Wendy Chin’s bird-filled adventure photos started popping up in my Instagram feed one day and for months I have wanted to share her with you as part of the series of female birding guides I produce.
As a one-woman enterprise she leads visitors on nature tours in Malaysia with a particular emphasis on birds. Her Instagram feed is interspersed with her original bird photography, photos of her diverse clientele, shots of incredible food en route, and glorious land, sea and jungle scapes of her country.
Chin, 47, has been guiding for over 10 years. Originally from a suburb of Kuala Lampur, Malaysia’s capital, she’s currently based further north on Langkawi Island (see map further below).
“Nature guiding is my full time job on freelance basis. I am not sure if I can consider this as a job!” she says, a sentiment which would conform with how fun her life appears online. But there is a darker side to the life of a nature guide in today’s global climate of consumption. In spite of her success within the local eco-tourism industry, she is also witnessing environmental degradation at a scale that is not sustainable. It is a bittersweet life, as you will read.
Chin and I communicated over email throughout summer 2019. Below is the interview with her.
What kind of scene is there for birding in Malaysia? Who is birding there?
Malaysia—which includes the East Malaysia in Borneo—is a well known bird watching hot spot in South East Asia with a total of birds close to 800 species. Langkawi (where I guide) has only about 260 species.
There are a few bird clubs here such as Selangor Bird Group from Malaysian Nature Society and Wild Bird Club Malaysia. The volunteers from these clubs contribute a lot in educating, guiding and reaching out to the public in promoting bird watching and bird conservation. (The clubs host) annual events in getting the public (engaged) such as Beginners' Bird watching Course and Raptor Count at Tanjung Tuan and Melaka and Bird.
Many locals? Mostly foreign tourists?
Most of our local birdwatchers are from these voluntary groups and the foreign birdwatchers are usually from the tours. In Langkawi, there are more foreign birdwatchers than local birdwatchers.
How did you get started in bird guiding? How did you learn it?
It was my friend, Mrs. Lim Bing Yee who is responsible in triggering my interest in birds. I was given a used pair of binoculars and a field guide as my birthday gift from Mrs. Lim back in 2004. That was the year I started my outdoor work on Langkawi. Mrs. Lim guided me on my first bird watching outing and she subsequently encouraged me to join two bird watching courses (Introduction and Advanced) conducted by the volunteers from the Selangor Bird Group of Malaysian Nature Society.
Mrs. Lim has been my bird mentor since. There were a few of the seniors from the Bird Group that have helped me in identifying some of the difficult birds like the raptors and waders. I am indeed thankful to have a support group who are willing to share their knowledge and skills.
Where are the birding hot spots in Malaysia? What will you see there?
(Some) examples of birding hot spots in Malaysia are Fraser's Hill, Taman Negara, Langkawi Island, Panti Forest Reserve, Danum Valley, Kinabatangan River, Kinabalu Park and Bario Highlands.In these areas, the habitat ranges from tropical forest to lower montane, as well as rice paddy fields and mangroves. The birds you can see (range from) pittas, pheasants, kingfishers, hornbills, just to name a few.
What is your impact on bird conservation in your country and the places you take clients?
Sadly, the small community of bird guides in Malaysia alone does not make much impact on bird conservation here. We have witnessed birding sites either destroyed for development or set aside for high-end resorts.
Bird conservation is about conserving a habitat. And to be able to stand a higher chance to conserve a habitat, the state or federal government wants to see the benefit of conserving a habitat that will generate long term sustainable income to the locals and the state or federal government. The foreign birdwatchers or visitors are the main contributors towards eco-tourism in Malaysia.
Conserving a habitat for birds, other wildlife and ecosystem for eco-tourism is not as fast as making a profit as converting a mass forest land for mono agriculture, timber, housing or even for highways. An alternative to destroying a forest and still being able to generate big profits from that area would be putting in private resorts.
I have to accept the fact that having a private resort in a natural rain forest is better than deforestation for something else. Does that mean that nature is only for the wealthy ones in the near future? This would be a scary scenario and it is happening now.
Do you see that your participation in ecotourism helps conserve habitat?
For Langkawi at this moment, my participation in ecotourism is not helping enough in conserving a habitat because the number of tourists wanting to go around the island to see wildlife with a local guide is too small. I have seen natural bird habitats gone to development for tourist attractions, housing or private hotels as the years go by.
What are the biggest challenges as a birding guide?
There are several. Habitat destruction or conversion means sometimes I have not been able to bring my clients to previous birding sites either because the habitat has been destroyed or became a private property. And sometimes we encountered bird poachers.
Can you describe encountering a poacher when birding? What happened?
Sometimes, it is not (the poacher) we encounter but their mist nets. We have seen kingfishers, bee eaters, herons, a night jar or even a fruit bat trapped in mist nets, dead or still half alive. We have previously rescued a Black-Capped Kingfisher, a fruit bat and a night jar (photo attached) from the net before they get fried under the hot sun.
Trapping birds with mist net is illegal here. Mist nets are used to trap mainly waterbirds like watercocks, waterhens and other migratory birds. And some are used to control birds from eating the rice grains at the rice paddy fields. Should we encounter mist nets or bird poachers, we usually contact and report to our wildlife department to act on them. However, not all birds are protected. For example, Spotted Doves are not protected, therefore, this species are allowed to be trapped, sadly, as pets.
I have encountered bird poachers with my clients on rare occasions and that has made their birding experience very awkward. One side on bird watching and the other side on bird trapping.
Historically, humans in many countries including the Western parts too have been doing bird trappings for centuries either for consumption or as pets. The era has changed now with higher humans population, loss of natural habitats and the increasing rate of our climate change, these sort of practice must be stopped otherwise there will be only crows and mynas left to see in the wild for the future generations.
What are other challenges?
Other challenges come from the clients themselves.
There are more bird photographers than birdwatchers now. Some bird photographers would expect the appearance of birds at close proximity when they arrive at the site. This has put a lot of pressure to our bird guides here and leaving some operators to use meal worms feeding to guarantee sightings for close shots. Bird tour is still a business at the end of the day. I usually lay out my rules before accepting a booking.
I tell clients please refrain your guides from doing meal worms feeding as this will eventually tame the wild birds in that specific area. Eco-tourism is only meaningful when watching birds and wildlife is kept within the code of ethics as much as we can. Having said all of these, I am not perfect, always learning and continuously seeking feedback for improvement.
Then there is another challenge (facing) most bird guides in Malaysia—the increase of foreign guides taking their clients without using local guides. The Ministry of Tourism and Cultural of Malaysia would prefer foreign groups to engage local licensed guides. It is a law for foreign tour leader bringing a group in to engage local guides. As at now, there is no license issued to foreigners to guide in Malaysia.
Do you observe foreign guides leading birding trips even though it is considered illegal and they do not have permission to do so? Is this because those rules are not enforced, and the foreign guides know this?
I have personally seen foreign guides not only leading birding trips but also other types of tours in Langkawi. One example, on the previous cruise season, there were foreign cruise ships with over 20 foreign tourists cycling around Langkawi with their foreign tour leaders from the ship without using any local guide. Any foreign tour groups must be accompanied by a licensed local guide.
In Malaysia, it is considered illegal to guide without having a license from the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture. At this moment, there is no tour guide license applicable to non-Malaysians. Despite having some enforcers going around to check and this issue has been raised many times by our guides association, yet illegal guides are still on a rampant. The biggest challenge in solving this issue lies in our own local stakeholders. If everyone in the tourism industry plays a part in cooperating by not servicing unlicensed foreign guides for example, van operators and boat operators, then this issue will be a thing of a past. And yes, of course, all foreign guides should know! Our Immigration must be part of the enforcers and be vigilant too.
Visitors need to know how to proceed ethically, whether they are eco-tourists or not.
One reason why these issues are not mentioned is because some will see it as a negative thing rather than an issue that needs to be tackled. Some feel that by voicing out such issue will bring bad reputation to a country.
What about being a female guide? Do you experience unique challenges and if so what are they?
The only challenge as a female bird guide is the safety when going into an area for recce on my own. Very often I am not able to get a companion and so I have to constantly be vigilant. This is also a risk to any sort of birder.
When I first started taking people out for bird watching, I have never thought about gender as an issue. I simply just do it because I love nature guiding. The experiences have been good so far and I am thankful to the encouragement and knowledge from Mrs Lim Bing Yee, my bird watching friends from the Bird club, family and my close clients. There isn't any gender discrimination in Malaysia as a bird guide (or) getting a license to be a nature guide.
What do you see for the future of your industry in Malaysia?
I can say bird watching can now be split into two products now, bird watching tour and bird photography. Bird photography is definitely growing with the affordability of digital equipment.
How can people find you to hire you?
Thank you, Wendy!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.