Celebrated naturalist Irshad Mobarak knows how to tell a good story, writes Elena Koshy
“LET me tell you a story,” begins Irshad Mobarak to a captive audience. And tell you a story he does, painting a vivid tale about a pair of Great Hornbills, where imageries of love, faithfulness and family get woven into a striking tale that finds us travelling from our chairs into the verdant rainforest miles away with birdsong in the air.
A gifted storyteller, the country’s best known naturalist and conservationist combines lively stories with fascinating facts about nature and wildlife. He was recently in town to promote the launch of his first book Discovering Langkawi With Irshad Mobarak.
The island has been his home for more than 30 years and there’s no better person to tell Langkawi’s story, from its extraordinary geological diversity, ancient myths and fascinating wildlife.
A CHAPTER UNFOLDS
“Langkawi cast her spell on me and it’s never been broken,” says Irshad, smiling, as he recalls the day he decided to put his roots down on a remote island, far from the bustling town of Kuala Lumpur where he was once a banker.
“I first clapped my eyes on the Great Hornbill on a birdwatching trip up Gunung Raya, Langkawi’s highest peak. Peering from the green foliage was this regal looking bird with exquisite eyelashes and a beautiful casque. It was love at first sight for me. It was then I decided I wanted to make my home on this island,” he recalls.
The Great Hornbill remains Irshad’s favourite bird and is subject of some of his captivating stories. “The Great Hornbill bonds for life with its mate and makes amazing parents. There’s so much we can learn from them,” he says, his eyes lighting up as he continues with great enthusiasm. “The Langkawi archipelago consisting of 104 islands in the Andaman seas is an ecologically-rich and complex site. Recognised as a Unesco Global Geopark, it has over 90 significant sites identified for geological and ecological significances. This amazing geological history has resulted in a spectacular diversity in flora, a true naturalist haven!”
Irshad is a strong advocate for the conservation of Langkawi’s fragile natural heritage. He says: “It was David Attenborough who said ‘there are some four million different kinds of animals and plants in the world and four million different solutions to the problems of staying alive’. Saving our forests goes beyond merely protecting our biodiversity. It’s about protecting our quality of life.”
Following in the footsteps of his heroes, the legendary Alfred Russel Wallace and botanist Professor David Bellamy, Irshad has journeyed a long way since his interest in natural history and conservation was sparked a lifetime ago.
EPILOGUE OF A STORY
“I want to be like that man!” A young Irshad Mobarak pointed at a documentary on TV featuring Bellamy when his father asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. “My father instilled in us a love for the outdoors,” recalls Irshad. “We were an outdoorsy family and I suppose my passion for nature began as a young kid exploring the wild and being right at home with nature. My father wasn’t surprised when I wanted to emulate Bellamy.”
Surprisingly, he started a career as a banker, an incongruous decision that veered him away from his boyhood dream. He admits that the lure of sports got him into the banking world. “It fulfilled two expectations — sports and a steady job!” he chuckles. However, a chance trip to Tioman Island reconnected him with his passion for nature. “I snorkelled for the first time, and the beauty of the underwater world struck me so deeply. I hardly spent much time out of the water for the rest of the time I was there,” he confides.
He quit his job when he returned to the city, and decided to follow his heart and passion. He hasn’t looked back since. Today, he is one of Malaysia’s most celebrated and recognised nature advocates. Based in Langkawi, the 58-year-old naturalist runs a nature guiding company and is a resident naturalist at the Datai Resort where he conducts his popular interpretive walks, constantly educating and inspiring people through his stories.
HEART OF THE STORY
What is it about Irshad that draws people? In person, he’s exactly the way he is when he holds court on stage — charismatic, compelling and charming, with a self-deprecating sense of humour.
“My name is Irshad Mobarak and I’m a naturalist not a naturist!” he says with a wink. As a consummate storyteller and communicator, Irshad is poetic, humorous and knowledgeable.
His stories are simple and the messages always clear: We are connected to nature in ways deeper than we can imagine.
He doesn’t preach, but he has that innate ability to make you care. His book is a personification of the author himself. Filled with interesting stories, anecdotes and facts, you’ll discover the enduring love between hornbills, a misunderstood tree and an unusual relationship formed between a butterfly and an ant.
“Nature is full of amazing stories and lessons we can learn from,” he says.
Langkawi’s natural world still continues to hold its fascination over Irshad like a spell that’s never been broken.
He confides: “Nature never runs out of surprises. The many lessons I’ve learnt and continue to learn have given me much direction for my life and my work as a naturalist.”
He hopes to share these lessons with more people. Concluding, Irshad says: “It’s my hope that my book will open people’s eyes to the mysteries and wonder of nature. Come to Langkawi, get to know her and you may just fall in love with her like I did and my love story continues.”
DISCOVERING LANGKAWI WITH IRSHAD MOBARAK
Author: Irshad Mobarak
Publisher: Irshad Mobarak
THERE’S something in this book for everybody. It offers a refreshing insight to the popular holiday destination and urges you to veer off the beaten track and discover a different side of Langkawi.
A heady amalgamation of travelogue, reference guide and stories, this is a book that urges you to get off your seat and make a trek to the Jewel Of Kedah, the archipelago’s official title, bestowed in 2008. In his book, Irshad combines folklore and extensive research along with his experiences, and forms a compelling collection of Langkawi’s best kept secrets, her incredible biodiversity and breath-taking landscapes.
It’s not so much a book as it is a personal invitation from Irshad, with a checklist of Langkawi’s special flora and fauna that have shaped her wonderful natural heritage.
The book is available at Silverfish Books in Bangsar Village II. Contact the publisher directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.