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malaymail: Not just for the birds: Avid birdwatcher and environmentalist soldiers on to promote sust

PETALING JAYA, March 10 — Malaysian ecotourism expert, environmentalist, and licensed nature guide, Andrew Sebastian, is a familiar name among birdwatching enthusiasts.

Strangely enough, birds weren’t his ‘first love’, as he realised that he wanted to pursue his career with nature only after obtaining his Certificate in Legal Practice (CLP).

“After completing my law degree, I joined the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) as an Education Officer so that I could talk about the legal aspects of the job - but that was just it.

“While my other colleagues were talking about fireflies and birds during guided tours, I realised I didn’t know anything about these species, so I bought a book to equip myself with the knowledge on trees, frogs, and eventually on birds.”

Thus began the love affair for the avid birdwatcher who has now seen about 4,000 species of birds, and hopes to be able to see the other 7,000 species that are scattered across the globe.

Armed with many memories, he recalls a beautiful red bird, perched on a fence in Fraser’s Hill that mesmerised him with its beautiful long tail, and blue eye mask, which he later found out to be the Red-Headed Trogan.

According to Andrew, because the Trogan was the first bird he “discovered”, and it remains his favourite bird.

His passion led to the issue of conservation with dwindling numbers of certain species, such as the Milky Stork, a bird of the coastal mangroves, that was slowly disappearing from its haunts in Kuala Selangor and Kuala Gula due to poachers.

While Zoo Negara has a number of the storks, he said there were only four that were left in the wild in 2002.

“A group of conservationists and I then decided to work on rehabilitating these storks, to release them back in Kuala Selangor.

“After a big aviary was built in the Kuala Selangor Nature Park, a pond was dug to put in a solar water pump, together with small fishes so that they will learn to feed on their own.”

He said that in the three years of breeding efforts of the storks, he watched as macaques tore the nests, and ate the eggs.

“It was really heartbreaking for my team and I to see their eggs disappear just like that, but I eventually told myself that once these birds are released into the wild, they would need to survive on their own.

“Either they would need to learn to build their nests higher on tree branches or they would need to make their nests among other birds so that the probability of their eggs being snatched away would be lower.”

Andrew, one of the founding members of the Asian Bird Fair (ABF) founded in 2010 to promote the protection of birds and encourage related ecotourism activities, said that one of the critically endangered species in the country are the Helmeted Hornbills, which number about fifty pairs in Peninsular Malaysia.

“These birds are especially endangered in Borneo due to the widely-accessed borders compared to Peninsular Malaysia.”

This bird expert has managed to record the sound of the Helmeted Hornbill, a series of progressive honks - before erupting into a mad laugher.

“The sound of this hornbill is so loud and conspicuous that a poacher can easily track the location of the bird from afar.”

He said poachers targeted the red ivory, the hornbill’s casque that is deemed more worthy than the elephant’s tusks.

“The hornbill’s casques are able to fetch four times more which makes it much more sought after than elephant tusks.

Andrew hopes that the government will take stricter enforcement to protect wildlife and their habitats.

“There needs to be something urgently done to the wildlife and endangered animals in the country, or else Malaysia will lose other animals just like we lost out last Sumatran rhinoceros.”

Andrew, who now spearheads his own NGO in ECOMY, which actively promotes animal conservation through sustainable tourism.

Some of the events under this organisation include hosting bird expeditions throughout the country, having nature guide training programmes and alleviating the economic and social status of local communities to promote the idea of conservation.

“I created this programme to tell people that ecotourism can be sustainable for us so that Malaysians will know what Helmeted Hornbills are or even know the existence of a Trogan.

“We are also training local Malaysians so that they become our ‘army of naturalists’ - to continue our preservation efforts.”

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