Wong Siew Te, Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (c) BSBCC

“The Pandemic Killed Everything We Had Planned”

In their own words, conservationists share their their struggles during the Covid-19 pandemic. Part of Macaranga‘s Taking Stock series, these stories were written based on interviews; all interviewees approved the text.

DR WONG SIEW TE, Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre

THE PANDEMIC killed everything that we had planned for this year.

We have one major source of revenue – visitors. There are other sources, of course: donations, bear adoption programmes.

But with job losses and the economy deteriorating, it has affected a lot of our supporters.

(Photo: To generate income, Wong Siew Te is offering live virtual tours of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre . Pic: BSBCC)

Some of our supporters have lost their jobs and a few dozen have cancelled their monthly support for the centre.

This year, we were aiming high for Visit Malaysia Year. Early this year, we started stocking up on merchandise.

But the pandemic came so quickly. We’re now promoting our online store. Hopefully people still have money to spend.

But I am also using this pandemic as my silver bullet to convince decision-makers especially, to do something about keeping wildlife as pets and not to destroy habitats.

Malaysia needs to learn from the Nipah virus, SARS, MERS: it’s all wildlife related. It’s happened so many times already. You are playing with fire.

DR RAVINDER KAUR, GAIA
Ravinder Kaur runs hornbill conservation programs in Sabah through her NGO Gaia. Credit: YH Law

THERE’S BEEN a definite impact on funding. We rely a lot on zoos as partners, and zoos are prioritising their own animals. So everything is frozen and GAIA can’t discuss future projects or proposals with them.

During the Movement Control Order (MCO), some days, I would wake up and be so depressed, I couldn’t do anything. Some days I’d be like, “We have to do something!”

I have been learning how to partner with local zoos in terms of marketing artwork. I’m producing books.

I try to be creative, doing resin work and selling it through Etsy, learning how to market online. And I’m giving tuition to keep myself afloat.

I was going to close GAIA and get a job but the job market has also gone to hell. Luckily, two donors suddenly transferred money to us without us asking.

Then we have partnered with larger NGOs—Rimba and HUTAN. Through them, I got my lifeline.

But I still feel GAIA is in danger of closing down.

(Portrait: Yao-Hua Law; ‘Hornbills of Malaysia’ colouring book: GAIA)

DR CHEN PELF NYOK, Turtle Conservation Society

THIS YEAR is about surviving. I still want to have this project next year! So I don’t care about whether I’m meeting my research Key Performance Indices (KPIs).

I need to ensure we and our staff get paid.

We were fortunate that we didn’t have a corporate sponsor. If we had, and if they had, say, pledged to support us for 3 years, then our fund-raising skills wouldn’t be this strong.

During the MCO, we actually got a lot of donations. I took classes in digital marketing online and revamped the way I wrote my newsletters.

In the last 4 years, my newsletters didn’t bring in any money.

Now, the newsletters have become about the subscribers, how they have helped the turtles, and how they can continue helping just by clicking.

In terms of merchandise, we’re producing something that people are looking for: face masks.

We want to reduce the use of filters, so now we have 3-ply ones to sell and we are drawing up plans for pouches. We’ve sold 1,200 masks since August.

I am also doing direct emails. These together with the social media posts, putting up additional educational resources, and merchandise, generated RM39,000 in the first two and half months of the MCO.

(Photos: TCS)

KHALIS AFNAN BIN ABDUL RAHMAN, Wildlife Conservation Society, Malaysia

DURING THE MCO, there was zero field work but staff were working from the office, for example, on auditing and surveys.

But management tasks suddenly ballooned for managers because donors were saying that if there was no field work, then they weren’t paying.

So WCS had to convince donors that they were still doing work related to conservation, listing down all tasks, planning for 3 months.

Some donors are supportive when we urged them to please help our Orang Asli communities or marginalised communities during this time.

For example, WCS was helping the United Nations Development Program interview Orang Asli on Covid-19 impacts.

With other NGOs, we also sent food aid to villages.

But we don’t know what’s going to happen in the near future. Will there be grants available?

The outlook is not very promising. That’s my fear – will there be money?

(Photo: WCS-Malaysia Program)

JUSTINE VAZ, Habitat Foundation

INITIALLY, we had not anticipated that the impacts of the pandemic would be so pervasive, impactful and long-lasting.

Realising that this was going to be our reality for some time, we wasted no time in pivoting our focus to effectively communicating environmental messages and maintaining the visibility of our work. 

This prompted us to utilise the now-pervasive online conferencing platforms to offer opportunities to our members and the public to enjoy nature through our Habitat Virtual Tour series.

We were pleasantly surprised to have received a massive response to these events. 

The Habitat Penang Hill reopened in June 2020 and our team and visitors are adhering closely to the new protocols that accompany the ‘new normal’.

Despite this encouraging scenario, we anticipate that before this is over we could be beset by a series of recurring and prolonged MCOs.

We are adjusting to this by becoming better at utilising online meeting platforms which is helping to boost efficiency in some areas of decision-making and consultation with significant cost savings.

The Habitat Foundation has committed RM310,000 in research and conservation grants over the 2020-2021 period.

We will continue to disburse funds and provide other support to all our grant recipients.

(Portrait: Habitat Foundation; Screen capture from

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