Interview: Irshad Mobarak

Face to face with a leading conservationist, naturalist and educator on the main island of Langkawi.


Key points covered: 

  • Mobarak’s youth and his motivation to become a conservationist,
  • Key issues today,
  • Changing attitudes of tourists, 
  • His “mission”,
  • His “dream for the future”,
  • Ongoing projects…

While he came from a scientific and banking background, Irshad Mobarak is a leading naturalist, conservationist and educator, based on the island of Langkawi. We met with him in the late afternoon sunshine on the rustic and picturesque terrace of the BonTon resort, in some ways a symbol of the “new-old” Langkawi, marrying tradition and culture with modern comfort. Today, deeply moved by the plight of the animal and plant worlds and the perilous relationship they have with man at this moment in history, he has devoted his life to helping ordinary people unlock the mysteries of the natural world. We asked Irshad to tell us about his youth, and how he became enamoured with nature.

When we were kids, our late father took us out into the wild. He was a jungle walker, and was there when the Japanese fought the communist insurgents. When things were much better and we were growing up, he used to take us out to many of the places he used to enjoy. And at the tender young age of nine, while I was watching television, he asked me what I wanted to be. It just so happened that I was watching David Bellamy on TV. And I said, “Papa I want to be a game warden just like this man”. I though he was a ranger. But, in any case, I knew that I wanted to protect nature. A little over ten years later, I became a banker. I had a bit of science background, but I want into banking because I did sports. I was playing Rugby for clubs here, and after the banks were offering jobs to ‘talent’. It was CSR, although they didn’t call it that then. Four and a half years into that job, I had the fortune to be able to fly to Tioman Island, and there I was snorkelling for the first time in my life and I was just blown away by the colours I saw in the ocean, and I was a different person on the plane coming home. I said, “I can’t be stuck in an office”. When Rugby was over and athletics were over, I was planning my resignation, but you don’t resign without something in your hands. I tried to get a transfer to one of the islands or some of the coastal banking branches, and they didn’t want to give me that. Then I asked them to send me to the mountains, because I like nature. I love the mountains and I love the sea, and I thought that would be a way of continuing to get a salary. They denied that again, and I said, “OK, I have no choice. I don’t want to live in the city any more”. I left and bummed for three and a half years, doing this and that. Then I made a visit to Langkawi, and fell in love with what I saw. That was 30 years ago. And I decided this was a good place to settle. When I first came here it was duty-free already, but for me it wasn’t like a duty-free island. There was the natural forest here and they were marketing something else – the duty-free and relaxing on the beaches. But really, what we have behind us was what I thought would be a great product. So, I worked with a hotel here. Because of my background in sports, I set up the recreation department. In my three and a half years of bumming around I did a lot of sailing and teaching to sail, etc., so I set up the recreation department at a hotel. Then I decided to leave and set up my own nature activities, and this became popular. Then I had the opportunity to move to the Datai hotel, and that was a very big opportunity, as they allowed me to just focus on nature. Since then, I have opened a travel company called Natural History Tours which has the brand of JungleWalla – that’s my brand. And I have of course a birding aspect to the natural history tours, and we are specialists in birding tours to the Malaysian Peninsula and Borneo… and we are making inroads into Indonesia now. Malaysia is of course my mainstay. We do the central route; we created the northern route for birdwatching, and we created the Hornbill route. Very few people know there are 57 species of Hornbill in the world, between Africa and Asia. Africa was the origin of Hornbills, but Africa has 25 species and South-East Asia has 27 species. Malaysia has ten species, Thailand has 13 species, but nowhere else in the world will you find ten species of hornbills all in one place. In the Malaysian states of Perak and Kedah, in an area totalling almost 300,000 hectares, you can find all ten species of Hornbills. Here on the island I started a successful operation – a company doing tours etc. But the Datai, because I was a free agent, working with many hotels, didn’t want that; they wanted exclusivity. So, since they have been closed for renovations I have been a consultant for them. In March, I went to London for the launching of the new Datai.

We have issues here. We have the usual issues of fighting to maintain the rainforest. We have lost 50% of our rainforest on the big island. The rest is paddy fields, some rubber, some orchards, and then of course we have tourism development. There are a lot of angles of conflict. People want land. People want to develop everywhere. So, it was hard going in the first 14 years to try to convince people in the state government that we really needed to crack down on illegal encroachment. In one bad year, we had 12 fires. Encroachment:  logging a little around the island; Gunung Raya being a main point, Bukit Sawa being another one. With some of the conservationists, we got together, took a helicopter, collected some images, and made a signature campaign. Thousands of local people signed, showing they were aware of the issues and they wanted it stopped. And that’s when the politicians sat up, because it was their constituents who were worried. They were not concerned about eco-tourism. My angle was that it was water security, because the rainforest is a reservoir. That was around ten years ago, and since then, with 12 fires in a year, there are now maybe one a year, or even sometimes none at all. So, it’s been effective, and the politicians understand that it is unpopular to keep logging, and I would say the situation is way better now. The next step is to try to convince LADA, the town council, stakeholders like the hotel operators; that it is time to be more proactive, and start plating food plants for animals. I would love to see the town council landscaping with native plants rather than Bougainvillea and so on. Then, as you walked through town, you would get the Hornbills coming in, the Asian Fairy Bluebirds coming in… the birds would come out of the forests into the city. That’s the next step. So, I am ready to create a competition. My company is ready to put up prize money of five to eight thousand Ringgit for the best wildlife garden, and just get it going. There are other people like Anthony Wong who is doing his bit. The Datai hotel will be doing its bit as well. They understand that this is what travellers are now counting on. People are increasingly ‘checking on your credentials’ when they travel. You have to adapt to the changing market.

Irshad Mobarak 2
Irshad Mobarak at the BonTon resort in Lankawi

So, the attitudes about Langkawi are changing?

Yes. People come here thinking they are going to see beaches and duty free. The choice for duty free in Europe is already huge, so people don’t have to come here for that. Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore also have very big choices. Here, it’s a naturalists’ haven. Langkawi is made up of many magical islands. The entire island is a UNESCO Geopark, and that’s a great badge of honour. The entire paleo-geological history of Malaysia happened to Langkawi. As a result of that, we have an incredible diversity of rock substrate, also meaning soil type. On the one side at Gunung Machinchang, we have sandstone, on the east coast, it’s limestone, in the middle of the island, it’s a granite intrusion, at the base of it, it’s alluvial soils; and we’ve got some mudstone chert. Different soil substrate is more conducive to different plants. So, we have “forests on limestone”, we have mangrove forests, we have lowland dipterocarp forests, at the top of Gunung Machinchang, we have a heath forest and of course we have riparian fresh waterways and littoral forests. So, the soils define the plants, and the plants determine the fauna. For a little island, we have 51 species of mammals including the Colugo. It comes out at night and glides between the trees. Genetics suggest it is the world’s only gliding primate. They can be found in different parts of South East Asia, and Langkawi is one of the easiest places to see them. We have a total of over 260 species of birds. Malaysia has 790 species of birds. Si at 260 we have nearly one third of all the birds in the country, including the great hornbill. We have 535 species of butterflies. Let’s put that in perspective. The entire continent of Australia has 450. The entire island of England has 65. Japan has around 380. Sri Lanka, who market themselves as a butterfly paradise, sitting on exactly the same latitude, has 248 species of butterflies. We have more than half the number of butterflies than the butterfly paradise island of Sri Lanka, and 85 more than in the entire continent of Australia. Not many people know these facts. There are over 90 species of herpetofauna – lizards, snakes, terrapins, turtles, frogs, and so on.

There are some things, if you don’t do best practices, it’s best to leave alone.

We have six species of marine mammals, including whales. Recently a Brydes whale was filmed off the marine park. We have the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin, the irrawaddy dolphin, the finless porpoise, and also the whale shark. This is the season for whale sharks. Not much is known about that, because nobody is doing tours to see them, and I am OK with that. There are some things, if you don’t do best practices, it’s best to leave alone.

How would you describe your mission today?

I’m living my life. I’m living my dream. I am a conservationist first, and a tour operator second. I like that if it’s going to be ecotourism, we stick to the ideals of ecotourism, not just nature tourism. For example, of course it’s travelling to these wild places, looking at nature in its natural state, without changing your habits and of course supporting the local communities.

It seems that Langkawi still has a lot of virgin territory…

You’re quite right. There are still many places untouched by people. It’s a good thing that people are preferring to copy… to do what most other tourists do, so this has kept many areas untouched. Water is an important resource for islands, and many of the smaller islands, especially in the south, are limestone or mudstone outcrops, and they are high and dry. They don’t have much water, and water is essential for settlement. This means no one has settled there. There are particular beaches that people are taken to on the island-hopping trips, and I know there are other operators that go to other secret places. There is still space to get away from it all.

There seem to be a lot of things going in the “right direction” now… Would you say that is the case?

We should be careful, and we need to abide by caring capacities. We should not love nature to death. There is always a conflict between conservationists and tourists, but people are becoming more aware.

What is your dream for the future of Langkawi?

First, it’s for the core ecological zones to be secured and protected for ever. Then, the 50% that’s lost is fragmented into six smaller habitats. That they would reconnect these habitats with wildlife corridors. This will then secure the gene bank of the animals, as they can migrate for food, shelter and breeding. That’s what I really want to see… that the balance is struck, and that we can enjoy nature for ever. If we have to develop, we have to develop carefully with zoning – the city – a different kind of development, the coast – a different kind of development, and the interior – a different kind of development. There is space for everybody if it is properly planned. That is really what I would like to see, and I am playing a part in that, as I am a now a consultant for different authorities. I am just about to go to Desaru Coast, where there is a big development, but where nearby, there are some beautiful areas. There are some amazing mangroves, with dugongs. There is a place called the Bunty forest in Johor, which is one hour from Desaru. It’s more than 8,000 hectares, and there are still elephants there. Then just half an hour from Desaru, there is a wonderful river that has four kinds of habitat, from coastal forest to mangrove forest, then to nipa forest and then you go to a peat swamp. I am heading down there to curate some of the tours and also to encourage them to do some serious CSR work around the new developments.

What are you working on right now?

There are three things we are doing right now. the hotel has bought into three projects that I have offered to them. The Datai Hotel has decided they want this to be known as the Datai trust. It will be funded by guests, corporations, and so on. The first project being launched is “Fish for the Future”. We are a border island. We have encroachment by big trawling boats into our waters. There is a rule in our country, which is a very good rule, separating inshore fishermen and offshore fishermen. But these trawlers, coming from Thailand and from the peninsula are coming, especially at night, right into the inshore fishermen’s area. Their nets are destroying the corals and they are forcing the local inshore fishermen, who are desperate to put food on the table, to fish directly on the reef. The project we have come up with is to build aggregating devices for fish – FAD’s – big ones – each one is about three metres square, lob them into the sea in several places in the Datai Bay – the target is five. This then will bring the smaller fish, which will bring the bigger fish, like an artificial reef. Then we are going to work with the local fishing community, saying, “Look, we are going to give you these reefs. Please don’t fish on the natural reef. The fish aggregating devices will be yours. We will have some rules of the size of the fish we want from you, and if you catch you can supply the hotels.” We want to try to resolve this crisis. These aggregating devices are so big that if a trawler comes in and gets hooked on it, it will break their nets. We are playing dirty as well, but we have to, because these guys are jeopardising the local fishermen’s bread and butter. This will allow the natural reef to recover, and then we have another project to rehabilitate the natural reef. The second thing is called “Wildlife for the Future”. We will be doing corridors,

Collecting wild native trees, keeping them in our nurseries, then going out and offering these plants to hotels, and wherever people will allow us, the river corridors in particular, we will reforest. That one will be starting in 2019, 2020, because we need the trees to grow to a certain height before we can replant them. And the final one is “Youth for the Future” – 2019 I hope, where we will encourage teenagers. We have issues, like any other society… we have drugs. We have young people who have nothing better to do, than ride around on motorbikes. They need a healthy outlet, so what we are going to do is to create a scheme where kids come and build Malay outriggers, learn how to paddle, learn how to sail, like in a club, and we will have races. I have been teaching sailing before, and it’s very addictive, because of the speed and the dangers evolved. Give them that thrill, a safer thrill, not getting killed on the road or doing drugs. Once a year we can create a big regatta, village against village or district against district, and for them to become a member of this outrigger club, they are encouraged to do two social activities – community service and two environmental activities. That is the thing – to give back to society. If we can be successful with these three projects here, we want to take them to state level, then interstate level, and create a big event. If we can be successful with these projects, then I can retire!