It all begins at the fall of 1989 when I first came to Taiwan from Malaysia to continue by college education. I recalled it was the second day of my college life in National Pingtung Agriculture College when I saw the poster of Bird Watching Club (BWC), posted at the notice board of the 1st Restaurant, announcing its first meeting of the semester and recruitment for new members. The poster caught my attention because of the word “Bird”. At that time, I never knew there was an activity call “bird watching”. What I did know about birds was keeping cage birds for amusing or bird singing, the hobby that I have been doing for few years at that time-keeping and breeding birds. The first impression after seeing that poster was “what a COOL student club!” As always, the first feeling toward something is always the right of choice: I am going to join them!
Sure enough, Bird Watching Club at National Pingtung Agriculture College, which later upgrade to National Pingtung Polytechnic Institute, and finally Nation Pingtung University of Science and Technology, has become an important part of my two years college’s life in Taiwan. I saw and recognized my first brown shrike during a morning bird watching activity here in the campus; I did the first bird interpretation for visitors, raptor count and New Year Bird Count at Kenting National Park in southern tip of Taiwan; and get to know Prof. Kurtis Pei who was the advisor of the BWC, and of course, fallen in love with Sun Chia-Chien, my wife, all under the activities and name of BWC.
We called ourselves “Bird People” or “birders”. We carry a pair of binoculars and spotting scope wherever we were going and trying to identify every single feathered creature we saw. Through my binoculars, I saw, learned, and appreciated the beauty of nature and our feathered friends, and what the Creator has given to this world to make it more colorful and joyful. However, also through the same pair of binoculars, I saw the unlawful activities of mist netting and poaching of birds. That was the first time I was introduced to the word “conservation” and later on, “endangered species”, and then “wildlife research”.
My interest on these three topics multiplied during the two years I worked as research assistant for Prof. Pei, involving various research projects including wildlife surveys, radio-telemetry study of barking deer at Little Ghost Lake area, camera trapping, and also taking care of orangutans and other endangered species at the newly established Pingtung Rescue Center for Endangered Species.
In 1994, I quitted Pei’s lab and further continue my education majoring in Wildlife Biology at University of Montana, USA. It was considered as a “difficult task” for many people from ordinary Asian family. The same year, I met my then future academic advisor, Dr. Christopher Servheen, who was looking for a Malaysian student to conduct an ecological study on sun bears. I took the challenge and later became a mission. In 1998, I stated the field work for my M.Sc. project, studying the ecology of Malayan sun bears in Danum Valley, a lowland rainforest of Borneo. For the first time, the study revealed the mysterious life history of this little known bear and many ecological aspects of Bornean rainforest. The study did answered what I plan to answer at the first place. However, it also generated a series of desperate questions and urgent needs to do more conservation and research works for sun bears in Southeast Asia: sun bears remain the least known bears and one of least studied large mammal in Southeast Asia. Their habitat, the lowland tropical forest, is disappearing at alarming rate due to illegal and unsustainable logging, human development, and large-scale conversion to agriculture land, especially into oil-palm plantation in Malaysia and Indonesia.
In 2002, I started my doctorate program at the same university. In view of there were so much unknown about sun bears and issue with logging, I decided to study the effects of logging on sun bears and bearded pigs at Danum Valley, the same study area where I did my MSc study in Sabah, Malaysia Borneo. The three years of field started in 2005 and ended in 2008. Like most studies on large mammals, the fieldwork has face tremendous challenges and difficulties. We sweated, bled, cried, and even lost our life working in one of the harshest place on the planet.
Although the focus of my studies was on wild sun bears, I never forgot about the unfortunate condition for captive sun bears that I came across over the years. These captive sun bears were all in desperate needs of help from us. These bears were kept as pets because of their cuteness when small and relatively small size. They were all kept in small cages, unhygienic environment, and in some places were completely disgusting! Some were cubs, some were full grown adults, and some were old individuals. All of them suffered from serious stereotypic behavior, pacing all day long if there were any room in their tiny cage for them to pace. Seeing these bears in these captive conditions were completely heartbroken. However, I choose to find them, see more of them, and learn more about the stories behind them. This is how the idea of Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, BSBCC, first came in to my mind. BSBCC is the conservation project that I am working now in Sabah. The centre aim to conserve, to research, to introduce and to educate the public about sun bears and their plights. In short, BSBCC is one of the very first project in the world to help sun bear and to raise awareness to conserve this forgotten bear species.
Sun bear like most wildlife is forest dependent species. They simply cannot survive outside the forest. My experience working in Southeast Asia shows desperate situation for the continuation and survival of both wildlife and local forests. Much more work is needed to ensure the long-term survival of the native wildlife and forests. In many parts of Southeast Asia, the tropical forests are disappearing rapidly to a point where too late to do anything. In contrast, due to the economy and political stability, Malaysia still has a chance for conservationists to save the last stronghold of Southeast Asian rainforests and wildlife. We need distinguished biologists to train local students as conservationists and biologists, to educate public and government on the importance of conservation, and to study the flora and fauna in order to understand better its functions. I am and I was, trained as an “animal expert” or wildlife biologist for all these years. I hope to use these knowledge and training to do a great job in my career to conserve wildlife and forests.
The conservation history of Taiwan has come from a long way from a country where the word “conservation” and “animal welfare” never seem to exist about 20 years ago when I first came to Taiwan, to a conservation model country in Asia. Like my own experience in conservation, it all begin from bird watching and the efforts of “bird people” growing big and strong. I am honored and proud to be a family member of Bird Watching Club, which celebrates her 30th anniversary last year. Today, bird watching no longer simply a “watching birds” activity. In stead, it has become an important starting point to promote conservation, improve environmental quality, and conserve wildlife and wildlife habitat. So next time when we do bird watching with a pair of binoculars or a spotting scope, make sure that we see more than just the birds in the scope. We should see what lies beyond the pretty birds; we should see the wildlife habitats, the environment, and future of their kind and our own kind and how can we do to bring a better future for ALL of us! Lastly, we all should take actions accordingly. We have only one planet, one life, and one time to make things right. Please join me. Together, we can make a difference!