Expat Conservationists

They call themselves conservation biologists; we think they should be called superheroes. Joanna McCall talks to four expatriates whose work is saving species and the planet's biodiversity.

by / Published: 30 Sep 2016

Expat Conservationists

Malaysia is home to a diverse range of animal and plant life and is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. It is one of only 17 countries described as ‘megadiverse’, meaning that it contains extraordinarily high levels of biodiversity, including a large number of endemic species found nowhere else in the world. As expats living in Malaysia, we are very lucky to have such diverse species and habitats right on our doorstep.

Unfortunately, many of these species are in decline due to a combination of threats, including land development, poaching and collection, pollution and climate change. Expatriate, writer and environmental scientist by training, Joanna McCall talked to four expatriate conservation biologists from various organisations to find out how they came to work in Malaysia and how their work is helping to protect Malaysia’s native habitats and species.


Kae is a tiger biologist and General Manager of the Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers (MYCAT). She was born in Japan and then went on to complete her academic studies in America.

Kae received her PhD from the University of Florida, but the focus of her research was in Malaysia, where she spent three years studying tiger population numbers in Taman Negara National Park. She has lived here ever since, initially working for the Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia (DWNP), then subsequently for MYCAT.

The major threats to wild tigers are habitat loss, habitat fragmentation and poaching. In the 1950s, Malaysia was home to a population of over 3,000 wild tigers. The most recent population estimate now stands at 300.

Habitat loss through deforestation has had a major impact on tiger populations, but currently poaching is believed to be the biggest threat. “Habitat loss is a major issue, but in the past ten years or so, many neighbouring countries are losing tigers even though they still have forest left. This is because they are commercially valuable and they are being poached,” says Kae. Tiger parts are sold for use in traditional medicine, folk remedies and are increasingly used as a status symbol among some Asian cultures.

MYCAT, which is an alliance of four NGOs (Malaysian Nature Society, TRAFFIC, Wildlife Conservation Society Malaysia Programme and WWF-Malaysia), as well as the DWNP, have been working closely in the priority tiger habitats of Taman Negara, Endau-Rompin (South Johor) and Belum-Temenggor (the northernmost priority area). The aim is to connect these areas together to adjacent forests by forming wildlife corridors and to protect these habitats so that animals can live and move freely without coming into conflict or harm.

MYCAT was formed in 2003 with the aim of providing a platform for communication and collaboration between different organisations involved in tiger conservation in Malaysia.

To address the issue of poaching in the Sungai Yu Wildlife Corridor in Pahang, Kae and her team set up an initiative called Citizen Action for Tigers (CAT). This programme enables volunteers to help stop poaching and illegal encroachment by participating in guided weekend treks (or CAT Walk) in the Sungai Yu Wildlife Corridor, Pahang.

“Over the years, we realised that it takes more than just knowing about nature to care about it. You really need to experience it. That’s the unique opportunity that the CAT Walk provides,” Kae explains. This is obviously of huge help to MYCAT and their conservation work, but it is also beneficial to the volunteers who get to explore nature and give back to a great cause.

Participants also get to help out with research by setting up and checking camera traps. “We have camera traps to monitor whether the wildlife is coming back or whether wildlife is using the corridor, and if volunteers are checking the camera trap, they might be able to see the images of wildlife that are hard to see otherwise,” Kae explains. “We also run outreach and education programmes in poaching and trade hotspots, so we train volunteers and they come with us and facilitate education programmes around Taman Negara. We have around 1,700 volunteers from 32 countries across the globe. People are happy to get involved and we are happy because we couldn't do it all ourselves.”

One of the main challenges Kae is facing is a lack of funding. “Everybody knows tigers are endangered and are this charismatic species, but because of this, donors assume that somebody else is paying for the work.”

Another challenge for wildlife conservation in general, is people’s indifference and their disconnect with nature. This is why MYCAT is focussing on citizen conservation and public engagement. “There is a difference in people’s attitudes after they come out of the forest. They are so relaxed and happy. I can also see in their eyes that they feel they’re empowered, that they’ve done something useful with their free time this weekend. It’s great to see,” says Kae.

Despite the challenges, they are starting to see results. “When I was conducting research in 2009, every day I was seeing snares and every week I was finding dead animals in snares. After running five years of CAT Walks, we are finally starting to see the return of endangered species as finding snares became rare.”


Participating in a CAT Walk is obviously a great way for expats living in Malaysia to get involved in tiger conservation. “Anyone can do it. We’ve had participants who have never walked in the jungle and it was great to bring them out. It’s really tailored to their fitness and interest levels,” Kae explains. They also cater to larger groups and corporate events for a more personalised experience that focusses on your specific interests, such as bird watching or going on a night walk. For more, go to

Other ways of helping include awareness and fundraising events. You could organise a talk on tiger conservation at your work, social club or child’s school, host a fundraising event or have your company support MYCAT as a CSR partner or corporate donor. In addition to financial support, companies can also help by prominently featuring MYCAT on their website, social media as well as internal and external communications to spread the word.

MYCAT are also collecting 100,000 signatures for the #NoMoreDeadTigers petition, which will be presented to the Attorney General and other government agencies, so be sure to go to www.change. org/p/no-more-dead-tigers and get your friends to sign too.



Ahimsa is originally from Spain and moved abroad in 2002 to study in Japan. As part of his studies he worked in Sri Lanka, which is where he began his research into elephants. Although he enjoyed working in Sri Lanka, Ahimsa really wanted to move to Southeast Asia. “Sri Lanka has a dry tropical forest, but I was keen on exploring wet tropical forests,” he explains.

He first landed a job in Singapore, but was keen to conduct his research in Malaysia, eventually moving here in 2011 and now working as Associate Professor in Tropical Conservation Ecology at the University of Nottingham. He is also the Principal Investigator for the Management and Ecology of Malaysian Elephants (MEME) research project.

Ahimsa believes that we are living in an unprecedented situation where we have increasing numbers of people on the planet consuming resources. “We are competing for space and resources, so when it comes to the very big animals, they suffer more because they require more resources, more space and larger amounts of food,” he says.

One of the main threats facing wild elephants in Malaysia is human-elephant conflict. “Humans clear the forests, so the elephants have to move somewhere else. Then we replace their original habitat with crops, which are very attractive for elephants - they are eating machines!” When elephants eat the crops, this leads to conflict with humans who are farming the land.

In these areas, there is a very low tolerance for elephants. “People generally love elephants, but not in these areas where they are affecting them. They like them, but would rather they were somewhere else. It is the ‘not in my backyard’ issue,” says Ahimsa.

The problem facing conservationists is that in 2016, there are not many ‘somewhere elses’ besides “a few protected areas which are islands and are very small.” The challenge for this century, he believes, is to try and create conditions where elephants and humans can live together without conflict.

Another threat to elephants in Malaysia is poaching. “In Southeast Asia, this hasn’t traditionally been a very important factor, but it has got much worse in the last three years,” he says.

The main aim of Ahimsa’s work and research here is to introduce a culture of evidence-based conservation and bring science into the decision-making process for elephant conservation. “Our job is to work with the government and provide the data that makes their life easier so they can make the right choices,” he explains.

Currently, the main action for avoiding conflict has been moving elephants away from conflict areas. However, these translocation projects do not always have very high success rates. Ahimsa and his team are trying to understand more about elephant behaviour and the effects of translocation.

They have found that when elephants are moved from conflict areas, about one-third stay where they were released, one-third go somewhere else, and another third just go back to where they came from.They are also doing research into hormone levels such as cortisol, which can indicate stress or wellbeing in elephants.

Ahimsa is involved in capacity building and his hidden agenda is to eventually become redundant. “At the moment, expats are the leaders in conservation, but hopefully in 10 years the ratio will have changed a lot and most of the leaders in conservation in Malaysia will be Malaysians.”

Ahimsa tells me that the main challenges are with mindsets. “Effective conservation involves working with stakeholders who have their own agendas and priorities. We try to engage them in a constructive manner, where we try to understand their perspectives and what the constraints are.”

Despite these challenges, Ahimsa loves working here. “I have worked in many countries and this has been the most exciting place to work in my life,” he says. “I am very excited to see the progress that we are making in our work. Now, we have data which has been analysed and this is becoming ideas and advice which can be passed on. We are also working with the government in an effective way and we are moving in the right direction.”

Malaysia, he says, is one of the best countries for working in conservation due to the strong economy, good infrastructure and lack of language barrier. But by far the best thing about working here, for him, are the students. “I have been very impressed in the quality of the students here and this gives me a very positive outlook for the future.”

On a more personal level, Ahimsa dislikes traffic jams (he would rather ride his bike) and the haze, however he loves durians. Durians are partly why he came to live in Southeast Asia as he studied what happens when elephants eat the fruit and spread the seeds!

MEME take on volunteers who can offer useful skills such as photography, video directing, web design and teaching English. In turn, volunteers get to learn about wildlife and conservation. For more information, you can visit their website:



Chris is originally from British Columbia. He moved to Asia over 20 years ago to work as a volunteer in Indonesia. This was when he first started learning and writing about wildlife trade.

Chris then joined TRAFFIC in Indonesia, initially working on survey projects out in the field. A few years, later he moved to Malaysia and is now the Regional Director for Southeast Asia. “When I first started here, there were three of us. Now, this office runs the whole of Southeast Asia and there are about 30 staff members,” he says.

TRAFFIC is the leading non-governmental organisation working globally on trade in wild animals and plants. “We monitor wildlife trade, both legal and illegal, and we work to ensure that legal trade is carried out in a sustainable way and isn’t causing a decline in any species,” Chris explains.

In Asia, Chris and his team are largely focussed on illegal trade and looking at ways of supporting enforcement efforts and strengthening legislation. He tells me that here in Southeast Asia, we are sitting in a global hotspot for critically endangered species. “We’ve got more critically endangered species and more species threatened by trade than anywhere else in the world.”

TRAFFIC also plays a big role in the region as a sort of ‘early warning system’ for wildlife. “Through our monitoring, we’ll see species suddenly become more threatened – or fashions change and a new species is in demand – so we try to get on top of that and keep that species or group of species from disappearing.”

There are a number of different species currently in danger, ranging from small plants to large mammals; tortoises are one such group. “Tortoises are being smuggled into Southeast Asia from Madagascar. They’re just about gone from the wild and are in huge demand as status pets,” says Chris. Otters are also being taken from the wild in the greater Mekong region to be used for their fur and as pets.

In Vietnam, TRAFFIC is focussing their efforts on rhino horn, currently in demand amongst wealthy businessmen who use it as a status symbol and as a cure for their hangovers. Sadly, many of these buyers do it purely because the horns are rare and unique. “These are exhaustible resources, so there’s even more demand for them. They want to have one of the last ones,” says Chris.

Other species under threat include pangolins, traded illegally for their meat and unique scales. Bears also fall under this category; the poaching and illegal trade of bears is largely driven by the demand for their bile, which is used in traditional medicines. Bear bile products are frequently found in mainland China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Myanmar and Vietnam.

The challenges of his work include raising awareness amongst the public and enforcement agencies, as well as trying to strengthen enforcement around the region. There is still a lot to do, but they are starting to make some progress. Chris tells me that countries like Malaysia have really strengthened their laws, which is a great step forward from an enforcement point of view. “The pet stores in Malaysia used to all have Indian Star Tortoises. Now none of them do,” he says.

Awareness is key and Chris believes that public awareness and engagement is on the increase. “More and more often, I meet people who know what a pangolin is and that the animals are in trouble. People are becoming more interested and more concerned, so that’s a big step forward.”

Besides the public, the media are also showing more of an interest. “When I first started, the media would contact us about twice a year; now it’s almost every day. Obviously, the public wants to hear about it,” he says.

Getting the public involved is part of TRAFFIC’s new initiative, called the Wildlife Witness App. The free app allows travelers to report wildlife trade by taking a photo or pinning a location. The app then sends this information to TRAFFIC and their team of crime data analysts. “Then, it either becomes a piece of a bigger puzzle or sometimes it is the puzzle itself. We can then report it and it’s actioned on,” Chris explains.

He also advises expats not to buy live animals with the idea of releasing them back into the wild. “A lot of the wildlife you might buy here is probably from another country and so are the parasites and diseases that it’s carrying. When people release them, they are potentially threatening the local population,” he says. Instead, he recommends reporting the seller rather than supporting their business.

Chris wants to encourage people to explore the wild spaces on their doorstep. “For someone who likes wildlife, Malaysia is great. A lot of the countries in this region have far less wildlife and you have to travel a lot further to go see it,” he says. Some of his favourite wildlife spots are Taman Negara, Bukit Tinggi, Fraser’s Hill and Kuala Selangor.

Get the latest updates by following TRAFFIC Southeast Asia’s Facebook page at You can also download the Wildlife Witness App on iTunes for free to do your part.



Julian is originally from the UK and has lived in Malaysia since 1998. He moved out to Kuala Lumpur while working for an environmental consulting business, but subsequently left this job to follow his dream and run a dive centre on Pulau Tioman. “I’d been diving there since I first moved to Malaysia and I ended up buying that dive centre,” he says.

He got involved with Reef Check Malaysia after the original coordinator approached the Malaysian Nature Society, where his wife was working, “That’s how my wife heard about it and she liked it, so she bought it out to the dive centre,” he explains. Then, they both moved back to KL and Julian became more and more involved with the organisation. “We got some money from the British government and set up as an NGO in 2007,” he says. He is now the General Manager.

Julian and his team of staff and volunteers have collected large amounts of data on Malaysia’s coral reefs through their dive surveys. Julian has noticed that the quality of the reefs varies greatly on a site-by-site basis, meaning the average figures can be misleading. “It’s very difficult to talk in averages because you can have one reef which is extremely healthy and one reef which is extremely unhealthy, and they can actually not be very far apart,” he says.

Overall, the reefs in Malaysia are categorised as between fair and good. “This means that we’ve got somewhere around 50 per cent live coral cover on the reefs. Some are much better and some are much worse, but that’s the average and that compares well to other countries in the region.”

Their surveys also found reef quality to be higher in peninsular Malaysia than in Sabah (Malaysian Borneo). “A lot of the problems in Sabah have been caused historically by fish bombing,” Julian tells me. This practice uses explosives to to stun the fish, making them float to the surface for easy collection. However, it also destroys the reef underneath.

Julian explains that the threats to coral reefs can be separated into two categories: global threats and local threats. Global threats are things like climate change, which can lead to coral bleaching – when the water is too warm, corals expel the algae living in their tissues, turning white as a result. “We’ve had a mass bleaching event throughout the Asia-Pacific region this year,” says Julian.

The local impacts, Julian explains, are easier to start doing something about. “If you think about islands like Tioman and Redang, these have all got high tourism numbers. They’ve got lots of diving and snorkelling going on, so there’s direct reef impacts: anchors, divers, snorkellers, sewage pollution and land clearing,” he says. “You can actually do something about these things on a local basis: you can train the divers better, supervise the snorkellers better, fix the sewage infrastructure and make sure that you manage sights better when you’re developing.”

At Reef Check Malaysia, they have been working closely with the marine parks department for nearly two years to find out what the local impacts are and what they can do about them. “We need local management to solve local problems.”

In the early days, the focus was mainly on the dive surveys and collecting data. Although this data is still invaluable to the work they do, Julian is now working more closely with government agencies to try and bridge the gap between the management authorities and the local people. “We have evolved now to work more on the ground. You’ve got to work with the local communities, local stakeholders and tourism operators. If it’s going to be effective, it has to be driven by them.”

Julian is proud of they work they have done already on Tioman Island. “We are implementing programmes with the dive operators to improve their environmental performance and the supervision of divers.” Known as ‘Green Fins’, this monitoring initiative is a collaborative programme with the Marine Parks Department.

“We train assessors who will go into a dive centre and look at how they’re using cleaning materials. They look at engines, boat performance, trash management, and it’s all little incremental changes to a dive centre which, over time, can have a big impact.”

If you are a diver, then the best way to get involved is to take part in a dive survey. “Most of our surveys are actually conducted by volunteers,” says Julian. Each year, Reef Check Malaysia train anywhere from 30 to 50 people and they join survey trips to Tioman and Redang in Peninsular Malaysia, as well as other islands in Sabah. You need to be a relatively experienced diver to take part (around 20 to 25 dives), however they do run pool training sessions in Kuala Lumpur to assess people’s abilities.

The surveys are much more focussed than a normal leisure dive, but Julian explains that it will change the way you view the ocean. “Almost everyone I know who has done the training says it changes the way that they dive and their perception of reefs. People tend to see a lot more on a dive because they’re more aware of the ecology of the reef.”

For more information on how to get involved, you can visit their website at or their Facebook page at