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Orang Asli wildlife patrollers are the new heroes of the Royal Belum State Park

Royal Belum State Park is located in Gerik, Perak. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Elena Koshy, New Straits Times | March 7, 2021

Read the original story here.

DEEP in the jungle, where the forest canopy bends sunlight into a lattice of overlapping greens, where snakes glide and the throaty cries of gibbons resound over the bird song, a group of men silently set up camp for the night.

The roar of a male bull elephant shatters the men’s lull. “Gajah (Elephant)!” points out one of the indigenous patrol rangers. Acting quickly, they break up camp and repack their things.

There isn’t any time to waste. Climbing up the towering trees, they wait breathlessly as the irate elephant trudges into sight, trampling a teapot they left behind in their haste.

The patrol unit spent the entire night on the trees. Ominous as the scene may look, it’s all in a day’s (or night’s) work for the wildlife patrol unit. The motley group of men, including seasoned wildlife patrol rangers and supplemented by a motley bunch of indigenous men, often traverse the grid of the harsh forested landscape of Royal Belum State Park located at the northernmost tip of Perak to dismantle snares and report on poaching activities.

The forest’s survival, indeed the endurance of forests across the tropics, whether in Brazil, the Congo Basin, Indonesia or Malaysia, offers benefits far beyond national borders. By absorbing carbon dioxide and trapping carbon, forests play a vital role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

On that, there’s little disagreement. Yet it has been much harder to reach a consensus over how to fend off the threats encircling them. Poachers and illegal loggers all lay waste to forestland, virtually immune to government efforts to protect it.

In the past 25 years, saving species has become less of a focus of the world’s policymakers than solving climate change. During this time, the resources needed to address the immediate threats to wildlife haven’t kept pace with the growing scale of these threats. Already, pressured species like the Malayan tigers have become even more vulnerable to poaching and human encroachment.

The experiment here in the Royal Belum State Park suggests one solution: The most effective way to protect forests and wildlife is to enlist the help of the communities who already live there and possess a unique body of knowledge of the landscape they live in.

Those who can secure a living from the forest have an incentive to protect it, and that can create a far stronger line of defence than what governments can muster.

“Nobody’s going to take care of somebody else’s house, somebody else’s garden,” says Mohamed Shah Redza Hussein who directs the Perak State Park Corporation (PSPC), adding: “But the indigenous community will look after and defend their own forest.” The state-run corporation, formed in 2003 under the Perak State Parks Corporation Enactment 2001, manages the Royal Belum State Park.

Continues Shah: “For any sustainable protection of the landscape, we needed to have the Orang Aslis’ buy-in. They know the forest better than anybody else.”

For too long, this connection has been ignored, as too the native peoples’ unique insights into how to protect the environment. Indeed, scant attention has been paid to the extremely important linkage between the land and its native inhabitants itself, which carries many fundamental implications for environmental well-being and biodiversity.

Only in 1992, with the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development was the role of indigenous tribes in environmental protection explicitly recognised for the first time.

This year, World Wildlife Day (celebrated on March 3) with its theme of “Forests and Livelihoods: Sustaining People and Planet”, highlights the central role of forests, forest species and ecosystems services in sustaining the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people globally, including indigenous and local communities with historic ties to forest and forest-adjacent areas.

For Shah and his band of forest rangers, bringing in the indigenous tribe who live within the forest complex to help combat illegal poaching was a step in the right direction. Together with Rimau, a non-governmental organisation devoted to protecting the Malayan tiger and its habitat, the state park developed and activated a new community-based wildlife protection patrol unit called Menraq.

The unit is a specialised wildlife patrol outfit made up entirely of the local indigenous Jahai community. The word menraq means people in their language. “What we wanted to do was to get enough ‘boots on the ground’ to secure Royal Belum against poachers and to protect the tiger population within its borders,” says Lara Ariffin, president of Rimau.

Protecting the tiger

The Royal Belum State Park was legally gazetted as a state park on May 3, 2007. Encompassing a total area of 1,175 square kilometres, the park lies within the Belum Forest Reserve which itself is part of a much larger tract of contiguous forest spanning 4,000 square kilometres known as the Belum-Temengor forest complex.

Dating back 130 million years, this swathe of rainforest is older than the Amazon and the Congo basin. It’s populated by some of the world’s most endangered mammals, including wild Asiatic elephants, sun bears, Sumatran rhinos, cloud leopards, tapirs, and panthers, as well as over 10,000 indigenous people. This forested landscape also represents the last and final stronghold of the dwindling population of Malayan tigers.

An ubiquitous national icon, images of the Malayan tiger can be found everywhere. As a symbol of bravery, charm and regality, it is deservedly honoured and depicted in the Malaysian Coat of Arms and several venerable institutions.

Malaysia’s first national car adopted the abstract tiger-head as its emblem and badge-mark for its Proton cars. Yet for all its popularity, the majestic wildlife in this nation has been slowly heading towards extinction.

Found only in Peninsular Malaysia and southern Thailand, the Malayan tiger is its own subspecies and is found nowhere else in the world. In the 1950s, it was estimated that 3,000 roamed our rainforests. Those figures have reduced drastically since then.

The latest National Tiger Survey results indicate there are less than 150 in the wild. While the loss of habitat contributed to the decreasing numbers, the biggest threat to tigers today is poaching.

According to the information provided by Rimau, the Malayan tiger density in the park was 1.92/100 square kilometres in 2011, the highest record in Peninsular Malaysia. However, the figure has significantly reduced to around 0.8/100 square kilometres in 2018, a reduction of 60 per cent in just seven years.

The reduction was caused by an influx of professional Indochinese poaching syndicates mainly from Vietnam, whose modus operandi is to set large wire snares in the interior of the park and stay up to several months during each trip.

At the peak of the poaching wave from 2016 to 2017, WWF-Malaysia recorded 218 cable snares in Royal Belum, most of which were suspected to be set by Indochinese poaching syndicates.

“Prior to 2019, we detected thousands of snares, signs of encroachment and poachers’ camps every year,” acknowledges Shah. “If we didn’t increase the patrolling and following the trajectory of loss, which is about 60 per cent for the last eight years as well as given the current population estimates of 22 to 23 individual tigers, we’d have arrived at an unviable population of tigers by the end of last year.”

This, he says, would lead to the extinction of tigers in the wild. Something needed to be done to reverse the outcome. And the answer to that quandary lay with the local communities living within the state park borders.

Government bodies as well NGOs are also slowly recognising the invaluable role of the indigenous peoples when it comes to facing one of the most dangerous challenges of modern times: The extinction of biological diversity.

“Without assistance from local communities, even the most focused and well-resourced enforcement efforts will struggle to contain wildlife crime effectively,” adds Shah solemnly.

Enter the community

The Jahai tribe of Orang Asli have been living in Royal Belum for generations. They’re one of 18 tribes of indigenous peoples of Malaysia and it has been postulated that the Orang Asli settled in the country some 25,000 years ago.

The Jahais form part of the Negrito ethnic group, the oldest indigenous people in Peninsular Malaysia. With the exception of the more developed Sungai Tiang and Sungai Kejar villages, the other villages still retain their nomadic forest-based lifestyle.

The idea of enlisting the participation of the indigenous community was a brilliant move — but there have been hurdles. “It’s a challenge to directly employ Orang Aslis as workers under the state park,” admits Shah.

The main reason being that most do not meet the minimum education prerequisite for government service. “Hiring them as general workers requires a minimum of a Form 3 education which most of them do not have,” he adds.

Together with Rimau, they decided to hire them under sponsored community-based conservation programme. “Thanks to Rimau and their fundraising, it was possible to hire Orang Aslis to supplement the patrolling team,” adds Shah.

Engaging with the people in the area for the state park to work is absolutely critical, insists Lara. “It’s a little strange to employ patrollers from outside to protect what’s on the inside. The local communities should be offered the job of being protectors. They’re the ones living there,” she asserts, adding: “I told Shah not to worry. We’d find the donors somehow. And we did. I’m so thankful for the donors who came forward.”

But that was just a battle half-won. They still needed to convince villagers to participate in the programme. “Not many were convinced,” adds Lara. “Shah was our man on the ground, and he, along with his research officer Lau Ching Fong approached a few villagers to convince them to participate. The first village they approached wasn’t interested.”

One village said “yes”. Kampung Tanhain, a splinter village at Sungai Kejar comprising 22 families, agreed to participate. “We were ecstatic,” says Shah, smiling. “Here was the chance for us to show the capabilities of the Orang Asli in helping to protect our forest and wildlife.”

This little village of around 100 inhabitants has been remarkably keen on bettering themselves. “They’ve approached us in the past to request that their children get an education,” recalls Shah, adding: “We’d already set up a reading hub or Rumah Baca for the village, we brought in teachers and we’ve learnt that despite their remote location, they knew that education and awareness were keys to lifting them out of poverty.”

Raising up eco-warriors

The community-based programme, explains Shah, has several objectives. First of course, was to educate the Orang Jahais about conservation and wildlife protection. Second was to get them to participate actively and earn an income in the process. “You can’t do conservation on an empty stomach,” he says bluntly.

Lastly, he adds, they wanted the entire village to buy into the programme. “We don’t just want individual men signing up for the job. We wanted the entire village to learn and understand the work that these men are doing and why it’s important.”

But both the state park and Rimau needed to address the urgent issues first — the issue of poverty and the need to provide them with tangible benefits in order to attract the Jahais towards their cause.

The original hunter-gatherer tribe derive their income from harvesting non-timber forest products such as agarwood, herbs, honey, frogs, and fish. To supplement their income, they’d occasionally work as porters for houseboats and tour-operators in the area. Based on a study carried out in 2013, more than 93.3 per cent of the Jahais living in Belum-Temengor earn below RM800 per household per month and live below the poverty line.

Realising the harsh reality faced by the Orang Aslis, the team realised they should first provide tangible benefits to them consistent with their role in wildlife protection. “If there are no financial incentives, it’s harder to get them to participate — at least initially,” adds Shah.

The programme, which kick-started in 2019 began with just five men. “We selected them based on their fitness and keenness in being part of the community-patrolling unit,” recounts Shah. The training was conducted by the state park rangers headed by Aziz and Lau Ching Fong.

Part of the training included following the state park rangers into the forest and learning how to use the Global Positioning System (GPS) mapping, and other technologies among other things. They got to combine their traditional knowledge of the rainforest with Western technology. Not only do they patrol, but they’re also responsible for reporting and sharing the information they get with PSPC rangers, says Shah.

The recruits were offered financial incentives. For every day they go patrolling, they receive a stipend of between RM75 and RM85. Above that, adds Lara, a small stipend is also contributed to the village’s community fund. “The entire village benefits and not just the individual wildlife patroller,” says Lara, adding: “While they work, they also earn money for the village.”

In a month, the wildlife patrol unit averages about 10 to 15 days patrolling the forest. “The maximum for any ranger to patrol the forest is 15 days and no more than that. The forest in Belum isn’t a walk in the park,” quips Shah, chuckling.

The trekking itself is arduous work given the fact that the landscape of the state park mostly comprises hilly to mountainous region ranging in altitudes from 130 to 1,553 metres above sea level, straddling in the Main Range, Peninsular Malaysia’s backbone. “They usually cover a whopping ten by ten-square kilometre radius, which is a huge area to cover,” discloses Shah.

Despite the lack of an education background, the indigenous team rose to the challenge of learning new ways while bringing in their profound knowledge of the forest ecosystem. “The level of commitment from the Jahai team breaks all stereotyping of Orang Aslis not being able to learn or having no discipline. I’ve got the most dedicated team who have gone above and beyond their call of duty,” enthuses Shah.

The job of the Menraq team doesn’t end with patrolling. They’re also given the task of educating the village on the importance of protecting the forest and its wildlife.

“Because the entire village benefited from the jobs these men took on, they were more than interested in knowing about the tiger and why it’s important to protect the species,” says Lara with pride.

About a month before Global Tiger Day in July 2020, Lau Ching Fong took the older children from the village to set up camera traps in a nearby area to see what lives in their forest.

On Global Tiger Day, they went to collect the cameras and the results were shared with the community. “This is the beginning of Rimau’s Junior Menraq Team which we’re keen to develop some time in the future,” adds Lara.

At their graduation ceremony during the Global Tiger Day on July 29 last year, the Menraq Patrol Unit received a touching surprise message from the Sultan of Perak, HRH Sultan Nazrin Muizzuddin Shah.

He applauded them for their good work in protecting the Malayan tiger and its habitat while recommending that this programme which benefited the whole community be made a model programme for others to follow.

“It was a proud moment for the entire team,” says Shah softly.

To date, the Menraq team has expanded to 16 men and there are plans afoot to introduce this community-based conservation programme to other villages within Royal Belum. The addition of these men to the patrol unit has greatly benefited the state park.

With the beefed-up patrol unit, the number of snares and poachers’ camp sightings have dropped drastically. “I can confidently say we’re the best protected state park in the country,” Shah declares proudly.

Adding, he says: “We’ve managed to reduce poaching within the state park to almost zero since the programme started. Last year in 2020, we only came across five snares and very few signs of encroachment as compared to previous years.”

From community to community, the fire of conservationism is slowly spreading and more villages are geared to be part of the team of nature champions. After all, Kampung Tanhain is testament to the fact that it took just five men and an entire village’s support to make a lasting impact.

Deep in the jungle, where the forest canopy bends sunlight into a lattice of overlapping greens, where snakes glide and the throaty cries of gibbons resound over the bird song, the Menraq team rises up as the nation’s new eco-warriors — ready to safeguard their ancestral land and protect the wildlife that shelters within it.