On the field, meeting with dragonfly expert, Professor Madya Dr C.Y. Choong.
When a scientific expedition brings together a group of school children into their conservation work, you can be sure it’s a serious affair.

With a land area of approximately 1,800 hectares, Pangkor Island, off the coast of Lumut is considered tiny. But don’t let its diminutiveness fool you: big things are happening here.

Over the past week the island had become the site of a quiet, but grand conservation experiment.The experiment isn’t just about the 150-strong (and serious) researchers making their way into the island’s pristine primary rainforest or diving into the depths of her seas to document and record her hidden natural treasures in the hopes of making a meaningful contribution to the long-term conservation of Pangkor’s amazing albeit little-known biodiversity. The Pangkor Scientific Expedition 2017, organised by Ecotourism & Conservation Society Malaysia (ECOMY) and Vale Malaysia Minerals, is serious work no doubt.

While important research and discoveries are being made on an island best known for its holiday resorts and endless beaches, the other real conservation experiment lies amidst the chattering, fidgety groups of young students armed with sun-fending caps, t-shirts and grubby notebooks, waiting under the blazing heat for directions.

Serious scientific work? Check. Serious as a heart attack, maybe. But these eager learners are out to have fun, namely to get acquainted with nature that’s out there in their backyards.

Hailing from local villages from around the island, a total of 155 students volunteered to take part in the scientific expedition, most simply attracted by the prospect of an adventure out in the wild.

But Dr Evelyn Lim Ai Lin, co-founder of ECOMY, environmental educationist and senior lecturer at University Putra Malaysia (UPM) isn’t too concerned about their motivations. “It’s all about giving young people an opportunity to contribute meaningfully to science,” she says, before adding with a smile: “...while having fun, of course!”

Changing mind-sets

The students’ participation contributes to one of the expedition’s objectives, which is to build knowledge and skills among the local community and raise social scientists. For Lim’s team, this is a life-changing experience that provides valuable knowledge and a chance to give back to their communities.

It’s definitely life-changing, judging from the look of trepidation that’s etched on the faces of the students when they first arrived in droves to the expedition’s operations base at Panvill Resort located at Kampung Teluk Nipah, Pangkor.

The nervousness is almost palpable; whispers reach an excitable crescendo as they take in the hectic goings-on (teams of scientists and volunteers scurrying everywhere, with some being piled into vans to be taken into the forest or the sea) around Lim, who stands calmly like the eye in the centre of a storm.

“It’s probably the first time they’ve experienced Pangkor this way, and for most of them, this would be their first field trip,” says Lim, wryly. And she’s right. They may be islanders but they’re not well acquainted with the side of Pangkor they don’t usually come into contact with. The pristine virgin rainforest that covers Pangkor’s interiors remains largely unexplored by her own residents.

The island’s population forms a diverse kaleidoscope of people who have an undisputed strong attachment to their island. However, many of them don’t connect that relationship to daily activities that would be best for Pangkor, such as reducing and recycling garbage, respecting wildlife and locally unique flora.

The rapid growth of population and tourism of recent decades has accelerated the lifestyle on the island and turned the relationship the inhabitants once had with nature, into a rush for immediate benefit.

“It’s not just about collecting data, although that’s crucial to understand, manage and hopefully protect Pangkor Islands,” says Lim, pointing out that the expedition has a loftier goal of trying to inculcate a sense of ownership and love for the island.

“That’s where we come in,” she says looking on at the crowd of students with a smile. “This experiential education programme aims to increase knowledge, improve attitudes and encourage positive actions of students and teachers in Pangkor.”

Our efforts to save our country’s spectacular natural heritage will depend on our success in reconnecting young people and nature, to make conservation the concern of every student and every citizen of this place we call home. - Dr Evelyn Lim Ai Lin

Changing people

The students embark on a different level of learning than what they’re used to within the confines of their classroom. Through the course of the seven-day expedition, the older students experience first-hand how researchers painstakingly collect data in the forest or out in the ocean. Explains Lim: “The Form Four students are given the task of being research ‘assistants’ and attached to different research teams with different focuses ranging from aroids (a study of a certain flowering plant family in the wild), birds, small mammals, insects, forest ecology and dendrology (study of trees), rapid assessment and environmental education programmes.”

“Where’s the fun part?” I wonder aloud. “Of course it’s fun! These are mostly non-science students thrown into the mix of science, conservation and research!” she says with a wicked chuckle before telling me that most of them were nervous to be assisting researchers. Others meanwhile were wiped out physically from having to hike up the forest all day.

Pointing out that this was their first exposure to the wealth of Pangkor’s natural heritage, she adds: “Despite being a native to the island, they’ve never ventured into the North and South Pangkor Forest Reserve and Sungai Pinang Forest Reserve as they’re afraid of the unfamiliar environment.”

A pause and Lim continues: “I wondered if they’d stay on through the entire programme because they were physically and mentally stretched.” But they pulled through and stayed on. “Peer pressure!” she deadpans with a laugh before saying: “It’s good that they’re all closely knitted as a group. They cheered each other on and till today, they’re still talking about the experience with each other and with me.”

She’s right of course. Sixteen-year-old Ellie Natasha Mohamad Jefri, a student from Sekolah Menengah Pangkor, excitedly shares with me about her role in assisting the dendrology researchers. “I got to measure trees and I learnt so much about them!” she exclaims. The fact that she bandies words like dendrology (something I had to look up — much to my embarrassment) is impressive.

“I’ve never been in the forest before despite having lived in Pangkor all my life!” chips in Qurratu’aini Izzati Ramli, better known as Aini, also 16. “This is the first time I’ve seen a snake and other small mammals,” she says with a shy giggle. They’re both passionate about caring for the environment now, “We’ve got to protect our forest,” declares Aini as Ellie nods in agreement.

Conservation. Dendrology. Ecology. Mammals. These are words which were alien to this band of students before, including Ellie and Aini. But now, these very words pepper their conversations. The learning has begun and the message is spreading. “That’s exactly the kind of reaction I hoped to get. Small changes, one step at a time,” says Lim, smiling.

Starting them young

The grand conservation experiment in pitching a group of children together with scientists and researchers is an idea Lim has been mooting since the inception of the expedition. “It’s simply not enough to wave a bunch of data at the residents. Sometimes, the best way to get people interested is to reel them in through their children,” she says candidly.

“What we have here today are a group of influencers,” she declares, looking on as her assistants herd in a group of pre-schoolers into the van for a trip to the beach. They’ll be learning about the beach ecology and “...the importance of ensuring that seashells remain on the beach as shells are not only important whitening agents to the beac, they also provide food and home for its inhabitants, the tiny molluscs and hermit crabs.”

It’s also an interesting lesson in palaeontology — getting young students to understand what happens to shells after the organisms that inhabit them die. “We tell them that if you snag a seashell from the beach and drop it into your pocket, you might be altering the seaside environment,” says Lim.

The beaches of Pasir Bogak and Teluk Nipah are often revered for their beautiful sunsets and a host of water activities. However, the beach walk and rock pools exploration shed a different light for these students. “Beyond the busy human activities at the beach, there are many living organisms that are often taken for granted,” remarks Lim.

Declaring that “the disconnect between kids and nature is one of the greatest crises of our time,” Lim concludes in all earnestness: “Our efforts to save our country’s spectacular natural heritage will depend on our success in reconnecting young people and nature, to make conservation the concern of every student and every citizen of this place we call home.”

A smattering of laughter can be heard as a group of students chat with Professor Choong, a leading researcher in dragonflies. “That’s the dragonfly man!” I overhear a loud whisper from one of the students who’s obviously in awe.

It’s clear that there’s so much to discover at the Pangkor Scientific Expedition in Pangkor. And for the students who are present here, it’s serious business indeed.

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