Rebel with a (green) cause

By Intan Maizura Ahmad Kamal – October 30, 2022 @ 9:31am

YAK. Yak. Yak. The sound of a loud staccato cackling pierces the early morning calm, followed by a series of inane chuckles that gradually transcend into gleeful squealing. It’s coming from a distance, high up in the canopy of trees.

Above me, the blanket of darkness, which had hitherto lent the surroundings of the ultra-luxe One&Only Desaru Coast resort in Johor a mysterious air, is slowly beginning to part, but it’s still dark enough for the smattering of stars that dot the inky darkness to mesmerise me.

“I’d like to introduce you to one of my favourite activities,” whispers Khairulizwan Ismail, or better known as Wan, tone laced with unbridled enthusiasm. Walking jauntily, he leads me to a small clearing where a telescope has been set up.

“Stargazing!” he announces triumphantly as I squeal in delight. It’s been so long since I’d got the chance to gaze at so many stars, I tell him. And he beams in response. Motioning for me to look through the eyepiece, he proceeds to adjust the focuser, all the while encouraging me to share what I see.

“Do you know that’s a planet? Come, aim to that guy over there. He’ll be moving from time to time so I need you to look now,” he coaxes, excitement palpable. “Ooooh, it’s so clear,” I exclaim delightedly, and again, that beam of satisfaction lingers on his face.

A proud captain of the green crusade, Wan is an impassioned and enthusiastic environmentalist with years of experience in eco-tourism. The affable 45-year-old, who hails from Melaka, has been the resident naturalist at One&Only Desaru Coast for more than two years.

It’s his job to take guests on exploratory tours on the grounds of this sprawling Kerry Hill-designed property, which sits in (and among) nature on 52 hectares of unique and verdant landscape. The resort is home to more than 80 species of native flora and fauna.

“I share with them my knowledge of native wildlife, and the ancient lore of the land,” says Wan, who’s professionally certified by the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture Ministry (MOTAC), as we proceed towards the beach where we’ve planned to catch the sunrise.

The sounds of crunching gravel under our feet begin to mingle with the continuous siren of crickets and cicadas. “Do you hear that?” Wan asks, suddenly halting in his tracks. Noting my look of confusion, he smiles before elaborating: “It’s the sound of an eagle — the white-bellied sea eagle, a large diurnal bird of prey that breeds and hunts near water.”

Excitedly, Wan confides that he loves to wake up early — sometimes as early as 4.30am —because it gives him the chance to walk his routes first and possibly stumble on new discoveries. It’s also the perfect opportunity to wake up with nature.

Eyes dancing, he exclaims: “I love to read first thing in the morning. Do you know that successful people, for example, actor Dwayne Johnson and Tim Cook, the chief executive officer of Apple, are also early risers. In fact, many successful people practise this!”

Strolling in companiable silence, lost in our own thoughts and enjoying nature’s orchestra, we soon arrive at another clearing, where just ahead is a breathtaking vista of the sea, crowned by slowly parting clouds. Fiery orange streaks threaten to pierce through the silver covering.

I couldn’t help exhaling in awe as Wan, who also imparts his knowledge on the indigenous uses of the wide variety of plants that grow locally to guests who join his nature tour, looks on like a proud father towards the unfolding scene before us.

Voice low, he shares: “Sometimes when I come here at 5.30am, I can hear the calls of eagles.” There are several types of eagles to be found in the area, according to the father of six, and they include the white-bellied sea eagle; the black-winged kite, a small bird of prey known for its habit of hovering over open grasslands; the crested serpent eagle, a medium-sized bird of prey found in forested habitats; and the brahminy kite, a medium-sized bird of prey with a reddish-brown body plumage that contrasts with the its white head and breast.

“Many of our activities here have been specially designed to showcase the beauty and diversity of our surroundings,” he continues, before musing softly that education informs our judgement and actions, and today, it has become more urgent than ever to understand and appreciate what we stand to lose.

As we make our way down to the beach where a beautiful breakfast spread has been laid out, complete with colourful cushions and beanbags to sit on, Wan keeps his gaze trained on the view ahead. “The clouds have moved and it’s getting brighter,” he says excitedly. “See the rays? Isn’t it magical? This is worth waking up for!”

As I make myself comfortable on one of the oversized beanbags, Wan, the eldest of three siblings, continues imparting his knowledge, softly telling me that there are more than 1.5 million species of flora and fauna in the world, of which less than 20 per cent are known to us.

Expression earnest, he shares: “From land, there are 85 per cent yet to be discovered, and the sea, at least 95 per cent. I’m not here to educate people. As far as I know, those who come to this resort are already very educated. I’m here to share what we can learn, and sometimes from a different angle. It’s only when we’re aware that we can set action in motion.”

Some of us don’t appreciate what we have until it’s gone, reiterates Wan, before adding: “Why can’t we take action now to protect what we have. Malaysia is listed as the 12th most biodiverse country in the world. We have a lot of things but do we care enough?”

Solemnly, he continues: “Don’t get me wrong; I don’t oppose developments. But we need to balance development and sustainability. It saddens me to see so many tracts of land being cleared indiscriminately in the name of development.”

A sudden rustling emanating from the shrubs to our left results in a pause in the conversation. “Monkey?” I mouth to Wan, as I follow his gaze. He shakes his head slowly and replies: “Maybe not. But there are monkeys here. You see, some of us might complain about monkeys coming into our room. But have you ever stopped to think that we may have encroached into their space? What if I were to go to your house and end up chasing YOU out? Something to consider?”

“I’ve always been passionate about nature,” replies Wan, when asked about what triggered his decision to embark on this life-long “green crusade”. Proudly, he shares that he was in the boy scouts growing up and has always enjoyed being out in nature.

Adding, Wan, whose father was a taxi driver, and mother, a housewife, recalls: “I liked to do lasak (rugged) things like canoeing, mountain climbing, trekking… anything outdoors. And I guess the environment I grew up in also contributed to this love because I was raised in a kampung (rural) setting, in Masjid Tanah, Melaka, where we were surrounded by abundant greenery.”

Chuckling, he shares that during his younger days, he was known as “Wan Sijil” because he ended up with so many certificates for joining the many camping excursions organised by his school.

“You know, when I was 13, I was selected to represent my school in the Selangor International Scouts’ Jamboree,” he recalls, admitting to being somewhat of a rebellious youngster growing up. “I was the youngest in my group to be invited. I loved the feeling. I’m at my happiest if you throw me somewhere inside the jungle!”

Eyes dancing with mirth, he tells me that one time he tried to join the army, but his mother wouldn’t hear of it. “She said, ‘You’re the only son I have, so you’re needed here to take care of me!’ That was the end of that!”

After completing high school, Wan enrolled in then Institut Teknologi MARA (ITM) in Melaka to pursue computer programming. “But that didn’t last long either although I was into IT stuff then. I was just so degil (stubborn)!”

His work resume is pretty wide-ranging, to say the least. Recalls Wan, grinning widely: “Yes, I worked in McDonald’s for a year while waiting for my results to come out. Then I worked in a factory, on construction sites, in F&B… At one point, I went to Singapore to work in the retail industry before returning home to work as a Grab driver.”

The fact that he jumped from one job to another was testament to his restlessness, muses Wan, expression thoughtful. “Nothing could make me feel content,” he surmises simply. But one day, one of his friends sent him a message about an introductory course being offered for guiding.

“There was an opening for two types of guides — city and nature,” remembers Wan, adding that he was definitely inclined towards the latter. “I went for that course and was among 300 participants. Of that number, only 50 would be chosen — 25 to become city guides and 25 as nature guides. I had to see the panel three times.”

Senior guides, remembers Wan, were present to talk about what guiding entailed. He recalls one particular speaker, an environmental activist known as Belerong and who represented the aborigines of Johor.

“During his speech, he mentioned something about these frogs called Norhayati flying frogs,” shares Wan, before adding excitedly: “The species was named after Professor Dr Norhayati Ahmad of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, who’s also a committee member of National Geopark Malaysia.”

Prof Norhayati, continues Wan, went on to discover another species of frogs which she named after herself. “I was like, wow, there’s a lot of things yet to be found in this world we live in. I’ve yet to get my name on a frog! I thought maybe if I joined, I could have something named after me too!”

The panel could sense that this likeable upstart really did have a genuine interest in guiding. Shares Wan: “I remember by the third interview, the panel comprised the chairman of Johor Tourism Association, someone from MOTAC, another from the Johor Economic Development Corporation, and lastly, someone from Pembangunan Johor, representing the Johor government. They kept asking me why I wanted to be a nature guide.”

And he told them about the story of the frogs. “You know, that really was the thing that triggered my interest to know more about nature. I wanted to discover things that people don’t know about. And it came to me: That the more you understand about nature, the more you realise that you don’t really know much about it!”

Asked who has inspired him on his journey thus far, Wan’s eyes dance excitedly. “Have you heard of Othman Ayub from Langkawi?” he asks. And my head bobs as it dawns on me that he’s referring to the soft-spoken naturalist famed for his expertise in snake-handling, and someone whom I’d met many moons ago on an assignment in Langkawi.

“Abang Othman, the snake man?” I lob back in response. And once again, Wan beams in pleasure. “He’s one of my teachers!” he exclaims happily, before continuing: “I met him here in Bandar Penawar back in 2018 when he came to give a talk about nature guiding. I took his number and told him I was interested to learn from him.”

After receiving his licence, Wan booked a flight to Langkawi. “All this while, my knowledge came from books. I wanted to learn first-hand. Othman took me to his house and showed me the snakes!”

But the real turning point came when Othman introduced Wan to Irshad Mobarak, one of the country’s most celebrated naturalists and conservationists, and co-founder of tour company, JungleWalla. The prominent eco-warrior has also appeared in a number of international documentaries, such as National Geographic Channel’s Mysteries of the Malaysian Rainforest.

“Meeting Irshad was like getting the chance to meet with Isaac Newton or David Attenborough, the famed English biologist, natural historian and author!” exclaims Wan, eyes dancing. “I literally jumped to the sky when told I’d get the chance to go with Irshad on one of his walks at the Datai in Langkawi.”

Grinning broadly, Wan remembers the giddiness of an excited school kid enveloping his whole being at the time. “I had my binoculars with me and dressed the part. I’d decided I’d play the role of his (Irshad’s) assistant during the walk. I soaked in everything I could.”

After the session, Wan recalls being asked about his passion. “I told Irshad I was still new at nature guiding and had much to learn. In turn, I remember him telling me that as long as I was willing to learn, there’d be an opportunity for me. He agreed to teach me. Imagine if David Attenborough offered to teach you personally!”

What’s the most important lesson you learnt from these two remarkable mentors that has stood you in good stead, I ask, my curiosity piqued.

“I know it might sound cliche but it’s true: That you need to be passionate about what you’re doing,” replies Wan, continuing: “You cannot berlakon (act) and feign a passion. Keep seeking knowledge so that you can share with others. When I met with Othman and Irshad, it was easy to see, by the way they talked and how they carried themselves, just how genuine and real they were in what they did.”

A small smile spreads across Wan’s face when he tells me that Irshad would sometimes make a trip to this part of the world too. “We’d have breakfast together and exchange information. One thing Irshad taught me is that no matter how senior or veteran you are, you must be open to listen to new information because there’s always something new being discovered. We learn from each other.”

It was also Irshad who lured Wan to One&Only Desaru Coast, his first-ever stint with a hotel. Recalls the jovial naturalist: “He told me to send my CV and do my best. Of course, I was initially nervous because I was still new in the industry, but Irshad believed in me. I was really flattered.”

It was a smooth process and Wan, who recently became a certified mountain guide, found himself being interviewed by a panel of three, comprising the resort’s human resource director, its previous manager, and previous general manager.

“They accepted me,” says Wan, who, prior to that fateful interview, was already a certified nature guide who took people on mangrove tours in Sungai Johor. He was doing this, on and off, for a year before working as a Grab driver.

What gives you the biggest satisfaction, I ask, downing quickly what’s left of the orange juice in my bottle. In the distance, darkness has lifted and the sky is as blue as the sea. It’s almost time for us to make our move for the tour into Desaru’s nature.

Again, the grin returns.

“When people say, ‘waaahhh’ or ‘I learnt a lot from you’ at the end of my guided walk,” replies Wan, simply, before concluding: “As I said before, I’m not here to educate people. I’m here to share knowledge. Some of the guests we get here are highly qualified, which definitely pushes me out of my comfort zone and drives me to want to learn more.”