Jo Leen Yap
PhD student, Wildlife Researcher & Nature Educator, Langur Project Penang (LPP)
Bukit Mertajam, MalaysiaAge: 28
Tell us a bit about yourself!
I am currently a wildlife researcher, nature educator and Ph.D. student in zoology at the School of Biological Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), where my research project is “Ecology, behaviour, and road ecology study of dusky langur (Trachypithecus obscurus) for the development of a sustainable langur conservation plan in Penang.”
I expanded my research on dusky langurs into a community outreach project, the Langur Project Penang (LPP), which I founded under the umbrella of USM and the Malaysian Primatological Society (MPS). LPP serves as a platform for research and education for local students and the community, through collaboration with governmental bodies, educational institutions, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Malaysia. We aim to develop a comprehensive “Langur Conservation Plan” in Penang, which takes into account primate ecology, anthropogenic influences, and the use of scientific research and nature education to create public awareness for primate conservation.
My interest in environmental education started after I completed my undergraduate studies, when I was an educational officer at the Dark Cave Conservation Site in Kuala Lumpur for a year and then an environment educator in the Penang Tropical Spice Garden for three years. Today, you can find me spending most of my time in the forest of Penang chasing dusky langurs, planning and executing environmental education programs, and writing my thesis.
What inspired you to become a champion for the environment and environmental education?
Nature itself inspires and motivates me to dedicate myself to environmental education. I study dusky langurs in Penang, Malaysia, where some of the challenges I endure on (almost) a daily basis include waking up at 4:30am before heading to my field site to start following langurs from their sleeping trees at 6:45am. I learn so much from the langurs about how the species depends on tree canopies to survive, the various sympatric species that form a tight ecological food chain, and the various native trees that bring life to their habitat. Unfortunately, primates and other wildlife in Penang are understudied and misunderstood; therefore, I strive to be the voice for wildlife.
Fieldwork in nature is not always a fairy tale. I have experienced not-so-happy moments in my research journey, from handling langur roadkill due to vehicle collisions caused by habitat fragmentation, to attending forums against deforestation and road development. These experiences have opened my mind to the lack of awareness and enforcement of various environmental issues in Malaysia, from unsustainable logging to illegal wildlife trade.
I want to do the best that I can, which is why I started Langur Project Penang to serve as a platform for research and environmental education, involving local residents and stakeholders as volunteers and collaborators to bring environmental awareness to the community.
What advice would you give to the next generation of leaders that are looking to bring about positive change in their communities through EE?
First, always open your arms to collaboration. From my humble beginning in EE, I’ve learned that we must not be afraid to exchange ideas and collaborate with various stakeholders. Rejection can reduce our confidence in continuing a career in EE, especially since it is a small field! However, by working with different EE networks we can enhance our creativity, productivity and, experiences, and these are all stepping stones toward establishing a long-term EE platform in our home country. Always have an open mind when working with the government, NGOs, and individuals of all backgrounds, and particularly local communities who know their habitat best. Working side-by-side with a diverse group of people will bring the community closer together, and by highlighting certain environmental issues, we can create a larger impact!
Next, always seek out to enrich your knowledge and skills. I wasn’t aware of the importance of science communication until I had the opportunity to attend a two-week Wildlife Conservation Course, organized by WildCru, at the University of Oxford. Their science communication module opened my eyes to different ways of providing an effective learning experience through games. The key message here is to never say NO to learning opportunities when there is a big world of knowledge out there for us to discover. As environmental educators, we must always improve ourselves in terms of knowledge, skills, and confidence in order to nurture and provide good quality education for future generations.
Who do you look up to as inspiration for your work?
I am so blessed to have met my current research supervisor, Dr. Nadine Ruppert, a primatologist and senior lecturer at USM. Nadine understands my passion for education, and never stops me from taking time during my Ph.D. years for my other passion, grassroots environmental education. How many postgraduate students in Malaysia are doing education and outreach to raise awareness for nature? To be honest, not many.
Nadine respected and encouraged my vision when I first told her that I wanted to translate my research on dusky langurs into awareness for the general public. From supporting me in syllabus design to attending forums, she never says, ""it is too much!"" Instead, she provides helpful advice for me to balance my research and education work.
I have always believed that a great leader is one who nurtures through positivity, especially while giving encouragement and constructive criticism. Nadine is always happy and proud to see her students grow and bloom into great achievers. She is no doubt a great inspiration for my work, as she has watched me grow and believed in me from the start, providing me with the freedom and space to develop my career. Most importantly, she is wonderful support as a both a friend and sister!
If you could be any animal or plant, what would you be and why?
Definitely Ficus spp., the fig tree! The participants in my nature education programs love listening to me talk about the importance of fig trees.
Almighty figs, the mother trees of the rainforest, provide food and shelter to various wildlife species, and in this way are like the hotels of the forest. You can especially see this in the morning, before sunrise, when there are always many species of birds, squirrels, monkeys, and even creepy-crawlies foraging and feeding on the nutritious fig fruits! Looking closer, you see lots of climbers and epiphyte plants growing on the fig trees, providing even more food resources, which attract a wider diversity of fauna that pollinate and disperse the fig’s seeds.
If you can, try to find your nearest fig tree. Sit and relax under its canopy, and look up to observe the life up there. I would be a fig tree—so humble, big, and important support for the forest’s ecological cycle. I see this as equivalent to my vision within environmental education, to nurture environmental awareness in Malaysia by providing rich knowledge to and sharing with local communities for the benefit of our whole ecosystem.