By Kamila Delart
Until quite recently, Langkawi was only a tiny dot on the map, completely unknown to the world.
That things have changed and people from all across the globe come to admire the island’s breathtaking nature is not a coincidence. Let’s pay homage to the very first naturalist of Langkawi, Irshad Mobarak, who spent the last 26 years sharing this amazing gift with travelers and locals alike.
A nature kid, Irshad spent his childhood exploring with his dad the wilderness, running with Orang Asli children through the jungle and picking up the skills of indigenous tribes when crossing hidden rainforest lakes in a dugout canoe, trying to catch a fish.
Surrounded by nature, he was completely in his element. So much so, that when asked at the age of nine about his dream job, there was only one answer that felt right: A game warden!
His journey through life wasn’t as straightforward as he imagined when looking into the flames of a bonfire and listening to dad’s captivating stories about the jungle’s nocturnal creatures. His passion for nature documentaries by David Bellamy and Sir David Attenborough was replaced during the teenage years by rugby games. His beloved books written by the nature explorer Alfred Russel Wallace began to gather dust as he fell for the high-tech appeal of a cockpit, flirting with the idea of becoming a pilot. And when it was time to make serious choices, he decided to pursue the career of a banker.
But when he visited with friends the Tioman Island at the age of 23 and spent the entire weekend snorkeling, the colorful life underneath the sea surface jolted him awake. Suddenly realizing how much he was missing nature,he knew that spending his life in an air-conditioned cubicle, climbing the career ladder was not an option. Walking out of the office only three months later, he set out to follow his calling…
Teaching resort guests sailing and taking them on jungle treks, he lived for a couple of years in various parts of Malaysia until fate brought him to Langkawi. Mesmerized by the majestic limestone formations, mysterious mangroves and ancient rainforests,he felt as though his heart found his home.
Enchanted by all the beauty around, he spent every free minute discovering the jungle, fascinated by the incredible biodiversity. Such a tiny place, and yet there were 226 species of birds and 500 different butterflies! At night, the rainforest teemed with flying squirrels and there were colugos roaming from tree to tree – animals hard to find anywhere else! Thirsty for knowledge, Irshad studied any nature book he could get his hands on and when given the opportunity to learn from Miles Baddeley, a passionate British birder, and Bernard d’Abrera, one of the greatest authorities on butterflies, his childhood dream of becoming a naturalist was reborn.
Walking among ancient meranti and keruing trees, inhaling the spicy aroma of a crashed ginger leaf, listening to the mysterious laughter of a great hornbill and watching a family of dusky leaf monkeys peek from the rainforest foliage – Irshad never felt more alive! Compelled to share this amazing feeling with others, he began to tempt friends and strangers to join him on his jungle walks, hoping to open their eyes for the nature’s wonders. He must have been very good at that as over the years quite a few of Irshad’s early jungle walk companions became nature experts in their own right!
Irshad’s enthusiasm was so contagious, it didn’t take long and the General Manager of The Datai offered Irshad the role of a Resident Naturalist. – Creating an entirely new position that has been since adopted by many other properties. Sometimes it only takes one passionate voice to set in motion a powerful avalanche…
Irshad’s jungle discovery walks became so popular, the word spread far beyond the borders of Malaysia. The National Geographic Channel came to Langkawi to shoot the documentary ‘The Mysteries of the Malaysian Rainforest’ and when hearing about a unique wedding ceremony of the White Bellied Sea Eagle, also the crew of Discovery Channel jumped on the plane. A sought-after nature expert, Irshad shared his insights in the documentary ‘The Rough Guide -Trips of a Lifetime’, appeared at the Globe Trekker and was invited to give an inspirational talk at TED that organizes series of global conferences under the motto ‘ideas worth spreading’. Hoping to share the natural beauty of Langkawi with those who cross his path, Irshad eventually managed to turn the eyes of the world into our direction.
But his mission is far from accomplished. The growing numbers of visitors and further development of the tourism industry could easily become a threat to Langkawi’s nature if not guided with wisdom. To avoid the tragic fate of similarly enchanting islands that have been completely destroyed within a short period of time, Irshad acts as the guardian of Langkawi’s natural beauty.
Proposing that the construction of new roads goes hand in hand with the creation of ‘wildlife corridors’, he found a way to counteract the fragmentation of natural habitat, making it possible for animals to freely roam. An active member of the Langkawi Chapter of the Malaysian Nature Society, Irshad provides lectures on sustainable tourism, raising awareness about the fragility of the island’s eco-system. And realizing that the future of Langkawi lies in the hands of future generations, he regularly visits local schools, doing his best to instill in the students’ hearts love and respect for nature.
His contribution to the preservation of Langkawi was honored in 2007 by DIGI with the ‘Amazing Malaysian Award’. But the true incentive that drives his conservation efforts is a different one. A father of a four years old son and a daughter that will soon celebrate her second birthday, Irshad cannot wait for his children to be old enough to join him on his jungle walks. And the most precious reward he can imagine is the joy in their eyes as they get to experience a rainforest as pristine and mesmerizing as the one he discovered 26 years ago…
For detailed info about the eye-opening nature trips with Irshad and his team, go to: www.junglewalla.com
From : langkawi-gazette