18 December 2019

Teaching English and conservation

by Christina Amanda Yin

We’re walking up the forest pathway, making our way through the Semenggoh Nature Reserve to the feeding platform about five minutes from the visitor’s centre. A teacher behind me says, “It’s as if the trees have grown their roots to create steps for us to climb up.”

It does seem that way. The earth is packed tightly with a smattering of pebbles and although there are strips of wood to keep the steps firm, there are also thick roots from trees that line both sides of the trail. Leaves of all shapes and sizes have fallen to the ground and these blend in with the dark brown earth.

The teachers are from Johor, Perak, Sabah and Sarawak. The team of conservationists from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and I are on a one-day field trip-cum workshop at Semenggoh Wildlife Centre to gather feedback from the teachers who have participated in 4-day workshops on the conservation-English manual The Next 100: Bridging for a New Beginning.

Over the past three years, we have conducted workshops with teachers from different parts of the country, including American Fulbright scholars who are English Teaching Assistants and their mentors in government schools as well as teachers from Teach for Malaysia and the Association of Science, Technology and Innovation.

These workshops include lessons of various topics like Global Englishes, Assessment and Action Research which are delved into when studying Swinburne Sarawak’s Master’s in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL).

They also include lessons taken from the Next 100 manual, for example using debate to develop speaking and thinking skills in English or using a plush toy as a prompt to a group creative writing activity. One day is spent with the WCS team at Matang Wildlife Centre.

As we walk up the hill, we hear a loud call. It’s a human call, but it’s not anything a human would say to another. We hear the call once, twice, and then again. It’s a long, plaintiff call. We know that the park rangers call twice a day, to encourage the semi-wild orang-utans to come to the feeding platforms.

Visitors from all over the world come to Semenggoh Wildlife Centre to observe the semi-wild orang-utans. As Park Ranger Dominic Eric Helan says, “Where else in the world can you drive 40 minutes from the city to see orang-utans in the forest free, and not in cages?”

There are many people waiting at the viewing point; school teachers with students on an end-of-the-year outing, local and foreign visitors with friends and young families. While most have their smart phones at the ready, others have professional-looking cameras with long lenses, and there’s a video crew on the feeding platform itself, with the park ranger calling out to the orang-utans.

About five minutes later, the park ranger tells us an orang-utan is coming. He points to the forest canopy, telling us to look for the disturbance among the branches and leaves. We’re asked to keep quiet and the crowd hushes.

From our right, an orang-utan emerges. A gasp runs through the crowd as we realise that clinging to her is a young orang-utan. They make their way slowly along the branches, and then to one of the ropes directly above the feeding platform. The mother has shaggy dark red-brown hair while her adolescent is a lighter brown.

They move in tandem as if they are trapeze artists with practiced moves, the mother ensuring her offspring’s safety high above the ground. The adolescent moves from its mother to swing on its own, and then back again to its mother as they sway towards the park ranger holding a comb of large bananas. When they’ve eaten their fill, they slip away into the canopy.

That evening, the teachers and I gather, along with some students from the Swinburne Sarawak Green Club to watch a video on orang-utans in Batang Ai National Park produced by British university students for their final-year project. The head of the WCS orang-utan research team, Joshua Pandong who had guided the university students on their search for the wild orang-utans elaborates on details about the project and about the red ape, the only great ape outside Africa.

We learn that there are fewer than 2,000 orang-utans in Sarawak, and that there are more in Sabah, Kalimantan and Sumatra, but the great ape is an endangered species. Eunice, a Green Club member from Johor asks why orang-utans are endangered, and Joshua explains – opportunistic hunting, the illegal wildlife trade, and the clearing of its habitats for plantations. To compound the situation, the orang-utan is the slowest breeding mammal on earth; a mother gives birth to a baby every 7-8 years.

On 23 November, we learned that the last Sumatran rhinoceros in Malaysia died. It is now extinct in our country. This has happened in our lifetime. The teachers and I have had the good fortune to witness the Asian great ape in person, semi-wild in the forest, and not behind bars in a cage or zoo. However, the orang-utan is listed as critically endangered and there are many obstacles to overcome to keep its populations safe in the wild.

Working with teachers, we try to keep conservation topics alive among their students, the future generation who will live on Earth where we hope wildlife and their natural habitats will thrive and not just cling to a tenuous existence as they do now. We believe this is possible; we can work together, teaching English and conservation to help wild orang-utan populations thrive in Sarawak, and not go the way of the doomed Sumatran rhinoceros.

Christina Amanda Yin is a senior lecturer from the School of Foundation Studies, Faculty of Business, Design and Arts at Swinburne University of Technology, Sarawak Campus. She can be reached via email at cyin@swinburne.edu.my