Friday, 27 March 2015

Raptor Watch 2015 Through My Eyes

This year is my 14th as a Malaysian Nature Society Raptor Watch Volunteer. 

Due to some issues with the state governments of Melaka and Negeri Sembilan, Raptor Watch was truncated into a one-day event for the first time ever this year. 

There were highs and lows to this. The highs were that transport was provided, and so there were fewer cars on the road that weekend. Also, it freed up time for us to do other things apart from volunteering with the MNS that weekend. 

The lows included the fact that one day is simply too little time for us to do conservation outreach and nature appreciation. Not having the event in Ilham Resort this year also meant that lunch had to be packed in plastic recyclable containers and delivered to us -- we didn't get a low-waste sit-down buffet the way we are used to. Having to set up and man our booths in the Tanjung Tuan Forest Reserve meant that we were more exposed to mosquitoes. 

However, it was cooler in the shade of the trees than in the hot event grounds of Ilham Resort, and I had the opportunity to take a break to explore the beach on the other side of the forest reserve.

Crowds thronging the Tg. Tuan Forest Reserve. Our booths and stalls were strategically placed along the paved jungle trail all the way up to the Lighthouse.

Green Living's booth was next to the Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers' (MYCAT). They had a little challenge of some sort going on.

Our diligent young volunteer Zhang En explaining the rules of her sister's Pinwheel Game to a visitor at our booth. Her little sister and mother could not volunteer this year due to a prior engagement, and I missed having them around.

Zhang En takes a break to climb up a pole.
As all children should.

Aravind and Zhang En manning the Green Living booth and explaining the rules of the games and conservation issues to the visitors.

Groups of young visitors from local schools and colleges visited our booth and played our conservation-related Carnival games. 

Pui May conducting tiger-related outreach for MYCAT.

I had the opportunity to take an hour off to go on a nature walk on my own when I saw that my experienced volunteers were running the booth rather smoothly and competently. Everyone was able to take turns to go off on walks of their own. I walked along the trail with my trusty rubbish claw and rubbish bags and picked up litter along the way. 

Visiting my friends Ilyas and Sumitra at the Nature Guides booth, where they were busy registering participants for the Jungle Walks and conducting the walks.

I picked up a large Macaranga leaf from the forest floor and used it to shade my head from the heat. 

 A pretty wild-looking Pandanus plant.

Booths at the foot of the steps to the Cape Rachado Lighthouse.

The MNS booth, manned by the Secretariat and the Science and Conservation Officers.

The MNS Selangor Bird Group registering participants for the upcoming My Garden Birdwatch.

Handmade plushies of the MY Garden Birdwatch mascot! Isn't this simply darling?

To make up for the fact that this year's Raptor Watch is just a one-day affair, the Melaka State Government actually gave visitors access to the lighthouse compound, which is otherwise a high security area off-limits to the public. 

I explored the trail to the left of the lighthouse. I knew it leads to the beach, but I have never been there and did not know how long the trek would be. 

The beach was secluded and highly beautiful. I could scarcely believe that this is a beach in Malaysia. What? No Ramly Burger stands, Family Day excursions, tonnes of litter, irresponsible and messy picnickers and balloons and styrofoam everywhere? How could this be!?!

I spotted what I had initially believed to be fossilised marine molluscs of some sort on some of the rocks on the beach. I was pretty excited to see this because digging up a real fossil has been on my Mighty Life List for ages. 
I learned later that they were a kind of barnacle, and not ancient or uncommon at all.

Glorious tree root formations formed natural steps for my trek back to the Green Living booth.

This was the absolute best moment of the day for me. Two teenagers, unbidden, went from booth to booth, collecting rubbish and picking up litter from the ground. I could have cried. I've been doing this alone for so long that I am gratified to see anyone who is not ashamed to pick up litter from places of natural and environmental interest. Good job and thank you, guys!

Lillian came over with her son Tristan and they played some of the games at the Green Living booth, including the 3R Target Shooting Game. I forgot to borrow CovertTwin's Nerf gun before the event, so I had to make do with pop guns from Daiso instead. The guns worked a treat, though.

May each Raptor Watch be better than the last.
CovertOps78, OUT. 

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Letter to the Editor: Enforcement, Not Awareness, Needed To Deter Littering


Your recent reports, “Warning for outdoor holiday-seekers” and “Doc: Malaysians need to be more civic-conscious” (The Star, 16/3/2015) highlight the challenges faced in keeping national parks and other outdoor recreational areas clean and free of litter. Littering is not just a matter of aesthetics, but one with serious environmental, economic and health implications, especially in light of the increase in leptospirosis and dengue cases. 

As a volunteer with various environmental organisations, I have coordinated and participated in public clean-up programmes for over 20 years. From my experience,Malaysians are fully aware of the health and environmental problems associated with littering, yet are not motivated to keep recreational and public areas clean, as the prevailing attitude seems to be that “someone else is paid to clean up after me” and “I don’t live here so it’s not my problem”. 

Once, at an ecotourism event, I observed a group of university students throw junk food wrappers into a wooded slope. When I asked them why they would deliberately mar the beauty of an ecologically sensitive area when there are rubbish bins a mere 100 metres away, they shrugged and responded that they didn’t think it was important, because they would be leaving the same evening and will not be around to witness any harm their litter may have caused. 

Education and awareness campaigns, therefore, will have little, if any, positive impact on an informed but apathetic population. Different strategies are required to deter littering. 

The solution to the problem of litter and waste management is not to have an ever-increasing budget for awareness programmes and clean-up campaigns. The solution lies in finding ways to deter littering and to create incentives for waste reduction. My recommendations include the following: 

1. Litter begets litter. As long as there is uncollected litter present in recreational areas, people are less hesitant about leaving their litter behind as well. Since most recreational areas collect an entrance fee, effort should be made to collect and remove litter on a regular basis, and to assign staff to monitor the area and fine visitors on the spot for littering. 

In the long run, this will be less expensive than organising massive clean-up efforts every few months, which will require more manpower and transportation services. At present, the “Penalty for littering” signboards at recreational sites are mere objects of ridicule, with litter deliberately left under the said signs since there is no enforcement of the rules. 

The lamentable thing about most clean-up campaigns in Malaysia is that most of the volunteers are not local to the area, and thus the locals who visit the recreational areas most frequently can afford to remain apathetic. 

The local authorities, Education Ministry and relevant government agencies should collaborate with environmental organisations to compel the participation of the local communities, particularly those in the neighbouring schools, factories, fishing and farming cooperatives and residential areas, in order that they understand the time and effort involved and the health implications of littering. 

During one particularly tiring clean-up campaign, a few teenagers from a local school were overheard to moan that they would henceforth kick any of their friends who are spotted littering, since they have put in so many backbreaking hours into cleaning it all up. If we could inculcate a sense of pride and stewardship in the local communities, half the battle would be won. 

2. Imposing conditions on the sale of refreshments and other items inside or directly outside recreational areas, since stalls and shops are responsible for a large percentage of litter in picnic sites and parks. 

Apart from our national parks, most recreational areas fall within the purview of the local councils. The councils should implement regulations to ban or restrict the use of plastic bags and foam packaging, as these form the bulk of the rubbish left behind. Stalls and shops should also be made responsible for the cleanliness of their surroundings, and business owners should be fined for any rubbish within a radius of 50 metres from their stalls/shops that are not disposed of properly. If they fail to comply with these regulations, they could face a fine or be deprived of their right to ply their trade in that area. 

3. Local councils and the management bodies of recreational areas must set up a system to charge a deposit on all food and beverage containers and disposable packaging brought into park premises. In order for this measure to be effective, all concession and snack stalls must be outside park premises. Park attendants can check the belongings of all visitors and charge a deposit of, say RM1, for each cigarette packet, plastic bag and food and beverage container or packaging brought into the park at the entrance counter and inform the visitors that they will get their deposit back if they were to bring the items back for disposal upon exit.This system has been implemented with a high degree of success in Mysore Zoo and Bannerghatta National Park in India. 

Currently, many recreational areas charge visitors an entrance fee, which is ostensibly used for maintenance and cleaning services. This does not deter littering and many recreational areas are in a disgraceful state. It would not cost the local councils or management bodies more to just assign the fee collector the duty of checking bags and picnic baskets for disposable packaging and imposing a deposit sum on them. Visitors who are unable to pay the deposit will be barred from entering the recreational area and be required to consume their food and dispose of their waste and food packaging properly before entering the site. Awareness and education campaigns can then focus on informing the public on the new no-waste policy and advising visitors not to bring disposable packaging into outdoor and picnic sites. 

To ensure its effectiveness, all unofficial entrances to parks will have to be closed off and the park gates must be closed at night, not only to maintain the cleanliness of the area, but also to prevent the parks from being utilised for vice, illegal activities and drinking sessions after which broken bottles are left lying around. 

4. There should be a national policy to impose a higher fee on plastic bags and Styrofoam packaging to reflect their cradle-to-grave cost and the true environmental cost of cleaning up clogged drains and rivers. This will, in turn, encourage manufacturers, retailers and consumers to look for alternatives to disposable and non-biodegradable packaging. The plastics industry often argues that the improper disposal of plastic waste is a result of aberrant behaviour, namely, littering, rather than an indication that plastic products cause harm to the environment and wildlife. If such is the case, then the banning and restriction of sale and use of plastic bags, polystyrene packaging, and excessive packaging of any kind will greatly reduce the opportunity for such "aberrant behaviour" to happen in the first place, especially since plastic bags and foam packaging frequently get blown away from picnic sites into waterways and seas. 

5. Instituting a nationwide deposit system for recyclable items such as aluminium cans, PET bottles and beverage cartons. The cost of purchasing packaged food and beverages in Malaysia does not reflect the cost of disposing of them and managing the waste generated. If a 20-sen deposit were to be charged for each unit of recyclable packaging, which will be claimable at designated recycling centres, it would create an incentive for people to collect and redeem their recyclables for cash, and also create economic opportunities for scrap material collectors. This would also translate into less litter ending up in public and outdoor spaces. 

Ultimately, this will reduce waste collection and transportation costs, as it will be the consumers who bring the items in for recycling themselves, instead of waste collection agencies being engaged to carry out such services. One of the problems with recycling and waste management efforts in Malaysia is that manufacturers are not made responsible for the environmental consequences of their products. 

If manufacturers were made to pay for the cradle-to-grave environmental cost of their products, then ease-of-recycling would become a design criterion, and there would be greater incentives to explore closed-loop production cycles and to create products with a high percentage of recyclable or post-consumer recycled content. Unless there is a solid and predictable market for recycled and biodegradable products, private companies will not invest in the facilities to recycle, and market prices for recycled and biodegradable products will fluctuate. 

Our lack of pride in our outdoor spaces and lack of concern for the environment reflects how we view ourselves as a society and nation. Measures to inhibit littering must include both penalties for littering, as well as motivations to reduce waste and to encourage the public to take pride in their surroundings. We need to take ownership of our community and public spaces by taking responsibility over them. 


Friday, 13 March 2015

Our multicoloured, multicultural, multifaith Holi Colour Fight!

So many cultures, so many ways of welcoming Spring.

I have been fascinated by festivals and holidays around the world ever since I was a child. I first read about the Hindu spring festival of Holi in a magazine and immediately made it a life goal to participate in a Holi Colour Fight.

It wasn't until much later that I found out about the grisly origins of the festival. Thank you, Amar Chitra Katha comics, you always present horrific stories of homicide attempts and mass deaths in such a palatable manner.

I know of one or two temples in Malaysia that observe Holi and invite outsiders to participate in the revelry, but their timing always seem to clash with mine. It's almost always the same weekend as our Malaysian Nature Society's annual Raptor Watch. And so I had to miss the Holi celebrations each year.

Last month, however, while exploring and cleaning up the Bukit Nanas Forest Reserve with my friend Cat, she proposed throwing our own Holi party and proceeded to create a Facebook event on the same the very next day. Within hours, over 150 friends were invited and over 20 replied that they would be attending. Well, there was no turning back or backing out then. We were going to throw our own Holi party.

We hadn't considered how difficult it would be to find Holi powder in Malaysia. Cat asked around and finally found a shop in Brickfields, New Malliga, that sold Holi powder. I made some of my own as well using cornflour, food colouring and salt (to prevent the dough from turning mouldy prior to drying out). The store-bought Holi powder was more like Rangoli powder and didn't form powdery cloudbursts like those seen in travel magazine photos, so we experimented again and mixed the coloured powders with wheat flour until we got the colour intensity and cloudburst effect that we want.

I wanted to make sure it was a green and low-waste party, so I brought biodegradable rubbish bags for litter and reusable bowls to put the coloured powders in. These are ice cream bowls from one of CovertMum's birthday potluck parties years ago. I can wash and reuse these for many more years to come. We didn't use any balloons, styrofoam cups or other disposables during the party. Everything was either reused or recycled.

I sent out reminders for the party guests to wear white t-shirts and old clothes that they didn't mind getting dirtied, and bring rubbish bags to line their car seats with and water to clean themselves up with. We had breakfast with some of those who arrived early for the party.

After breakfast, we adjourned to the large park up the street from my bachelor pad. I chose this park because guests can then walk over to my house to clean themselves up or shower after the colour fight. I volunteer at the Recycling Centre here and clean up this park regularly.

Adrian, Sharon and I cleaned up the park to ensure it is nice and tidy even before we began.  

Brynn, Pippa, Cat and some of the others helped to mix colours.

The other party guests soon arrived and excitement started to build up, especially when Cat started playing Bollywood dance music on her little stereo. We introduced ourselves and made new friends.

Don't we all look nice and neat in our white shirts before the colour fight!

At the word "Go", we went crazy with the coloured powders.

Would-be escapees were brought back into the battle zone to be punished with colours.

Adrian, the self-proclaimed evil overlord of coloured powders, terrorised bigger opponents.

Jackson Pollock would have been so proud of us.

The Gingerbeard Boys!

Shyam and I attempt a Sonic Boom.

Nailed it!

Not an inch of white tee was spared. We changed colours, like human gobstoppers. We had layers upon layers of coloured powder on us. It was fantastic.

Such happy hooligans! So hard to believe that we started out all clean and white.

Everyone had to help with the tidying up.

We cleaned up the park and left it in a better state than before the colour fight.

It was two hours of insanity and laughter. What a bizarre procession of multi-coloured individuals it was that marched down the road to my bachelor pad to clean themselves up! The neighbours must have stared in amazement as the gaggle of revellers washed themselves with the water that I stored in the storage tubs for this purpose. 

Many of the ladies opted to shower in the privacy and comfort of the bathroom. Katniss and Pixie, the most sociable of my cats, were positively thrilled to see so many guests. They must have thought that my friends had come for the specific purpose of playing with them. They did receive a lot of attention from the ladies who were waiting for their turns to use the shower. Snacks and beverages were handed out to the hungry hordes.

Our multicoloured, multicultural, multifaith, low-waste green Holi celebrations was an enormous success, and I can't wait to do it again next year. Next year, I will try to make all the coloured powders myself out of food-grade ingredients, and I am sure I can think up activities to challenge the participants with. 

So here's to spring, new friends and old, wild games and communal recreational spaces!

(Photo credits: Alison Sandra Murugesu, Shyam Priah and me)