What does it take to speak up for tigers? Conservationist Wong Pui May pays tribute to her mentor and a great Malayan tiger defender, Kae Kawanishi.
IT WAS IN 1998, the Year of the Tiger, that Dr Kae Kawanishi started her journey in Malayan tiger conservation. She was Malaysia’s first tiger biologist. This year marks her third Tiger Year in Malaysia.
As it draws to a close, I thought it was time that we who are following in her footsteps, thanked Kae for leading the way.
(Photo: Kae Kawanishi in Taman Negara with PERHILITAN wildlife rangers)
For me, Kae defines conservation leadership – which to me is the art of engaging others to solve complex collective problems affecting relations between people and nature.
Good leadership is critical in tiger conservation and nature conservation as a whole.
Kae’s tiger work began with her seminal PhD research into Malayan tiger ecology and population study in Taman Negara. From 1998 to 2001, she undertook rigorous fieldwork at three sampling sites.
Getting the job done
Dr Abraham Mathew, currently Deputy Director (Veterinary) at Singapore’s Mandai Wildlife Reserve, was among her field assistants in 2000.
He admired Kae’s tenacity, patience, and perseverance to get the job done, no matter how many mountains one had to literally climb or valleys and rivers to cross.
“She led by example,” he told me. “It was not easy for a small statured lady (and a foreigner) to convince chauvinistic macho men on what she wanted to do and that it could be done, because they couldn’t do it, and many told her it was impossible.
“Kae may be small in stature, but her zeal and dedication for the plight of the tiger and conservation is larger than life.
All weather leader
“She was there with us throughout the tough, rough, and easy moments. Every single day. Rain or shine.
“I used to call her General Kae (which she doesn’t know of course). But she was a general that I would have always followed.
“She epitomised what leadership was all about. From the meticulous planning to the execution and then the careful data analysis and results.
“She was caring, compassionate, gentle, and firm.”
Far from Japan, in an environment that most would find hostile – the home of large carnivores like tigers and leopards, also the bigger concern – leeches, ticks, sandflies and wasps, Kae found the place where her soul was most at ease: Taman Negara.
There, she met and was inspired by the knowledgeable and caring tiger rangers of the Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia (PERHILITAN).
When she finished her PhD, she wanted to give back to Malaysia and joined PERHILITAN as a technical advisor for tiger research and conservation (on very little pay, too!)
Setting up an alliance
Kae also realised early on that there was a gap between government and NGO efforts, and that tiger conservation as a whole would benefit from better communication, collaboration and coordination of efforts.
Thus while at PERHILITAN, she co-founded the Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers (MYCAT) in 2003 to bridge that gap.
“I was a journalist before I met her,” recalled Loretta Ann Shepherd, the first Coordinator of the MYCAT Secretariat’s Office.
“But I knew about this legendary Japanese researcher running around in the Malaysian forest from Abraham Mathew, whom I had met as a zoo volunteer when he was a vet at Zoo Negara,” said Loretta.
“I got to learn from Kae, firsthand, what it was to keep doing what you were doing despite obstacles and challenges, often at great personal sacrifice, because you knew what your purpose on this planet was.
“No one inspires me more than her,” she added.
In 2010 – the Year of the Tiger – I was offered the position of Programme Officer at the Secretariat. I was also born in the Year of the Tiger and it felt like the stars were aligned, so it wasn’t a difficult decision to accept the offer.
As a young conservation practitioner finding my feet, I used to most look forward to the quarterly MYCAT Working Group meetings.
Each MYCAT partner had appointed one or two staff to be permanent members of the Working Group. We would gather to share updates, talk through challenges and sometimes socialise outside of work.
There were differences in opinions and strong personalities, yes, but somehow Kae and Loretta managed to keep things amicable. At the end of the day, we were friends.
The National Tiger Plan
One of the first major undertakings of MYCAT was to coordinate the drafting of the first National Tiger Conservation Action Plan for Malaysia (NTCAP) [PDF], which was completed in 2007.
The de facto tiger lead in PERHILITAN, Hazril Rafhan Abdul Halim recalled working with Kae through the challenges of implementing the NTCAP from 2007 until the end of that plan in 2020.
“Her passion and enthusiastic attitude while conducting meetings, programmes and discussions are very meaningful to me and all partners.
“Until today, I always remember that she always supported and encouraged me to continue the Malayan tiger conservation agenda, to seek a better future for our majestic animal.
“In my view, Kae has been leading the field of tiger conservation with PERHILITAN after her previous research showed a decline in the tiger population.
“Tiger conservation in Malaysia is a very complex issue that needs people with passion, belief and hard work to achieve glory.”
Her close working relationship with PERHILITAN was very timely to save these iconic species from extinction, Hazril added.
“In addition to the NTCAP, we also worked together in conducting tiger surveys in Malayan tiger habitat, especially in the Sungai Yu-Taman Negara area; and conducted many public awareness programmes in villages, urban areas and schools through MYCAT.”
Expanding the partnership
Nineteen years later, PERHILITAN is the main coordinator for tiger conservation efforts in Peninsular Malaysia.
MYCAT’s role has evolved to focus more on engaging members of the public to play an active role in tiger conservation.
The Citizen Action for Tigers (CAT) programme was developed in 2010.
I still remember one of the MYCAT Working Group meetings where it was still an idea – to enlist volunteers to hike (via the creatively named ‘CAT Walk’) in poaching hotspots to deter illegal activities.
We did not know if the idea would work or if people would be interested, but we had support and camaraderie.
Getting the public in
Kushaal Selvarajah joined the MYCAT Secretariat’s Office in 2020.
“They say never meet your heroes but I’m glad I met mine,” he said. “MYCAT is testament that conservation has to be a collective effort comprising people with the same passion for wildlife and its environment.
“Additionally, CAT creates a platform for the public to play a direct role in making a difference by protecting critical tiger habitat, and it reflects Kae’s hopes and ambitions. She believes in the role of individuals.”
Kushaal’s deepest impression of Kae is her resilience.
“I don’t think I’ve met anyone who is so determined in her cause and values, to struggle and jump through hurdles as much as she has and is still doing it more than 20 years later. All that, while being so humble about it.”
Generous with knowledge
Kae’s work also inspired Dr Mark Rayan Darmaraj, the only Malaysian (thus far) with a PhD in tiger ecology.
Mark met Kae for the first time in 2004, when WWF-Malaysia, his then employer, embarked on a camera trapping exercise. Mark is currently the Country Director of Wildlife Conservation Society-Malaysia.
“I have always worked and interacted with Kae as a biologist, she was always willing to share knowledge and expertise.
“From then until now, she has always been disciplined, direct, courageous and has high integrity.”
Ah… integrity. I still have not met a manager who manages money as carefully as Kae.
At MYCAT, she used to tell me that because the funds were from the public (sometimes cute children who dressed up and organised events to raise funds), we needed to spend them well.
Even our time had to be planned and used wisely because, well, time is money.
Influencing the south
Singaporeans too, were inspired by Kae’s vision. Vilma D’Rozario started getting involved in 2014, and has been joining and coordinating CAT Walks for people living in Singapore since 2015.
A group of them who met on a CAT Walk wanted to do more for Malayan tigers, and set up the Singapore Wildcat Action Group (SWAG) in 2019.
Vilma said, “I love Kae for her deep commitment to tiger conservation, her kindness and love for everything wild, her commitment to friends and family, her genuineness.
“I also thank her for introducing tiger conservation to people living in Singapore, like me, and SWAG.
“She is giving us the opportunity to experience the wild and play a part, albeit small, in work on the ground, saving tigers together.”
Another important lesson Kae taught me over 6 years of working with her is the importance of thinking and reflecting. When I did my Masters in Conservation Leadership, I found this reiterated in my learnings.
Reflection is a critical skill for anyone who may eventually find themselves in a position of leadership and power, as leadership should have a higher purpose.
Conservationists face emotional challenges that are completely different from conventional career paths, but perhaps similar to other mission- or crisis-oriented disciplines.
Case in point – despite all the hard work and good intentions, the Malayan tiger population has continued to fall throughout Kae’s career.
We do know however, that wildlife can and will recover with targeted conservation efforts.
The reasons for declining tiger numbers are varied, and I’ve learnt to look beyond the oft-cited direct causes (poaching and habitat loss) to the indirect root causes (an economic system based on limitless growth, for one). But that is a story for another day.
To survive in this field, we need eternal optimists who can balance hope and pragmatism.
It is important for conservation leaders to cycle between action and reflection, to be aware of personal strengths and weaknesses, to evaluate the efficacy of actions taken, and to avoid doing the same things over and over again.
More importantly, we need to remember why we do what we do.
Kae could have had a glamourous, globe-trotting, illustrious career if she had wanted to, as she had been invited to set up tiger conservation projects in other countries.
But she chose to stick with Malaysia, our flawed, beloved, mind-boggling country. And she specifically chose Pahang in the belief that real change takes time and commitment.
Tiger ecologist Mark remembered reading about Kae and keeping a newspaper cutting of her story, when he was an MSc student working as a research assistant.
“I recall thinking that this Japanese woman must be feisty and a little crazy to go and carry out tiger surveys in the dense jungle of Taman Negara with little road or river access.
“I admired her then and still do for opening the window to understand the population ecology of the Malayan tiger better and for being a voice for tigers and the Malaysian forest.”
Elizabeth John, Senior Communications Officer at the NGO TRAFFIC, agreed. “What is a person all the way from Japan doing spending a lifetime here lah?
“Her singular passion for tigers inspires me, especially how connected she is to Malaysia, the forest and the tigers. When you are so determined and so passionate, it’s hard not to rub off on others.
“People get swept up in the fervour and urgency. It’s a very compelling way for a leader to motivate others.”
Many Malaysians may not know of Kae and her impact.
Kushaal pointed out that “Kae is not a public person. Nor does she boast much about her work. I relate to that a lot because I believe our work should always be at the forefront.
“More often than not, a lot of iconic conservationists are lauded for their accomplishments, which is great but we often forget that it takes a village to create success of any magnitude.
“Kae always passes the baton to the other members to allow them to take centre stage.”
Loretta mused, “This year, during the Year of the Tiger, Kae’s third in Malaysia, I had the incredible privilege of spending time with her in her beloved Taman Negara.
“I don’t know how many Malaysians realise how much Kae has done for wildlife and wilderness in Malaysia, but I hope that one day, they will.”
Wong Pui May currently works in nature conservation in Kenyir, Terengganu and enjoys learning from Orang Asli friends. A picture book she co-produced, entitled Why Can’t We Take More? was inspired by the knowledge and stories of the Batek people.
[Edited by SL Wong]
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The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Macaranga.