'Abang Ikan' Ilham is UMT citizen scientist

SETIU: Mohd Ilham Norhakim Lokman, 35, who gained prominence for his in-depth knowledge of fish species despite having no paper qualifications, has been elevated to the status of "citizen scientist" by Universiti Malaysia Terengganu (UMT).

The "kampung ichthyologist", who only has a Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia certificate to his name, has nevertheless earned plaudits from the academic world for his efforts to identify and protect local species of fish.

On Thursday, the fishmonger delivered a lecture at UMT's Industry in Classroom session organised by its Science and Environment Faculty.

His lecture focused on the important role of citizen scientists in the conservation of biodiversity ex-situ.

His dedication to the subject has seen him travel all over the country and even to Indonesia in search of fish specimens. He also followed old journals to locate their habitats — all at his own expense.

His trusty 12-year-old white Perodua Alza has clocked 495,000km so far, venturing into terrains where only 4x4 wheelers dare to go.

"My car is my second home. I usually spend several days in secluded locations near streams and rivers, where the habitat are still untouched by development.

"I am doing this because the researchers cannot be at these places due to their commitment at the universities.

"It is scary sometimes, but it cannot defeat my passion for discovering rare local fish species to be documented by researchers with whom I collaborate at UMT, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Universiti Selangor and Universiti Tun Hussein Onn Malaysia.

"I have also helped universities organise field trips for students to catch fishes for their research," he told the New Straits Times after his lecture.

This, however, was not Ilham's first lecture as he has become a common figure on specific topics on ichthyology and conservation in various universities, with his audience comprising both students and researchers, local and abroad.

His collaboration with ichthyologists from several universities also led to the publication of his first coffee table book titled Fishes of North Selangor Peat Swamp Forest.

He had also appeared on television three times to talk about the conservation of fish habitat and biodiversity.

He commands a sizeable following on Facebook, where he is known as "Abang Ikan" in Ikan Air Tawar Malaysia, a group in which he is one of the moderators and has 28,666 followers.

He also has 10,000 followers on his own Facebook account.

Ilham said with the help of his friends he would continue to catch, breed and release rare fishes to their original habitats or in new areas.

"Some of the original habitat of rare local species, such as Betta persephone, have been destroyed by development. This species is only found in one location in Johor, but its habitat is now gone.

"A group of specialised breeders and I will raise this fish at home in pools and aquariums. Once we have enough specimens, we will release them at a new location where the water perimeter matches the original habitat.

"We will document this process and share it with researchers," he said, adding that the conservation efforts were for the survival of the species and future generations.

It was this collaboration with researchers at universities that also earned him the accolade of citizen scientist.

Ilham's expedition in the wilderness to look for rare fishes has also sparked a new interest in orchid conservation and zoology.

"My thirst for knowledge is insatiable. I want to share my experience and the best way is to collaborate with researchers at universities," he added.

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