A conversation with a conservationist
By Danielle Sendou Ringgit
One of the most common misconceptions about a wildlife conservationist is that they are hippies, radical tree huggers or always protesting against any and all development.
For WWF-Malaysia Sarawak programme leader Jason Hon, being a conservationist is more than that.
Besides preserving the ecological integrity of natural habitats and all the wild species that live in them, WWF-Malaysia works closely with government and non-government agencies, extending their help, expertise and support in any way to help conserve the environment.
According to Jason, besides community engagement and addressing critical issues affecting Sarawak and the public, they also work closely with the Sarawak Forestry Department on seeing more totally protected areas (TPA) gazetted in Sarawak. TPAs are fully regulated areas where no logging activities are allowed.
Before taking on the role as programme leader last month, he was the policy manager for the Sarawak Programme. He also oversees the Conservation Spatial Planning programme to identify areas of conservation priority and provides support for other programmes, namely Responsible Forestry, Sustainable Palm Oil and Protected areas.
“We have dedicated officers under the protected area programme. The first thing that we are working on is the government’s target to achieve 1,000,000 hectares totally protected areas,” said Jason.
“So, the first thing that we do is that we acknowledge that the government has a goal and try to work with them towards that goal. This is where we step up and help the government identify which areas can be conserved, and what are the values in these areas; if the areas are already in the process how can we help to speed it up,” explained Jason.
In 2010, the state announced its target of turning one million hectares of its natural forest into TPAs by the year 2020 in the form of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. In 2014, it was announced that the state had reached 70 per cent of that target.
With a passion for conservation and countless experience working on the field, Jason is now involved in a project to identify conservation priority areas for terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems in Sarawak using systematic conservation planning approach.
“Under this programme, we identified areas that are of conservation importance for Sarawak. We have a set of criteria and attributes that would help us identify specific areas that is important for conservation, and we have to defend why we need to defend this as a very important area, whether it serves as a corridor connectivity or habitat or an expansion of habitat for certain species because it preserves unique ecosystem.”
Through this systematic conservation planning approach, areas identified that are of importance for conservation will be brought to the forestry department.
“Conservation has never been in the main scope of jobs for people to consider and it is not understood by many. People would also ask, ‘Is there money to be made out of this?’ Because of that, a lot of parents do not encourage their children to venture into this kind of role,” he said.
Besides career prospects, Jason also feels that development taking place in the country also influences the community’s attitude towards the importance of conservation compared to development.
“They feel it is not something important to consider, and we need more resources and that is why they put conservation at the back,” said Jason. “The natural environment serves a lot of purpose in our life, not only as resources, but also for the extra value that natural surroundings provide for the people.”
For Jason, he had always been curious about nature and the way it works, sparking his interest in conservation.
“To be in this line, you do not need academic qualifications, anybody can become one. You do not need to study conservation to be one, but you must have passion. It could be a passion in a particular species or animal that you work with,” said Jason.
While being a conservationist is a noble job and one might envision themselves as a modern-day Jane Goodall, naturalist Dian Fossey or even Steve Irwin, it is undoubtedly a tough job.
“You really need to know your subject really well since conservation is an evolving field. I always tell people that I learn new things every day because I deal with complex issues: the changing environment, the changing needs of people, and the changing policy of the government,” he added, explaining that being a conservationist does not involve routine work and sometimes the results you anticipate might not be the results you get.
Jason recalled his own personal experience in the field about four years ago in a timber camp area where he was supposed to set up camera traps for his doctorate degree from the Graduate School of Global Environmental Studies.
“During that time, it was just my guide and I and we underestimated the terrain we went to. We were supposed to go into the jungle and come back at 5 pm. Unfortunately, we only managed to come out around 10 at night,” said Jason.
While he was not worried about finding his way out in the morning, he found the toughest decision at the time was to use that very little energy he had left to come out in case people were worried over his prolonged absence.
“So, I think that dealing with uncertainty out there would be a tough experience, but once you are able to accomplish it, it is pure satisfaction,” he added.
“For those aspiring conservationists who would like to venture into this career path, it is a very challenging world out there working on conservation, but it is very interesting,” said Jason.
“You get to learn new things every day, see new places, meet new people, and you get to solve new problems and that what makes it challenging and interesting and it helps you build yourself. It is not about completing some kind of report or doing some kind of work, but it is about personal satisfaction.”
Today is the 45th anniversary of Earth Day since it was first conceived in 1970 by Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson. During a time of anti-war protests in the United States, Nelson saw it as an opportune time to bring about the same energy and fervour to saving and preserving the environment, hence, Earth Day.
Since then, it has become a global movement, with each region commemorating it in its own unique way every year on April 22. What are you doing today for Earth Day?