problematic poaching hotspots and even to data when requested.
Government agencies have grown to be more cognisant of current environmental needs or threats, and are more open to suggestions from external parties.
In fact, in the government’s TN50 (Transformasi Nasional 2050) sessions, conservationists will be seated at the same table discussing conservation issues with those who are discussing our nation’s development.
What I have written may appear that I must be looking at Malaysia with rose-tinted glasses and only commenting on good news. One could also say that there are lots of very useful policies and laws on the environment, but some of which are never fully implemented.
Yes, indeed there are many negative environmental issues plaguing us ranging from the logging damages to Fraser’s Hill, the broken Central Forest Spine, wildlife being sold in markets, the environmental damage from bauxite and the great harm caused by unsustainable logging and the rapid expansions of monoculture plantations.
There are also many cases where the Internet is now used for wildlife trafficking.
Several statements have been made about conservation in our country:
a) the job of conservationists is like the Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke, trying to prevent the floods from swamping his lands. What the conservationists are doing is trying to reduce the rate of the flood of development or change, or…
b) conservationists often draw their line in the sand but it is useless because the line is perpetually being crossed by developers, loggers, poachers, etc. This is because the greed of those searching for development and money cannot be contained, as it is in humanity’s DNA to be self-motivated for money rather than being altruistic.
Let’s inhale hope
Yes, there are losses as well as the bright spots in a sea of environmental change or degradation.
But we should be reinvigorated by the hope that is around us. We need to also realise that we are not alone. The youth and the experienced silverbacks want to fight and hold on to their dreams of a world better for wildlife and the environment.
The famed anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Now, we do need to look for these committed citizens, Malaysians and non-Malaysians, and when we find them, we should empower them and work with them. We should not sit on their coat tails and hope they will do everything for us.
Yes, there are many who are couch potatoes and armchair warriors. But the reality is also that there are many who do act for wildlife and the environment; some who have even persuaded their parents to allow them to change their course of study to be in the field that they love and care much for.
Yes, we must inhale this currency of hope, to create a critical mass of Malaysians that will take up action for our environmental future.
Finally, as 2017 draws to a close, let’s consider our pets such as dogs and cats.
If we are able to get our generous Malaysians to spread their love beyond their pets to wild animals and their forest homes, perhaps we will indeed be able to create a much greener future.
Dr Melvin T. Gumal is the director of the Malaysia programme at the Wildlife Conservation Society.