From Biodiversity Gardens Capacity Building Workshop with Yap Jo Leen, LPP (Founder)
STARTING POINT OF LPP
Langur Project Penang, LPP, is a dusky langur research and outreach group based in Penang. Its members are ‘Duskies’, a group of citizens from different backgrounds who share a common goal – dusky langur conservation.
LPP was established in 2016 when Jo Leen Yap was studying for her Masters. Since then, she has been working closely with Duskies to collect dusky langur data and spread awareness on the importance of primate conservation. Jo Leen shared with us about the work the group does and the people behind LPP, and most importantly, what citizen science is and how we can contribute to wildlife conservation.
Many people consider science a profession, but it can be a hobby as well. Jo Leen has had a sense of curiosity towards things around her from a young age. The journey of LPP started when she quit her job in 2015. She really wanted to help the wildlife in our country, and so she started studying dusky langurs under the supervision of her current supervisor, Dr Nadine Ruppert.
Jo Leen soon met Wen, a graphic designer, and Wen became LPP’s first citizen scientist member. In the early days, Jo Leen did not know much about citizen science. She thought that since she was studying primates and was also an environmental educator, why not share her stories from the field on Facebook & Instagram? As a result, some of her friends started to come in to help out.
Wen designed the logo of LPP and helped Jo Leen in fieldwork. They went into the forest 2 to 3 days per week, when Wen was free. Jo Leen trained Wen to collect data through scan sampling and focal sampling. They then started to post more information online.
Eventually, more friends joined the team for fieldwork experience. Since they were very curious about the dusky langurs, Jo Leen let them follow the team into the forest. In return, they would have to contribute something – helping with data collection or producing creative educational articles, photographs or videos. Today, LPP has 70 volunteers, local and international.
CITIZEN SCIENCE AND PILLAR PROJECTS OF LPP
What is citizen science? Can everyone be a citizen scientist? To answer these questions, let’s think about what we do on a daily basis. We are surrounded by nature and often interact with nature close to us. It can be observing pollinators in our gardens, finding birds in our backyards, or measuring the amount of rainfall on a weekly basis. All these activities are those of citizen scientists. So, everyone can be a citizen scientist.
Although there are various definitions of citizen science, the main aim is to bridge the gap between scientists and communities so that we can have more impact together. By involving more people with different backgrounds, conservationists can achieve greater milestones, relying on teamwork and creativity.
LPP comprises citizen scientists from different backgrounds that work towards the conservation of dusky langurs and urban wildlife in Penang and Malaysia. The first pillar of LPP is the research project. This project involves long-term data collection that began in 2015, before LPP was established. Jo Leen has trained citizens in the field, teaching them how to collect data in a proper and non-biased way. This way, their observations can support scientific research.
The second pillar of LPP is the canopy bridge project. In 2019, LPP installed the first canopy bridge in Malaysia. Since then, LPP has dedicated efforts to collecting more data on urban wildlife road crossing hotspots so that they can propose areas to build more arboreal crossings. This is important because most of the planned wildlife crossings in Malaysia are bioducts, which target large, charismatic mammals. However, most of the tree-top animals such as monkeys, squirrels or even tree snakes are being neglected.
The third pillar of LPP is the outreach and education programme. The main objective of LPP is not restricted to research, but also aims to promote co-existence among people and wild animals. Jo Leen’s background is in environmental education, and she is passionate about it. Jo Leen really hopes that she can make a difference, since typical researchers are not willing to take the time to talk to a 6-year-old kid or 60-year-old uncles and aunties. However, these are the people that live close to urban wildlife. They are the crucial community that can help to conserve wildlife and promote human and wildlife co-existence. LPP believes that symbiotic relationships should be created not only among different species of animals but also between animals and humans. We should have more empathy, tolerance and understanding towards our wild residents, a.k.a. wild animals.
USING CITIZEN SCIENCE TO ACHIEVE RESEARCH, CONSERVATION AND EDUCATION
Conservation is a process that not only saves wildlife but changes people’s perspective as well. For example, people tend to see monkeys as either pets or pests. We can change these perceptions to more positive ones, such as, monkeys are important seed dispersers in rainforests. There are many ways to do so, and it all depends on the interest and specialty of citizen scientists. In LPP, there are four elements to utilising citizen science in achieving research, conservation and education.
1. Field research
Field research involves monitoring of dusky langurs in study sites, arranging research data and training new members of LPP. It takes many months or years to understand a group of dusky langurs in terms of their home range, food plants & social dynamics. During the first MCO (Movement Control Order), LPP was unable to conduct fieldwork for 3 and a half months. When the research team caught up later during RMCO, there had been changes in the social structure and dynamics of the dusky langurs under study, including their home range. Hence, it is important to ensure the continuity of monitoring the targeted group for research purposes.
When people join LPP as members, they are able to learn wilderness survival skills, sampling methods, plants identification and bino-graphy i.e. photography through binoculars. LPP’s research includes collecting information on activity patterns, diet composition and home range of dusky langurs in the wild. After training, volunteers are able to assist research teams and facilitate fieldwork.
Studying science and nature is a never-ending process. Yet citizen scientists will manage to recognise food plants of dusky langurs, many of which are fig or fruit trees. In the last few years, LPP has documented over one hundred of the langur’s food plants, and the data collection is ongoing. Citizen scientists are also able to recognise different langur individuals, and so they can help collect data on individuals as well as groups.
There is certainly a challenging side to fieldwork for citizen scientists. One of the common problems is insect bite. There have been incidents where citizen scientists were attacked by wasps during fieldwork. This is why it is important to ensure that members are fully aware of potential risks. Also, Jo Leen makes sure citizen scientists are well-trained so that they are independent enough to take care of themselves and their partners.
2. Environmental education
LPP is actively engaging with the community through 3 different means:
- rainforest programmes,
- outreach, talks and roadshow,
- creative contents for social media and activities.
Instead of inviting people to follow the monkeys in the wild, LPP also encourages duskies to use their creativity to develop content that can raise awareness of dusky langurs and primate conservation in Malaysia. This is very crucial as environmental education is often neglected. Many people question whether environmental education has a measurable impact. This question has been on Jo Leen’s mind for years. As she is not a social scientist, she is now working with a group of psychologists to measure the impact of environmental education. Hopefully, they can share the results soon.
Why environmental education? Why involve citizens in environmental education?
Well, because everyone can benefit from experiencing nature and help with conservation. For example, during the rainforest programmes, children can join trips to the forest. They can hike and experience nature through their five senses. They also get to have an adventure and unlock their potential for learning and discovery in the forest. Children are always amazed by their first encounter of a dusky langur, as well as the first-time they taste a wild starfruit. After the program, these children share what they learned with their friends and family. They even send messages to Jo Leen to report their observations of dusky langurs around their neighbourhood. These observations may seem insignificant in research, but to LPP, these sightings help us to develop a sense of the occurrence of langurs in urban environments.
LPP members actively help with environmental education. They contribute their time to organise and conduct long-term programmes and activities. LPP also organises roadshows, known as Occupy Beach Street, for communities. Through the roadshows, people learn more about the langurs including where to see them, what they feed on and so on. All these efforts spark curiosity and interest towards the monkeys. This is where LPP bridges the gap between science and community, and also encourage the public to join its upcoming citizen science initiatives.
Using creativity for science communication
Science communication can be creative. Why do science in a boring way? We have some very inspiring and interesting science documentaries like those of BBC and National Geographic Channel, and we often think that we need lots of money and manpower in order to produce films.
But what can we do as a small working group? The answer is creativity. Instead of making typical printed educational boards, we have many other ways, from story-telling web articles and infographics to videography.
Several members of LPP contribute science communication materials: Wen, the graphic designer, created LPP’s logo. She also produces interactive props such as crossword puzzles and paintings. At the moment, she is helping create T-shirts for LPP. By integrating the food plants of dusky langurs into the design, Wen makes the T-shirts unique and educational.
Eric is a communication officer at PWTC. He is also a writer. Eric has been collaborating with LPP since late 2017. He has been actively engaged with LPP, especially in obtaining information on the canopy bridge project and environmental education programmes, so that he can write more stories in a more creative and impactful way, reaching a wider range of audiences.
The younger generation of LPP members are very creative and interested in conservation. One of their main concerns is making a living in the field of conservation. Although they might find that their career is not a very lucrative one, the right citizen science platform will allow them to discover their potential.
Jieh Long is good in illustrating & content-creating. He is now helping LPP to produce a lot of cute wildlife cartoons for writing, videos & infographics. He also converts findings of scientific research into infographics that promote a better understanding of citizen science and wildlife conservation among the public.
Zher Yee who studies in Imperial College, UK has created a monopoly game that involves role-playing. In this game, each player has his or her own role to play. The roles include conservationist, government official, developers or citizens. The players will learn how their roles impact the conservation of primates and langurs. Also, they will learn how stakeholders can work together in order to make a difference in wildlife conservation.
Yoong Shuen is a broadcasting student in Han Chiang University College of Communication. She helps LPP to produce various educational videos. The videos that she produces involve citizens’ perspective, which are different from those created by people with a science background. These videos are able to reach wider audiences.
3. Community effort in conservation
The third element to utilising citizen science is community. In order to create a long-term impact for our citizen science projects, we need to reach out to more people. LPP has been working together with communities in several projects.
First, there is road ecology, which is the study of the impact of roads on the movement of wild animals. We always think of wild animals living in far off places like the deep sea or remote mountains. In fact, due to habitat loss and fragmentation, many wild animals now exist in our neighbourhood. Therefore, LPP started to encourage people to make reports about road accidents or road-crossings that involve wildlife. For example, during the RMCO, LPP received a call that reported the injury of a langur in Bukit Mertajam, Penang. When someone witnesses a road-crossing activity, he or she can report to LPP. LPP will collect the data and use it for upcoming conservation projects. If a person encounters a road kill incident, he or she should directly contact PERHILITAN (Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia). Or sometimes, LPP acts as the middle person that aids communication.
Second, there is documenting urban wildlife sightings. LPP tries to seek help from the public to collect sightings of urban wildlife across Malaysia. Currently, LPP is working with Dr Cedric Tan from Oxford Brookes University to develop a tool that encourages citizen scientists to report wildlife sightings.
Some may wonder what the difference is between this project and iNaturalist. The objective of this wildlife sighting tool is to create a more rewarding platform. People can join this project for different purposes. Some may join out of curiosity, others to be helpful, while some aim for vouchers. LPP will need to identify people’s purposes and identify more niches of the public, and this will help to engage new communities in wildlife conservation.
Combating wildlife crime
Wildlife crime is not a new issue for people who are concerned with conservation. On social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, we see people and even celebrities selling or buying wildlife as pets, including babies of dusky langurs. These young langurs are so adorable that people want to own them as exotic pets.
LPP encourages citizens to screenshot the advertisement and send it to LPP itself, the Wildlife Department or MYCAT (Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers). Citizens can also raise awareness by creating Instagram contents, stories, hashtags (#PrimatesAreNotPets for example), articles and blogs regarding wildlife crime. After collecting coordinates and photos from the public, LPP will forward the information to wildlife department for further action. As Jane Goodall said, every individual makes a difference. If we start to do something, even a simple act of taking a screenshot and sending an ad of wildlife sale to the authorities, we are helping to gather data on wildlife crime.
Even in our backyard, people may still be keeping wildlife as exotic pets. It is our responsibility to ask ourselves whether we want to help or pretend that we do not see anything.
All these efforts are not only saving the animals and giving them a second chance, but also contributing relevant data to research projects that aim to understand and protect wildlife.
Lastly, LPP utilises citizen science in collaborative projects such as the Canopy Bridge project. In Penang, wildlife habitat is fragmented by roads and buildings. After years of following the animals in the forest, LPP realises that these animals move from one fragmented zone to another.
Dusky langurs use overhead cables for moving. They even run across the road, which is very risky for both young and elder individuals. Therefore, LPP wants to overcome this problem through large-scale efforts. Recently, with the data collected from citizen scientists, LPP approached relevant authorities to construct a canopy bridge.
Some stakeholders that LPP works with are PERHILITAN, Forestry Department Peninsular Malaysia (FDPM) and even Public Works Department (JKR). LPP held multiple meetings with these stakeholders to get their approval for the project. After these meetings, Jo Leen realised that all of these stakeholders were concerned about wild animals, and, with a common dedication and passion towards wildlife conservation, we can work with different stakeholders and make a difference.
In February 2019, LPP built the first canopy bridge in Malaysia. After a year of data collection, LPP recorded 500 crossings of three charismatic species: long-tailed macaque, plantain squirrel and dusky langur. There are also birds and rodents that use the canopy bridge. As LPP shares these data publicly through videos, people have started to share more sightings of urban wildlife crossing activities. This inspires LPP to reach out to different groups of citizens in order to have more collaborations.
Last month, LPP upgraded the canopy bridge to its second prototype which resembles a doubly twisted liana. Apart from working with authorities and existing collaborators, LPP also gained support from a volunteer engineer who helped LPP create a solar panel that charges the camera trap (a specialized camera for filming wildlife that was set up at the canopy bridge). This really helped a lot as until then, Jo Leen had to climb up the pole and change the batteries a few times per month. It is amazing how a single effort is able to reach out so that more people are inspired to join and help out.
All these videos of animal crossings can be found on LPP’s Facebook page. There are all kinds of camera footages of the canopy bridge. Hopefully, this project will help to collect more data in order to determine which prototype of the canopy bridge is more suitable for the wild monkeys in Penang.
Future of primate conservation in Malaysia
“Are you positive about the future of primate conservation in Malaysia?” This is the question that people always ask Jo Leen in interviews or sharing sessions. She believes it is the young people who decide the future. There are more young people engaged in conservation as citizen scientists, whether in their local groups or initiating their own citizen science projects, even involving younger children. This makes us more hopeful as these are the people who will be able to make a difference in the future. It may be hard to believe for some, but throughout her years of involvement in citizen science projects, Jo Leen confirms that such efforts change peoples’ behaviour and create opportunities for future conservation. It is just a matter of wanting to do or not to, and the willingness of other stakeholders to collaborate and contribute to wildlife conservation in Malaysia.
Seeing all the camera footages of langurs using the canopy bridge to cross road, Jo Leen feels more confident about continuing with the installation of canopy bridges for wildlife crossing. Many people ask her if she will continue to with LPP after she completes her PhD study. Jo Leen gives a big YES, because if she doesn’t do it, no one will do it. If she doesn’t make the effort to keep this group of citizen scientists together, the future of Malaysian primates may not be as good as recent or previous times; and we still need more people to get involved as citizen scientists in order to make a difference.
What are the future plans of LPP?
LPP will engage with more Malaysian citizens and reach out to more stakeholders. Aside from establishing canopy bridges, they also want to have arboreal wildlife road crossing. This can be done by putting signage by the road. In addition to elephant, tapir, monkey ground crossing, we can also have tree-living wildlife crossing signage.
For environmental education, Jo Leen would like to see more collaboration among educators so that we can merge all our expertise and creativity together for nature conservation in Malaysia. And so that we can proudly announce, on international platforms, that Malaysia has succeeded in adopting citizen science efforts in which all Malaysians can be involved in.
This article is supported by The Habitat Foundation Conservation Grant
You can watch the entire session here.