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The birdman of Malaysia

AFTER almost two decades with the Malaysian Nature Society, Andrew J. Sebastian - who is also a bird and nature guide – left to form his own non-governmental organisation ECOMY (Eco-Tourism and Conservation Society Malaysia).

“You can’t use the conservation-only approach. I figured out that there was a gap between us fighting the government on conservation issues, and protecting nature.

“The gap in this case was people are not connected to nature any more. You can say ‘Ulu Muda’ or ‘Belum’ (two well-known rainforests), and they will only be happy to help with conservation campaigns if they have been there.”

As there were no other NGOs working or pushing towards eco-tourism, Andrew decided to step into this void.

“I work from home. I can focus and push for projects and do things from my home.”

He gives tours for groups, schools or corporations, and talks on conservation, eco-tourism, and gets them involved in local community projects.

He also takes international tourists on tours for bird watching, as well as on wildlife tours.

“Locally the bird watching community is growing. Internationally, it is much bigger business.”

Andrew says that people travel to places like Africa just to see zebras crossing the Zambezi River, or see to gorillas in Uganda.

He points out that over here, we could do more to attract tourists to see our elephants and orangutans in the wild.

“The Plain-pouched Hornbill flies from Thailand to Ulu Muda and Belum every July to September. Flocks of migratory birds fly in every year to feed and then fly back home. Every year during the winter season (October to March) they fly from the Northern Hemisphere to the South. They can fly as far as Australia and New Zealand.

“There is a lot of opportunity for us to create awareness. We can create businesses from this that is really sustainable.”

Bird watchers in particular are willing to travel to come and see the birds that are unique to this country.

“There are 65 endemic species of birds that can only seen in Malaysia. If people want to see them, they have to come here. If they want to see the critically endangered Helmeted Hornbill, it is best to see them in Malaysia.”

“These are all elements of high-value tourism. Eco-tourism is doing well in other countries. In Malaysia it is still catching on. We are sitting on a gold mine but we haven’t developed it yet.

“On my part, I am pushing the government to invest in eco-tourism. We can’t keep telling people stop logging without telling them how to invest in eco-tourism, which is more sustainable in the long run. “

He said countries such as Costa Rica, Ecuador, Kenya and Nepal are earning big money from eco-tourism.

“Going to see a mountain is eco-tourism. Going to see beautiful landscapes, canyons, glaciers and the Northern Lights is eco-tourism. Many countries are making good money from eco-tourism.”

Andrew points out that there is nothing stopping us from making conservationism part of the school curriculum.

“What is so wrong about our students learning about nature as a compulsory subject? It will be lovely if our own citizens know about nature, as there are people from abroad willing to pay big money to come see it for themselves. Our students know more about animals in Africa than the animals here.”

As a father of two children aged 16 and 12, Andrew has done his part in exposing them to the wonders of nature.

Several months ago, there were reports of nature flourishing as the human world came to a halt during the pandemic.

While Andrew can’t verify if the same is true here or not, he said that being stuck at home has made people more aware of the birds and Mother Nature all around them.

“From what my friends in the field have said, the animals are doing fine. Unfortunately, in places where people have been feeding animals, the animals have become so dependent on being fed that they now have no idea what to do.”

“ So they have started rummaging for food in neighbourhoods. If you leave nature alone, nature can take care of itself.”

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