The inaugural Habitat BootCamp for Conservation Leaders and Changemakers which was held in Penang in November 2019 brought together a very special group of conservation practitioners. From the moment the call for applicants went out it was evident that there was keen interest in the training offered from across the region. It was quite difficult to make the final selection of only 24. The BootCamp offers an opportunity for participants to equip themselves with the skills, insights, and inspiration to help them to be more effective in their work. The need for a practitioner BootCamp course was conceptualized by The Habitat Foundation and further developed with the specialist assistance of Tropical Biology Association, Cambridge which has an unrivalled track record of designing training with the unique needs of conservation frontliners in mind.
We were delighted to welcome participants whose work sites covers the range of ecosystems found in the region, and whose work approaches span biodiversity research, environmental education, sustainable tourism, and tackling poaching and illegal wildlife trade, among others. There was a good combination of young professionals working in government, NGOs and academia, as well as recent graduates at the start of their conservation journey. Participants came from across Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak, Philippines, Hong Kong and Singapore. Each participant helped broaden our collective understanding of the multiple conservation challenges in our region and also demonstrated an inspiring shared commitment to achieving conservation despite different organizational affiliations.
Over a packed 8 days, Bootcamp participants covered intensive theory session combined with opportunities to explore the forests of Penang Hill, which included encounters with the night life on hill! The Habitat Penang Hill provided a staging ground for the first few days and an opportunity to become familiar with The Habitat’s unique approach of managing a protected area gateway to be self-financing, to communicate the importance of rainforests, and to generate funding for biodiversity conservation through the work of the Foundation.
A special visit to the waterfall at Penang Botanical Gardens with the water supply authority for Penang (PBA) set the stage for discussions of forests and ecosystem services, and questions of how to influence policy decisions that adequately sustain these values before they are compromised forever. It is sobering to realise that Penang is only able to supply only 20 percent of its water needs and must depend on the Muda River for the remainder of its water needs. The entire state, as well as neighbouring Perlis and Kedah rely on the Ulu Muda Catchment in Kedah for water supply. Yet, the protection of this vital forest is not assured.
At Penang National Park participants met with the officers of the Department of Wildlife and National Parks and gained insights into the day to day challenges of managing of a protected area. Conservation is not automatically assured when an area is gazetted as a protected area. Effective management has to involve successfully involving local stakeholders and often dealing with the challenges of managing a park for conservation as well as recreation and tourism with shrinking budgets and limited staff – a challenge that requires creativity and building links with key stakeholders and the public.
At the northwesternmost tip of the island we explored the marine and coastal ecosystems. We visited the Turtle Conservation Centre at Pantai Kerachut and the site of the seasonal meromictic lake further along the beach. A playful otter gamboling on the beach was one of the lasting memories from that experience!
All these remarkable ecosystems from Penang Hill to the National Park are part of the 12,500 hectare area comprising both terrestrial and marine landscapes which is being nominated as a UNESCO Man & the Biosphere Programme and will become a global learning site for preserving a pristine core of natural ecosystems which help sustain the needs of the local population.
Next, the focus turned to a practical exercise of understanding a contemporary conservation problem and a project which is at the early stage of development. Looking at the coastal mangroves and mudflats of Teluk Ayer Tawar which is a vital flyway for migratory birds. Participants were able to appraise a conservation and natural resource problem by talking to the project leaders and engaging with local communities living in the mainland. In contemplating the unique challenges and circumstances posed at this project site, participants provided some of their ideas to help achieve strong project outcomes.
Turning the focus onto their own work, participants were led through the process of using a Theory of Change approach to critically assess their projects and initiatives. Careful understanding of conservation problems provides clarity on viable conservation solutions. This, with other tools such as stakeholder mapping, adaptive management, mediation, strengthening communication skills, cultivating the qualities of a leader, and practising self-care to ensure resilience, were some of the major learning sessions during the training.
From the experience of the first Habitat BootCamp, it is clear that Penang offers access to a range of landscapes and natural resource management scenarios through which frontliners can critically explore the ever-evolving challenges as they strive to bring about important and meaningful changes in their respective fields. We look forward to welcoming future intakes of practitioners to be part of the BootCamp experience!
The Habitat Foundation funded 65 percent of the cost of course. Southeast Asia Rainforest Research Partnership kindly provided additional scholarships worth RM7,000 to enable participants to attend. Participants covered their own travel to Penang.