March 4, 2024

Braging bloodsucking leeches and the blazing Malaysian sun, four volunteers walk along the heavily forested Marcus Trail in Malaysia’s Sungai Yu Ecological Corridor, which plays a crucial role in connecting the two largest forested landscapes in the country – the Titiwangsa Mountains and the 130-million-year-old Taman Negara rainforest, the largest national park in the country.

The trek is part of a boots-on-the-ground initiative called the Cat walkwhich involves volunteers in anti-poaching patrols and reforestation work for the conservation of the Malayan tiger (Panthera tigris jacksoni)a subspecies found only in the forests of Peninsular Malaysia.

Since 2015, the IUCN has the Malayan tiger as critically endangered. “The results of the national tiger survey, which was shared publicly in 2022, revealed that there were less than 150 Malaysian tigers in the wild,” says Dr Kae Kawanishi, head of conservation at the Malaysian Tiger Conservation Alliance ( mycat). “It is spread across large and increasingly fragmented forest complexes across the Malaysian peninsula.”

A pair of Malayan tigers captured on a camera trap in the Malaysian forest
A pair of Malayan tigers recorded on a camera trap in the Malaysian forest in 2021. Photo: WWF Malaysia

Founded in 2010 by Mycat, an alliance of several Malaysian conservation NGOs, and the Department of Wildlife and National Parks of Peninsular Malaysia to address the severe shortage of forest guards and rangers, more than 2,500 volunteers from 38 countries participated in the Cat (Citizen Action for Tigers) Walk. “This is possibly the only program in the world where people can get involved in tiger conservation on the ground and make a real difference,” says Muna Noor, who leads the initiative.

Cat Walks are held most weekends for local volunteers and at least once a month for those coming from overseas, with a maximum of eight people on a walk.

The current group of Cat Walkers is led by Mycat’s Alex Jack and Hairiel Muhamad Nor, along with Noor. Using a machete to clear the overgrowth, Jack and Nor make way for the group to pass. The hikers keep an eye out for signs of traps, human encroachment and illegal logging, and stop to check a camera trap placed by Mycat along the trail. Nor does teaching a volunteer, Francesca Failla, an Italian woman living in Singapore, how to remove the memory card from the camera trap.

Hairiel Muhamad Nor shows volunteer Francesca Failla how to retrieve the memory card from a camera trap.
Hairiel Muhamad Nor shows volunteer Francesca Failla how to retrieve the memory card from a camera trap. Photo: Anne Pinto-Rodrigues

With the map detected, the images are downloaded and reviewed. Collective “oohs” and “aahs” fill the air as the volunteers identify elephants, tapirs, muntjac deer and other wildlife in the camera-trap images. The highlight is a sambar deer, a favorite prey for tigers. “It took many years for tiger prey species such as the sambar, once exterminated in the corridor, to return,” says Noor. While no tigers were seen this time, given the sambar’s return, Noor remains cautiously optimistic.

Despite being actively on the lookout for traps and human intrusion, the team is relieved to find no signs of either. This is progress from the Cat Walk’s early days when volunteers regularly found traps. Noor recalls one of her own experiences: “It was so disturbing when we came across a snare with a skeleton in it,” she says. “It could have been a bear, a leopard or a young tiger.”

After several hours in the forest, the volunteers walk back on the 4km Marcus trail and return to their guesthouse in the village of Merapoh. They set off again early next morning on the Bukit Botak route, which takes them through another part of the corridor. In the Malay language, hill means hill while bottom branch means bare, the name indicating the heavy deforestation that took place in the area. The volunteers spend the morning planting saplings of wild, fruit-bearing species.

Hairiel Muhamad Nor supervises as volunteers Jack Sutcliffe and Francesca Failla plant seeds in the forest
Hairiel Muhamad Nor supervises as volunteers, Jack Sutcliffe and Francesca Failla plant seeds in the Mycat nursery to help the endangered tigers through reforestation. Photo: Anne Pinto-Rodrigues

Over the years, Mycat has planted nearly 22,000 seedlings along the corridor. A team of 16, including six Indigenous women Batek community, is used to ensure that the saplings receive adequate aftercare. According to Jack, Mycat’s field conservation manager, the seedlings have an almost 75% survival rate.

A nursery was started in 2016 to support the reforestation efforts and currently holds around 5,000 seedlings of 30 fruit plants.

With the planting done, the group continues to patrol and check for another camera trap. Again there are images of sambar deer, along with various other game species.

Soon they stumble upon sambar footprints in the soft mud. They stop to measure the prints and document other details. “All the information collected goes into a database,” says Noor. “We draw it on a map that tells us where the species is and where the potential threats are. It’s really important to us.”

Since the beginning of the Cat Walks, Batek men have started working as guides. Adi, with a single name, is one of them. “I like to bring people into the forest and tell them about it,” he says in the Batek language. The Bateks share a close relationship with nature, and Adi sees himself and his people as an extension of the forest.

“Unfortunately, the forest is being pushed towards more and more development,” he says. He talks about the forest being “open and clear”, an indication of the ongoing deforestation in some parts, and worries that the shrinking forest will push his community and the animals that live there into a conflict situation.

The forest, seen from the Marcus Trail
The forest, seen from the Marcus Trail, part of the corridor between the two largest forested landscapes in the country. Photo: Anne Pinto-Rodrigues

Mycat’s presence in the form of Cat Walks and other initiatives is comforting to Adi. “Their watchful eyes prevented some of these forests from being cleared,” he says. “By taking care of the forest, Mycat also takes care of us.”

For most first-time Cat Walkers, this has a profound impact. “This forest landscape is so exciting,” says Failla, who has not yet visited Malaysia. “I learned a lot during the Cat Walk and am happy to make a difference.” She is sure to join another one in the future – volunteers from Malaysia and Singapore often return.

Despite the seemingly bleak outlook for the Malayan tiger, Kawanishi remains hopeful. “Keeping the corridor safe by working with the local community and reconnecting the public to nature through the Cat Walk program gives the Malayan tiger a fighting chance to survive into the next decade,” she says.

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