MALAYSIANSKINI | When Muna Noor graduated from university in 1997, it was right smack during an economic crisis.
With not many career options she answered an ad looking for a staff writer for Malaysia’s first monthly men’s magazine Men’s Review and she soon got into the swing of things.
“I was already a fan of the writing and I've since written for, edited and managed numerous international and homegrown print and digital lifestyle magazines.
“At some point, when there was less writing, more managing, I found myself in one of many meetings.
"And it occurred to me how absurd it was for five to six skilled professionals to spend up to two to three hours daily, five days a week thinking up ways to get people to buy more stuff that they probably don’t need when there were more serious issues that needed attention," she said.
“And this was occurring in countless offices, in countless cities, all over the world.
"Imagine all those man-hours and talent that could be used to solve problems like the extinction crisis, global warming, plastic pollution, poverty, inequality and racism. After that epiphany, I just couldn’t do it anymore,” she added.
So she moved to the conservation of nature and wildlife.
An active blogger (Pokok Kelapa) writing about the natural beauty of various places in Malaysia, she became a volunteer with Citizen Action for Tigers (CAT) Walk - a group that helps protect tigers in the wild.
“Thanks to a recommendation by a friend, I volunteered on a CAT Walk and decided almost immediately that it was what I wanted to do – walk the forest, deter poachers, dismantle snares and traps, and protect critical tiger habitat.
"I underwent training to become a CAT Walk leader after that and have been leading other volunteers to do what I did when I was starting out."
The place she covers is Sungai Yu, a critical tiger corridor that connects Taman Negara with the Main Range in Pahang.
“I’ve seen the changes good and bad. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen elephant prints and dung on the trails for example, and mining and forest clearing continue to threaten this important area.
"On a positive note, the number of snares and traps found and dismantled has dropped so the work done by volunteers on CAT Walks does make a positive difference.
“There’s no programme that I know of like CAT Walks where the public have the chance to get involved and volunteer as an extra set of eyes and ears in aid of conservation work done by a tiger conservation body (like MYCAT) or local authorities (like the Parks and Wildlife Department or Perhilitan)."
Besides an opportunity to spend time in nature with fellow nature enthusiasts and getting to ask MYCAT staff everything you want to know about tigers and their conservation, Muna said, CAT Walks are a chance to tread where tigers and other wildlife tread and witness first-hand the challenges local wildlife is up against.
Positive side of social media
Muna said she wouldn’t describe herself as a conservationist or activist.
“Perhaps advocate would be more appropriate. The advocacy came first. It sounds trite but the early days of Facebook were thrilling.
"The social media platform presented a unique opportunity to connect with people across the world that share mutual interests and it exposed us all to new stories and narratives. For me, that interest was in conservation and wildlife.
“It was highly educational, but it wasn’t long before liking and sharing weren’t enough and I wanted to contribute in more meaningful ways. That led me to volunteer with MYCAT in 2012 and at the end of 2013, I decided to take time off to do more of that across a variety of different nature and wildlife conservation NGOs. Among them were the Bornean Sunbear Conservation Centre, Malaysian Nature Society and MareCet.”
It was after this that she set up her blogs to write about her experiences.
“I started two, one on ethical dining called Ethical Gourmet and another on travel called Pokok Kelapa, after the humble but highly useful coconut tree.
"As it turned out, documenting my travels was a lot easier and because hiking became an important part of my travels, Pokok Kelapa began to be identified as a hiking blog, which wasn’t my intention.
"But as is the rule, you go where your readership is."
A constant battle
Tigers are powerful creatures. However, these magnificent creatures are on the verge of being wiped out entirely.
“The tiger is an apex predator and at the top of its food chain but like many other species the greatest threat to its survival is human activity."
Muna pointed out that poaching and habitat destruction put the remaining tiger population under significant pressure.
"I don’t just mean the poaching of wild tigers for their parts, but the poaching of tiger prey species like sambar, barking deer and wild boar too.
“As late as 1963, tigers were present in Rawang near Templer Park. Imagine that! Increasing development has significantly shrunk tiger habitat but you don’t have to talk about just illegal clearing when addressing the issue of habitat conservation.
“When remaining tiger habitats are threatened by development that doesn’t take into careful consideration its impact on wildlife and their movements, whether for agriculture, mining, or even the construction of roads and highways, the habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation can see wildlife marooned on ecological islands or pushed into ever closer contact with humans," she said.
"This can increase the potential for human-wildlife conflict and potentially the spread of canine distemper which was recently detected in Malayan tigers in Terengganu and Johor, although this does require further study," she added.
Hope still persists
Despite the many problems faced by the tiger population, all is not lost.
“The brilliant thing is tigers are cats and like the domestic cat, under the right conditions, tiger numbers can bounce back provided there is a considerable and coordinated effort in the right direction as has been demonstrated in India, Nepal and Russia," Muna said.
The creation of Malaysia’s Tiger Task Force which was recently announced by Perhilitan is a long-overdue but very positive step.
"Of course, the actions undertaken should be backed by science and data and will need long-term commitment and funding to be successful. But it will be worthwhile.”
Muna does, however, see recent incidents of tigers entering Orang Asli villages in Kelantan as a cause for alarm.
“I’m not familiar with the area in which this happened so I can’t speak specifically to this. What I can say is that when predator species are pushed into smaller areas due to insufficient habitat and there is a lack of prey species, they will increasingly come into contact with humans, which may result in human-animal conflict cases, which is bad news for humans and animal alike."
Return to hiking
As a travel blogger, the places Muna features are stunning. Though hiking was something she could not do during the movement control order she has slowly started doing what she loves again recently.
“I live in Putrajaya which is a very small place. There were long periods when Putrajaya residents were confined to our 49sqkm territory and unable to travel into neighbouring Cyberjaya, which is in Selangor.
"Although restrictions were loosened, I’ve been a cautious traveller. Still, I’ve managed to hike once a week on average and I’ve left Selangor on a few occasions only. You’ll be surprised how much the state has to offer."
Many believe that the best way to save our forests and wildlife is through ecotourism. Muna has mixed feelings on the subject.
“It’s one way of protecting our forests but must be done sustainably. The public also needs to better understand what eco and sustainable tourism entail.
"Slapping the word 'eco' on the front of a resort’s name just because its location is in the forest doesn’t make it eco."
She urged for the public to speak up for our forests and wildlife rather than be "resigned to accept whatever fate the powers that be have deigned."
"The hiking and outdoor community is huge, which gives us a very large and powerful voice – if we use it.
"And it should be used not just for the places we frequent but to exact social change in the service of other wild spaces that provide livelihoods, homes and recreation," she added.
Muna said that it flies in the face of logic that local governments should choose to work against the interest of local communities.
"For example, they excise or degazette forests for development when these forested spaces are clearly beloved by local residents as places of exercise and recreation as in the case of Bukit Cerakah or the ancestral home and source of livelihood of already marginalised indigenous communities.
“Personally, I’d love to see a moratorium on deforestation. Ultimately, we should change the way we think about our forests and their waterways.
"Yes, they provide valuable ecosystem services but beyond that, we should learn to appreciate it as having its own intrinsic value independent of humankind,” she added.
MALAYSIANSKINI is a series on Malaysians you should know: