International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples 2023: The Orang Asli use traditional knowledge to save Malayan tigers

Down To Earth spoke to Phung Chee Chean, Kenyir Project Problem Analyst for Panthera, on the Orang Asli protectors of Malaysia’s last tigers

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Wednesday 09 August 2023

A shaman of the Mah Meri people, one of the 18 subtribes that make up the Orang Asli. Photo: iStockA shaman of the Mah Meri people, one of the 18 subtribes that make up the Orang Asli. Photo: iStock

Peninsular Malaysia is home to the Malayan Tiger (Harimau in Malay). It is critically endangered according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List.

The Malayan Tiger is the symbol of Malaysia. There used to be an estimated 3,000 tigers in Malaysia in the 1950s. But they had reduced to fewer than 150 individuals in 2022. 

The tigers face dual dangers: Their habitat is vanishing as deforestation speeds up on the peninsula. On the other hand, poachers from neighbouring Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos slip into the forests of Malaysia unnoticed and wreak havoc by killing tigers and other wildlife.

Of late, the Malaysian government as well as non-governmental agencies have found an ally to help protect the last Malayan tigers: The Orang Asli. The term, made up of Orang (Malay for ‘people’) and Asli (Arabic for ‘original’), translates to first nations or first peoples.

The Orang Asli are the oldest inhabitants of the Malay Peninsula, having resided in the region much before the Malays (today Malaysia’s ethnic majority), Chinese, Indians and others arrived.

Orang Asli scouts and trackers are being increasingly used to deter efforts by poaching syndicates in Malaysia. One place where this is being done is the Taman Negara National Park.

Here, global wildcat organisation Panthera works with the Department of Wildlife and National Parks to protect and monitor the Malayan tiger population and other wild cat species and their prey in the Kenyir-Taman Negara Core Area, which encompasses the northeast section of Taman Negara that lies in the State of Terengganu. 

Down To Earth spoke to Phung Chee Chean, Kenyir Project Problem Analyst for Panthera, on the role that Orang Asli play in keeping Taman Negara and other parks in Malaysia safe from poachers on the occasion of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples 2023. Edited excerpts:

Rajat Ghai (RG): How do the Orang Asli help in conservation efforts to save the Malayan Tiger? Can you give some examples?

Phung Chee Chean (PCC): The Orang Asli (OA), as a group, serve as valuable partners in collaborative conservation efforts on behalf of the tiger and other wildlife. Members of the community can assume various roles, including as wildlife rangers conducting law enforcement work.

Leveraging their traditional knowledge and expertise in navigating the forest, they play a vital role in patrolling and safeguarding wild habitat from poaching and other human-induced threats.

To date, members of the Orang Asli community in Malaysia’s Kenyir patrol team have been significantly involved in tracking signs of poaching, locating foreign camps and conducting deep-forest counter-poaching operations.  

Orang Asli members additionally serve as field scientists, adeptly setting up camera traps and other monitoring equipment to gather crucial data on wildlife populations, including their ecology and behavior.

The Orang Asli community’s role as data collectors has proven critical in supporting law enforcement efforts. Their inherent understanding of the forest and its inhabitants continually aids authorities in identifying potential threats and taking appropriate actions to protect the environment.

In the event of a poaching incursion, the Orang Asli are often the first to detect signs of illegal activity. A notable incident in January 2022 exemplified their effectiveness when a tip-off provided by an OA informant resulted in a successful operation on two poachers who had trespassed into a protected area.

RG: Do the spiritual and worldview of the Orang Asli help in this task? After all, their way of looking at the environment is radically different from ours?

PCC: The Orang Asli comprise about 18 ethnic sub-groups and are not homogenous, as they each maintain their own distinct beliefs and traditions. Despite their diversity, there is a common thread among the Orang Asli regarding their relationship with nature.

They adhere to the belief that people should take only what is needed from the environment and show respect to everything around us. There is no separation between people and nature; in some languages, a word for ‘nature’ does not exist. The Orang Asli are natural partners in conservation.

RG: Orang Asli are some of the poorest people and marginalised people in Malaysia. Should be they more involved in forest management in the country given that their knowledge of the forest is unique?

PCC: If Orang Asli have healthy forests around them and their lands have not been appropriated, they are rich in many other ways. Orang Asli who grew up living close to the forest possess deep knowledge of the habitat and can familiarise themselves quickly with new landscape.

They are excellent trackers and maintain an impressive ability to navigate and read the topography of the forest. Orang Asli should absolutely be more involved in forest management in the country and at the same time, conservationists need to support efforts by the community to safeguard Orang Asli customary land. After all, a great deal of remaining global biodiversity is found on indigenous Territories of Life.

Conservation practitioners and managers also must be aware of and find ways to accommodate existing structural and cultural barriers. As an example, literacy skills might be limited among some members of the community, and instructions may need to be communicated and conveyed differently to ensure effective participation.

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