Langkawi’s New Groove

Saturday November 3, 2007.
Langkawi’s leading naturalist, Irshad Mobarak, has teamed up with 100 choolchildren, under DiGi’s Amazing Malaysians project, to save the island’s natural treasures.

The Star.

As a young boy, Irshad Mobarak often accompanied his father into the wilderness.
“Those were the best times of my life, and the love for nature became ingrained in me,’’ says Irshad, the ninth child in a family of 10.

When he visited Langkawi in the 1980s, he was smitten with the island’s greenery. Irshad resigned from a comfortable job at a major bank in Kuala Lumpur, packed his bags and made Langkawi his new home.

That was 20 years ago and Irshad has never looked back. Today, Irshad, 49, is a highly-respected naturalist in Langkawi. More importantly, he was named “The Jungle-Wallah of Langkawi” in DiGi’s Amazing Malaysians corporate responsibility programme.

Since June this year, he has been heading a project that empowers 100 schoolchildren to rehabilitate Langkawi’s natural environment.

Conservation for Irshad is a generational process and thus a habit best cultivated when young. When instilled in children, it can set off a domino effect, creating future generations of environmentally-conscious and passionate people.

Irshad’s love for nature is infectious; hearing him speak about Langkawi’s wilderness will fuel your interest in the island.

Conservation starts young

Irshad, together with the Malaysia Nature Society (MNS), is committed to working with children in the kiddie project initiated by DiGi Telecommunications.

“Kids are honest and full of energy. So it’s great to see them all excited about doing things that I am excited about,’’ says Irshad.

“We can go on planting trees forever, but if you don’t root these ideas of environmental consciousness with our kids, then I am forever planting trees on the front line. We need the back end to understand the issue and not destroy the forests.’’

This is why DiGi’s Amazing Malaysians projects chose to work with children. “We want a long-lasting effect and the only way to do that is to work with children who will hopefully carry on the idea and the knowledge,’’ says DiGi Telecommunications chief financial officer Stefan Carlsson.

In this seven-month project, the schoolchildren are divided into three groups. The Wildlife Rangers extract soil and water samples from various locations in Langkawi to determine the island’s environmental health.

Tree Doctors collect seeds from the jungle, nurture them in a nursery, and then plant them in strategic locations to create wildlife corridors. Nature’s Scribes, on the other hand, are responsible for documenting the range of animals and plant species found in Langkawi, and publish them in tourist brochures.

Planting trees to form wildlife corridors seems to be the highlight of this project, and particularly important in the preservation of Langkawi’s fauna.

What was once a large uninterrupted natural habitat has today become fragmented into five main habitats which are cut off from one another. This is a serious threat to the wildlife in Langkawi.

“Animals are afraid to cross open fields, highways or roads. When they can’t move freely from one habitat to the next, they begin to inbreed. Inbreeding is not good for the gene pool,’’ Irshad explains.

Albinism is a sign of a weak gene pool, and Langkawi has already seen albino macaque monkeys and mousedeer.  Wildlife corridors have been implemented in Japan, Europe and America successfully. Evidence has shown that by reconnecting habitats with “corridors”, we can help solve this problem.

Langkawi’s lush nature
Personally, Langkawi has always been for me a destination of sun, sea, sand . . . and duty-free shopping, of course.

It wasn’t until I made a trip to Langkawi to witness the progress of this project that I discovered another side to the island that I didn’t know existed – the greenery and the birds that thrive in it. What’s amazing is that Langkawi has recorded more than 226 species of birds, 35% of which are migratory birds from Manchuria, Northeast Siberia and China.

Led by Irshad, our group drove up Gunung Raya to spot the three species of hornbills that live on the island – the Great Hornbill, Oriental Pied Hornbill and Wreathed Hornbill. Nothing sets your heart aflutter more than the sight of hornbills in flight.

Hornbills are birds that mate for life. They make the best parents and partners, and for that, Irshad believes that we have so much to learn from them.
The Great Hornbills, in particular, are an indicator species. Considering that a large part of their diet depends on figs and 60 different types of fruiting trees, a dwindling in their numbers could indicate the declining health of the forest.

Sadly, 49% of Langkawi’s nature has already been lost to years of agricultural and tourism development. It is a shocking figure, and the situation is particularly dangerous for an island.

All islands support unique flora and fauna because they are cut off from the mainland. This puts the island’s ecosystem at a greater risk of disintegration.
Of the 724 known animal extinctions in the last 400 years, about half are island species. More alarmingly, 90% of bird species that have become extinct over that period are island dwellers. Remember the Dodo bird?

Irshad believes it is still not too late to save Langkawi. “Langkawi is on the threshold of going either way. The great news is we are a Geopark now (a status accorded by Unesco).

“Three areas on the island are now protected, and legislation is coming in to further protect the island. But there are still certain areas which must strongly be looked after and I believe Gunung Raya and Bukit Sawak must not be left out because the latter is the corridor that connects Gunung Mat Cincang and Gunung Raya,” says Irshad.
Langkawi, located on the same latitudinal plain as Sri Lanka, has more butterfly species despite being much smaller in size. Langkawi has 341 species whereas Sri Lanka has only 200 plus due to development.

According to Irshad, Professor Bernard d’Abrera, a world-renowned butterfly and moth expert from the British Museum of Natural History, has called Langkawi a world-class butterfly island.

Sustainable conservation activities
The children have begun planting trees on the island to create the wildlife corridors, especially in the marshland of Tasik Telawak, home to wild ducks and waterbirds such as the Lesser Whistling Ducks, kingfishers and Little Grebes. Already the children are creating a positive ripple effect.

Hornbills are among the fascinating species on Pulau Langkawi. — LIM CHEE WAH & AYESHA HARBEN

Qurratul Fashilin Abdul Karim, 11, says that her friends who did not join the project are envious of her hands-on lesson in conservation and her jungle expeditions.
Her friends have also become more environment-conscious because of her stories; they have begun to pick up litter voluntarily and refrain from picking flowers or trees.

That’s not all. Kampung Sungai Itau around Tasik Telawak has taken the initiative to prohibit fishing in the lake. It also organises a rubbish-picking competition from time to time. This is a positive sign that the project has not only reached out to the children but also the local authority. Irshad believes that if this project is a success for Langkawi, it could become a model for other islands in Malaysia.

“We must win the battle here because we are a microcosm of the islands in mainland Malaysia. While this is a small project, if we can get really good help, I think it can be applied to islands that haven’t been developed…maybe Tioman before it comes to the state we’re in,” says Irshad.

Later, as I took a refreshing mangrove cruise through the picturesque Kilim Karst Geoforest Park, it finally hit me: Langkawi is our answer to Bali or Phuket.

While it may not have beaches as dramatic as those in Bali, it has an abundance of jaw-dropping natural landscape – just like this network of rivers snaking through lime-green mangrove trees set against an ancient labyrinth of limestone outcrops dusted with trees of a darker shade.

This is what sets us apart from the other islands in the region.
By the way, this stunning limestone mangrove was the location of Hollywood film Anna and the King.

It’s not the duty-free shopping that draws people to Langkawi, it’s the rainforest behind the hotels. It is the birds, the animals and everything else that make this island special.
As Irshad puts it, “It’s not only our scientific responsibility, it is also our moral and spiritual responsibility to protect the animals of planet earth.’’