Thursday, 27 March 2008

RWW 2008: We Rule The Skies!

Friday, 14th March 2008 – Monday, 17th March 2008: Raptor Watch – We Rule The Skies!

When I first started volunteering for Raptor Watch Week (“RWW”) in 2001, there were no Fun & Games booths, no Arts & Crafts sessions, no face-painting or temporary tattoo booths, no grandstand with an emcee and performers, and no massive merchandise and snack stalls. Imagine that!

In 2001, the ballroom and gazebo of Ilham Resort weren’t even constructed yet, and I don’t recall there being a fence around the Resort grounds, or an adventure playground facing Ilham’s front entrance, or a properly built-up entrance to the Lighthouse trail. There was a big tree with a rope swing, which provided us with a great deal of entertainment when we weren’t counting birds. Imagine that!

In 2001, all we had were 2 tents: 1 for MNS membership registration, which also doubled up as the tent where merchandise was sold (t-shirts in only 3 or 4 designs, and a few standard bird field guides) and another with exhibition boards giving you information on bird migration, resident raptors and migratory raptors. There were probably no more than 20 volunteers, almost all of them keen birders, and the visitors who came for the event probably numbered no more than 100. Imagine that!

I am now in my 8th year as a Raptor Watch volunteer and I can say that RWW is one of the Malaysian Nature Society’s greatest success stories. 20 years ago, only the scientific community was interested in the phenomenon of spring raptor migration. Only scientists and ornithologists realised that Tanjung Tuan is a stopover point for exhausted birds of prey on their way back to China and Siberia, being the closest landmass from Sumatra, across the Straits of Malacca.

Then, in the 1990s, Tanjung Tuan faced the threat of development. The state government had intended to convert the forested area into beach resorts. The Malaysian Nature Society had to get sufficient public support for our cause to lobby for the conservation of Tanjung Tuan, not only for the Raptors, but also for the surrounding marine life and forest growth.

And so the Malaysian Nature Society swung into action, and today raptor migration is no longer an esoteric phenomenon witnessed only by birders, but a massive, public eco-event covered by all the papers and even some international nature publications. The state government and state tourism ministry are supportive of our efforts, as they realise that it is an event with enormous eco-tourism potential. We now have rows upon rows of tents offering everything from jungle walk sessions and nature books to ice cream and batik painting. We now have busloads of schoolchildren who know a fair bit about thermals (i.e. hot air columns), bird migratory patterns and bird breeding grounds. Baby, we’ve come a long way.

RWW is traditionally held on the first weekend of March, being the peak period for raptor flight through the area. However, this year it was postponed until 15th and 16th March, due to the General Elections being scheduled on the 1st weekend. This year, Loretta, Eugene and Hui-Min are in the organising committee, and I, being over-committed and over-committee’d enough, decided to focus on Green Living’s outreach activities.

The volunteer briefing was conducted on Friday night at the event grounds by Loretta and Andrew. We then checked into our rooms at PD Marina, which have thankfully been cleaned, unlike the previous years.

We assembled at Ilham on 0700 hours Saturday to set up our respective booths. Somehow, the level of commitment of this year’s volunteers was rather dismal. The volunteers assigned to my booth never did turn up, so it was just Horng Yih and I holding the Green Living fort. Still, thanks to key volunteers such as Lillian, Passu, Eugene, Hui-Min, Dr. Kana and Hafidz, everything went swimmingly and we made sure that the visitors were well-looked after. There were educational talks, documentaries, jungle and marine walks and fun activities galore to keep everyone occupied while waiting for the raptors to arrive.

Since I had only one other volunteer for Green Living, we had to scrap the 3R crafts and focus instead on only 3 main activities, namely, the 3R Game, the Climate Change Action Survey and the sale of pre-loved books, apart from offering green living advice and coordinating a recycling programme. Horng Yih is a sterling volunteer with a great personality, and I was very glad of his company. Thanks to his help, we sold over RM300 worth of used books.

We were given a volunteer appreciation dinner on Saturday night, and it was made all the more enjoyable because it was outdoors. Over dinner, they guys and I discussed walking up to the lighthouse at 2200 hours, to try to spot insects and night birds. Armed with a pansy little torch that we borrowed off one of our nature guides, Horng Yih, Bushcraft John, Hafidz and I walked up to the lighthouse after dinner. The forest canopy wasn’t thick and once our eyes got accustomed to the dim light, we discovered that we didn’t need the torch at all. John searched for spiders and arthropods while I kept an eye out for bats and Buffy Fish Owls, which I’ve seen before in the same area.

The lighthouse is breathtaking at night and I am so very glad we came. There was a cool breeze blowing and the coconut leaves rustled in the wind. Behind the lighthouse, on the cliff overlooking the sea, we could see fishing trawlers and what I guess are border patrol boats.

Our usually responsible John had a moment of insanity and proceeded to send out an SOS signal to the boats. I made him stop because it is a criminal offence and could put the boats to danger and inconvenience. Moreover, we were in a high security area, which increased the likelihood of getting caught. We saw a light flashing back at us at regular intervals and presumed that a boat had seen John’s distress signals, so we started arguing with each other over whether the boat had been there all this while or whether it had approached the lighthouse upon spotting our distress signals.

While we were arguing, Horng Yih, who has sharp eyesight, pointed out: “You do realise that you guys are arguing about a buoy, right?” And so we were! It was one of those moored buoys with a warning light, and we laughed at the silliness of it all. We searched for more insects and arthropods as we waited for another friend, Adi, to arrive, and then we walked back to Ilham together before driving back to PD Marina.

Sunday, 16th March, was Vegan Eugene’s birthday, and I managed to get big-hearted, brilliant Serina and Mohala to buy him a cake the night before from Secret Recipe, because I didn’t think we’d manage to get him a pukka cake out in the boondocks here otherwise. We hid the cake in its box under the Green Living table and got everyone to sign the card. We had to get Eugene to come over right before his speakers (of the professional-human-qualified-to-speak-on-specific-topics variety, not of the sound amplifier variety) arrived, so Lillian duly made an announcement and all the volunteers, led by Eugene, repaired to the Green Living table where the sorry-looking half-melted mango cake sat looking for all in the world like a ski slope with a candle on top, after we have inadvertently dropped the cake box. The birthday song was duly sung and Serina and I massacred the cake for distribution. Thankfully, it tasted way better than it looked (by then). We had to get back on duty even with our hands full of cake and I had my work cut out trying to find volunteers to replace me so I could participate in the Lighthouse Run.

Around 1100 hours, Lillian announced the winners of the Charity Draw and I found that I had won a Nestle hamper, much to everyone’s delight because they knew I would share it with them. The hamper was taken apart and shared out with the volunteers at my table.

I skipped lunch so I could run at 1445 hours in the Lighthouse Run. Cindy decided at the last minute to sign up for the Run in the Women’s Open category, with baby in tow, despite her sore throat. Another lady, Nur, had to run in jeans as she didn’t bring her running shorts. As my trainers have fallen apart, I would be running in Converse sneakers with very worn out soles with holes in the bottom. At the rate things were going, the Women’s Open category should have been renamed the Fruits and Nuts Run.

I pretty much lurched, staggered and wheezed my way to the Lighthouse and down again, lagging way behind the first runner, a schoolgirl in proper running gear who obviously came to win the loot galore and not to learn more about the natural history of Tanjung Tuan. And by gum, she was fast! She was halfway down the hill when I was still on my way up. I came in second in the Run and Nur came in third but Cindy was nowhere to be seen.

We had the prize presentation ceremony at 1600 hours and I went up to receive my prize of a RM200 Timberland voucher. I finally found Cindy watching a documentary with her husband and baby in the auditorium and insisted that she accepted half my prize. She kept declining, but I said that we won together and she deserved it as much as I did, because she gave me a drink of water at the base of the lighthouse to ease my wheezing. I told her it would make me very happy if she would take it, and she finally accepted the vouchers.

Raptor Watch Week 2008 came to a close at 1700 hours Sunday, and the volunteers got down to tidy the place up. It was while I was sorting out litter for recycling that Cindy tried to make me take the vouchers back, but I laughed and said they were hers now, and not mine to take. By virtue of our participation in addition to all the work we had put in as volunteers, we are all winners, and essentially equals, and I wanted the division of the prize vouchers to reflect that.

There was still a lot of work to do even though the other volunteers had left, and so I decided to stay behind to help out on Monday, with the HQ staff Lini and Laila. Had a seafood dinner in town that night before going back to our apartment in Ilham to drink beer on the veranda. There were fruit bats outside, which is commonplace enough not to necessitate my bringing it to the attention of the others, but imagine my dismay when a large Buffy Fish Owl flew past me and I was the only one to witness it! Finally went back inside when the mosquitoes got too much for me to handle.

On Monday morning, we had to reorganise and repack everything in the storage tent while waiting for the truck to arrive. The volunteers this year had made a pig’s ear of the whole affair, and office supplies, apples, electrical cords and filled-up membership forms lay in a jumble in the storage tent. Things were far more orderly last year when Mohala was still in charge, plus there was less pilfering of leftover canned drinks and freebies.

Bala, the truck driver, arrived around noon and loaded the truck with our help. Laila and Lini went rode up in front of the truck with the driver, while I went back so I could sell our recyclables off at the buyback centre near Eagle Ranch on our way home. It came as a blow to me when I discovered over 10 kilos of aluminium cans that I had scrupulously collected, rinsed and crushed had been stolen from the back of my 4x4.

I suspect that the cans were stolen by the Resort staff, as the pickup was parked in their premises, and were still there this morning. What added to my disappointment was that I had given over 12 kilos of cans that I had painstakingly bagged up on Saturday to the housekeeping staff, because they had asked for it. The proceeds from Sunday’s collection of cans were meant to go into Green Living’s kitty.

Serina tried to cheer me up by persuading me that the cans could have been taken by someone in real need, and the extra money could have been of real help to him or her. I found comfort in that idea, and also in the thought that at least all the cans would be recycled in the end, and not landfilled or incinerated. But then again, they could have asked me for the cans, and I would have given it to someone who had asked and was in real need.

Anyway, we managed to sell the plastic bottles and paper to the buyback centre for a paltry sum, and were soon on our way back to KL. Raptor Watch 2008 has taught me 2 things that I will do differently in 2009:
1. Either lock up the recyclables in the Battletank, or sell them at the end of each day at the buyback centre so I would not have to find a place to store them overnight.
2. Serve on the RWW Committee next year and help to draw up a Volunteers’ Code of Conduct and provide a screening, training and pep talk session for all volunteers to ensure that we get quality volunteers who perform and deliver and act as ambassadors for the Malaysian Nature Society.

It’s a sad state of affairs when people sign up as volunteers only because they are enticed by the prospect of a paid holiday, freebies and the bragging rights of having volunteered with the Malaysian Nature Society. If there are any volunteers reading this, I want you to ask yourselves, in all honesty:

1. “Have I left people in a better state?”
Have you assisted MNS staff and veteran volunteers with diligence and goodwill? Did you try to shirk work and make yourself unobtrusive and invisible when there were boxes to be carried, stereo systems and tents to be put up, booths to be manned and visitors to be ushered and assisted? Were you courteous and helpful to visitors? Did you help anyone learn something positive about the environment, the Malaysian Nature Society and raptor migration? Did you give or speak cheerfully, or were you sullen and uncooperative? Did you treat visitors and customers as mere nuisances who hindered you from sitting around gossiping with your friends? Did you utter the words “I don’t know” or “That’s not my job” when your words should have been “Let’s see what we can do”?

2. “Have I left the environment in a better state?”
Did you leave litter behind, even if on tables and in tents, as opposed to along the jungle trails or on the beach? Did you pick up all the litter you see, or did you think “That’s not my problem”? Did you contribute to noise and light pollution that could affect wildlife? Did you go against the principles of Reduce, Reuse and Recycle by making unnecessary purchases, or purchases with excessive packaging? In the course of jungle and marine walks, did you take, damage or touch anything that is not yours to touch? Did you condone destructive behaviour such as the catching of crabs and other small fauna by not politely stopping the perpetrators, or did you instead feel it wasn’t any of your business?

RWW 2008 photos taken by MNS member Zaim:

Nature Guides with their faces painted in animal totem designs.

Mangrove forest ecology.

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