Malaysia is blessed with great wildlife diversity. We’re talking about 307 species of mammals, more than 785 species of resident birds, 242 species of amphibians and 567 species of reptiles here!
Now, that is a precious gift, to say the least. And as such, it must be protected.
Here in Malaysia, the Jabatan Perlindungan Hidupan Liar dan Taman Negara, or PERHILITAN as they are commonly known, plays that role.
One of the ways they ensure the welfare of the wildlife is with the establishment of the National Wildlife Rescue Centre (NWRC) back in 2013. It is located in Sungkai, Perak. If you didn’t know such a centre exists in our country, well, you’re not alone. But #NowYouKnowLah!
We had the chance to speak to the Head of the NWRC, Dr David @ Jeabeat Magintan
, to learn more about what it is that they do there as well as his journey in this fascinating line of work.
The leader of the pack
Dr David is a proud Kadazandusun from Kampung Piasau, which is located in the district of Kota Belud, Sabah.
“I was born and raised in a kampung
environment. I have always been interested in the environment,” he told Rojak Daily
His interest, which is not limited to only the animals but also their habitats, was developed since he was a child. He attributed it to the easy access he had to the jungle in the locality where he grew up in.
At a time when the field of conservation biology and ecology was rather unpopular, he decided to pursue his studies in it anyway.
“I am very interested in ecology, a field that studies the interaction between organisms or living things and their environment. For example, why certain wildlife species are more commonly found in lowland areas as opposed to in upland areas and such.
"I took the course because I can be close to the environment and there’s always fieldwork,” he further elaborated.
Well, it worked out well. He enjoyed himself and even found the course easy to understand.
He obtained his Bachelor’s Degree in Conservation Biology and Ecology (Botany) from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia in 1997. Three years later, he would complete his Master’s in Botany (Conservation and Ecology) from Universiti Malaysia Sabah.
In 2013, he pursued a PhD in Zoology (Wildlife Ecology) at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. He earned his doctorate five years later. In case you’re wondering, his research title is “Impact of Hulu Terengganu Hydroelectric Project on Elephant Home Range and Movement”.
He started his career with PERHILITAN as a Wildlife Officer in 2004. That’s about 17 years of experience right there. Talk about living your passion!
What is the NWRC?
Well, as the name suggests, the NWRC is a centre that caters to rescued wildlife. From what we understand, it sounds like a care centre and hospital for them.
There are several reasons why a wild animal could end up at the NWRC. Some were rescued and sent there due to injuries sustained from falling into a trap, others were hit by vehicles.
There are also those that were kept as pets but were surrendered to PERHILITAN as the owner could no longer care for them as they continue to grow.
The NWRC also houses wildlife that was confiscated through the various wildlife management operations and enforcement executed by PERHILITAN.
“This centre will carry out its functions based on the 3R concept of ‘Rescue’, ‘Rehabilitate’ and ‘Release’,” explained Dr David.
“Most of the rescued wildlife are taken in various conditions such as in poor health status, lightly injured and there are animals that are seriously injured as a result of falling into traps. While in the NWRC, the wildlife will undergo various phases of treatment. Those that are healed will then undergo a rehabilitation process for a release program to their appropriate habitat.”
His primary responsibilities as the Head of the NWRC include planning and structuring wildlife rescue operations, husbandry programs, wildlife rehabilitation and wildlife release programs to their natural habitat or origin.
Besides that, he is in charge of planning and formulating administrative and data collection activities at the NWRC. Dr David also plans and coordinates veterinary activities that take place there.
Currently, there are 42 personnel working at the NWRC, with 40 of them directly involved in rescue operations.
Oh, if you want to drop in for a visit, all you need to do is ask.
“The NWRC is not open for walk-ins but can be visited by requesting written permission from the Department.”
Nature of his work
Dr David would typically be at the NWRC before 8am until around 6pm. However, if there was a rescue mission, tasks to be completed immediately or even when his personnel are travelling in the latter part of the day, he would stick around for much longer until its completion.
“Every day at 8.30am, I will discuss with the Person In Charge for the week to get the updates on the status of the wildlife in all buildings that act as shelters for the wildlife at NWRC.
"The Person In Charge will inform me the status of all wildlife in confinement, such as their health condition and the condition of the cage, enclosure or building. After that, usually between 9am until 10am, I will patrol from building to building in the NWRC to ensure that wildlife and buildings are always in good condition.
"If there is an official task that I have to complete that morning, then, I will patrol in the afternoon which is from 3pm until 4pm.”
Dr David would also make it a point to interact with the personnel who are performing their duties during his patrol.
“Every Monday morning at 8am and on Thursdays, a roll call will be made which is to call all staff and gather in front of the office for 40 minutes. During the roll call, all the heads in the respective buildings would be asked to report on the condition of the building and the state of wildlife in the cages in the respective building.”
The hardest part of the job
Rescuing wild animals is, without a doubt, a demanding task. Hence, training is important.
“The personnel involved in rescue operations have to undergo training after training throughout the year to refresh their existing knowledge and skills. Continuous training is necessary so that the wildlife rescue techniques are constantly updated and improved.
"The personnel will always be exposed to basic courses in the management of wildlife in captivity such as learning animal behaviour as well as wildlife rescue operations in the field,” he told us.
The advanced courses also include the capture, handling and translocating of wildlife. The teaching staff consists of PERHILITAN personnel who possess vast experience in wildlife rescue operations.
The centre also adopts the mentor-mentee concept whereby senior personnel will provide guidance to the juniors who are newly assigned there.
Despite the senior status he holds with the many encounters he has had, Dr David admitted that “the fear or fright is always there when coming face to face with wild animals.”
“But in wildlife management, we all need to be careful and never take it easy no matter what species of wildlife it is because this is one of the basics that need to taken into account in any wildlife rescue operation or while caring for wildlife in captivity, never take for granted when dealing with wildlife in the field or in cages (while giving treatment).”
Dr David also stressed that it is important to stay alert when dealing with wild animals, saying: “Avoid making noise and don’t provoke the wildlife.”
If ever you stumble upon a wild animal in the jungle, Dr David advises that you retreat slowly and move far away from it without disturbing it.
To the rescue
Part of Dr David’s job scope at the NWRC is to rescue various species of wildlife such as the Malayan tigers, sun bears, Malayan tapirs, primates, Sambar deers, wild goats.
The process of rescuing wild animals is quite an elaborate one. It involves many different parties too.
It typically starts with Dr David, in his capacity as the Head of the NWRC, or his personnel at the centre receiving a complaint or instruction from the headquarters, state director or the head of the district wildlife regarding wildlife that needs to be rescued.
Then, he would convey the information and instruct the Head of Operations to coordinate the personnel who will be involved in the rescue operation immediately.
The Head of Operations will liaise with the personnel assigned to the particular state or district to obtain an initial overview of the situation. This includes the location of the incident, the injury inflicted upon the said wildlife and advice on what must first be done before the rescue team arrives at the location.
The Head of Operations will then inform the personnel involved and make preparations for the equipment that would be appropriate to the species that needs to be rescued.
Do not be mistaken, though; it is not a one-method-fits-all.
Rescuing a Sun Bear that has fallen into a trap will require a different approach than rescuing a tapir trapped in a hole.
The preparation part includes setting up the cages or enclosure at the NWRC to welcome the presence of wildlife that had been saved.
It is crucial for them to make sure they have all that they will need -- from the vehicles to the crate boxes, ropes, nets; the list goes on! Once they have that sorted along with getting the green light, the rescue team will then make their way to the scene immediately.
To ensure that the wildlife they attend to will be in good hands, the rescue operations team must consist of those who are experienced and accompanied by a veterinary officer. Rescue operations at the scene will also be assisted by the state or district personnel.
Should an animal sustain any injury that requires further treatment, it will be brought to the NWRC.
When it comes to that, the rescue team will only make their move from 6pm onwards to avoid the hot weather and lessen the distress experienced by the rescued animal.
The next step
Well, once the rescued animal arrives at the NWRC, it would first be placed in the quarantine building. How long a quarantine period lasts depends on the species.
Dr David stated that tigers, birds and cat species would be in quarantine for 14 days, primates for 30 days, bears for 45 days and reptiles for three months.
They will receive the necessary treatment from the veterinarian every day.
Once the quarantine period is over, the animal would then be transferred to the night stall that is connected with the exercise yard for the rehabilitation process. If needed, it would still be under treatment. It would be released into its natural habitat when it has fully recovered.
Understandably, confining wildlife in cages or enclosures is not the most ideal situation. However, at the NWRC, it is meant to do good.
They do their best to provide a good living condition for the wildlife by making sure that the size and design of the enclosure are in accordance with the standards set according to the species.
Dr David also mentioned that the enclosures are equipped with the appropriate ‘naturalistic furniture’.
“The term ‘furniture’ in this context is a material or tool to ensure that the surrounding area in the cage exists so that the wildlife can play or behave as they would in their natural habitat.”
Tree branches, holes and swinging spots are some examples of the furniture. The enclosures are also to be maintained at all times.
Heartbreaks and tears
There are circumstances where it would take several days before a wild animal that had fallen victim to a trap could be rescued. In these cases, the animal would usually die due to infection and severe injuries.
Reports of such death would always sadden Dr David.
“Deaths of wildlife like this are not due to natural causes but due to human actions. I have seen a sun bear with an amputated paw that is due to being trapped, a tapir dying due to being trapped or being hit by a vehicle. These are some of the saddest situations,” he stated.
Dr David believes that “these cases stem from a low awareness level about the importance of wildlife conservation. The challenge lies in how to bring the society to work together to protect the country’s treasure.”
We should all note that PERHILITAN is not the only body responsible for wildlife conservation efforts; all of us are.
“If all of us work together to achieve the goal of wildlife conservation, then, the extinction of wildlife can be prevented.
"For example, on the road where PERHILITAN has placed signs of wildlife crossing, the public needs to be careful and reduce the speed (of their vehicle) immediately to prevent roadkill incidents from happening,” said Dr David.
A wild animal's superhero
His journey with PERHILITAN is filled with memorable experiences.
When he first started, he was assigned to the Sumatran Rhinoceros Unit, Wildlife Conservation Division at the headquarters. He got in on the action with many field assignments to conduct surveys of Sumatran rhinoceros presence.
Dr David has entered almost all of the major forests in peninsular Malaysia with a team that consists of four to six members “to gain data and latest information on the presence of the Sumatran rhinoceros and other wildlife every month.”
This is where we learnt that from back then until this very day, finding the prints of the Sumatran rhinoceros in the forest is a challenging task.
“Walking for seven to 10 days covering a distance between 30 to 40 kilometres for each operation is a norm for us. Challenging but very satisfying when we’re able to gather lots of information about the wildlife,” he reminisced.
He had also camped with the others on a narrow ridge at the Gunung Inas Forest Reserve, Kedah that has an altitude of about 1,000 metres.
“At about 5am, we were startled by the loud sound of a wild animal heading our way, as if we were being chased by a predator,” he recalled.
They woke up and got out of their hammocks. Before they could check out what was happening right in front of their tent, a Malayan tapir bolted towards their direction on the ridge.
Dr David was lucky.
“I managed to avoid getting hit by the tapir before it hit one of our hammocks and kept running below. It is possible that the tapir had quarrelled with another tapir and fled through the ridge where we camped.
"The lesson I learnt here is to find a place to camp in a relatively wide ridge area, not in a narrow place that is also an animal trail,” he reflected.
And yet, despite such an incident, it is the Malayan tapir that holds a special place in his heart. The Malayan tapir is Dr David’s favourite wildlife species.
He flashed back to the surveying days saying that “it was very difficult to find traces of the Sumatran rhinoceros but instead, I would often encounter traces of the Malayan tapir. The footprints of tapir do have a resemblance to that of the Sumatran rhinoceros, especially the back foot.
"It is only differentiated according to the size that tapir footprints are smaller."
Dr David admitted that his interest in the tapir species had only grown deeper as he grows older.
However, despite the love he has for the Malayan tapir, Dr David feels that there's a need for more research to be done for other wildlife species in this country.
“At times, there is scientific info that I require but most wildlife species (here) still lack scientific research that can contribute information to be used as a reference.”
“The wildlife is also very susceptible to zoonotic diseases which are infections that are transmitted from wildlife to other wildlife or to humans by bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi that can disrupt the body system.
"Thus, species between wildlife and humans are particularly vulnerable to this infection. The NWRC strives to reduce the risk of zoonotic disease infection by complying with and following the standard operating procedure set by the Department.”
Another one of his fond memories took place just last year. Working together with his team at the NWRC and the PERHILITAN headquarters, they successfully cared for and managed the repatriation of nine Sumatran orangutans.
The smuggled animals were housed at the NWRC before it was flown back to Indonesia.
“This repatriation program involved the cooperation between the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources through PERHILITAN and the Ministry of Environment and Forestry Indonesia.
"This task was successfully executed in December 2020 despite the COVID-19 pandemic that shook the world. All the orangutans arrived safely at the rehabilitation centre in Sumatera, Indonesia,” he beamed.
What keeps him going?
It’s a challenging job. Besides the risks he faces in dealing with wild animals, his job also requires him to occasionally be away from home for quite a long period.
But the passion keeps him going.
“I would feel excited and motivated to find other traces that could add to the information on the wildlife presence. In other words, with the data and information obtained, it shows that wildlife still exists in the area surveyed,” he said.
The satisfaction he gets when important operations such as wildlife rescue missions are executed with success and seeing wildlife released to its natural habitat after a successful rehabilitation process is also a great motivation for him.
Dr David intends to continue his service in this field as he has seen for himself the importance of conserving wildlife for the future generation.
On how Malaysia fares in our efforts, he said, “Overall, it’s good. Malaysia is progressing.”
Dr David highlighted the nationwide ‘Save Our Malayan Tiger’ campaign. Operasi Bersepadu Khazanah (OBK) is a part of the campaign.
The aim is to protect the Malayan tigers from poachers and to enhance patrols in protected areas of peninsular Malaysia. In 2020, the OBK resulted in 140 wildlife criminals arrested, 672 wire snares destroyed and seizures that totalled up to a value of RM1.85 million.
The operation under the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources was a collaborative effort with PERHILITAN, Royal Malaysian Police, Royal Malaysian Customs Department, Forestry Department Peninsular Malaysia, Perak State Park Corporation, Johor State Park Corporation non-governmental organisations.
Dr David pointed out that “recently, this operation was selected among the winners of the 2020 Asia Environmental Enforcement Awards during the fifth Asia Environmental Enforcement Awards organised by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).
"This success puts Malaysia's name internationally in the country's biodiversity conservation efforts.”
Should you have the interest to venture into this field, it is essential that you are mentally strong and physically fit.
“Someone who works as a rescuer of the wildlife needs a lot of discipline -- punctuality, high spirits, passion and ever-ready (because) wildlife rescue operations regardless of the time (evenings, nights, weekends, holidays and such). The personnel will be called at any time.”
Dr David also took the opportunity to credit his personnel at the NWRC for their commitment and dedication in carrying out their duties.
A reason to care
We have all been reminded time and time again to do our part in protecting our wildlife. Well, consider this yet another reminder. But this time it is served with an explanation as to why you should care.
“Wildlife is part of the components in the natural ecosystems, especially forest ecosystems. Therefore, the role of wildlife as part of such components is very important in the balance of natural ecosystems.
"The presence of apex predators such as the tigers can reduce the population of prey such as the wild boars so as not to be overpopulated. Wildlife is also important as seed-spreading agents in the forests such as the elephants, primate groups and birds. The wildlife works 24 hours a day to spread seeds and thus, the biodiversity in our forests is always maintained. Apart from that, wildlife serves as an agent in pollination like the bat species that act as pollination agents for durian trees.”
As we celebrate World Wildlife Day this 3 March, Dr David has a special message for you.
“My message to you out there in conjunction with this World Wildlife Day is to love and preserve our wildlife. Let the wildlife continue to be in its original habitat or natural habitat without being disturbed.
"The task of conserving wildlife is the responsibility of me and all of you. If not me, who else? If not us, who else? Let us all conserve our wildlife for future generations.”
In conclusion, it is up to all of us to protect the wildlife. Dr David and his team are just leading the way.