“IT is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it. If one way be better than another, that you may be sure is Nature’s way.”
The red ape despairs,
caged, a life among humans.
It yearns to roam, calls.
Recently, Swinburne’s campus was abuzz with more than 300 students taking to the debate floor at Borneo’s largest English-speaking debating championship organised and hosted by the Swinburne Debaters’ Club.
Students aged 13 to 18 years from schools all around the country and state, put their minds and voices to motions ranging from education and environment to health, law, and sports.
On Day 2 of the tournament, an environmental round sponsored by long-time supporter Wildlife Conservation Society and new sponsor Asian Arks, was held and students debated motions such as ‘This House regrets the environmental movements’ support of child icons such as Greta Thunberg’ and ‘This House, as the Eco-Erectors (a fictitious environmental group) would publicly support the Extinction Rebellion’.
Aside from this, students were encouraged to pen their thoughts on the Malaysian environment, the positive and negative aspects, and their predictions of the future. These thoughts were written on ‘leaves’ that were strung up on WCS’ Tree of Life, a tree made from used plastic bottles. Also, for the fifth year running, students were encouraged to fasten WCS locks for debate and conservation on campus, pledging their commitment to both actions.
The conservation message was further enforced by Kahoot quizzes run by the Swinburne Sarawak Green Club.
These focused on two topics: wildfires and rainforest, both pertinent to Malaysia’s own environment. On top of this, every student was given in his or her tournament bag, a Paplet – a notebook made from paper used on one side produced by the volunteer Paplet-makers and Green Club members.
Environmentally-friendly behaviours were also promoted through recycle bins placed all around the campus, encouraging students to be mindful of their consumption and waste disposal. Finally, before the Awards Presentation, the audience was shown a WCS video depicting the killing and suffering of wild animals for the sake of the human palate and mistaken belief in the medicinal properties of animal parts. The message was clear and the audience was stunned, breaking the silence with a burst of applause when the video concluded.
So, we ask, what did the students take home with them after the exciting four-day debate tournament? Were the environment and conservation messages retained? In the run-up to the tournament, they would have prepped for the environmental round. They would have read about recent news concerning the wildfires and the species devastated by them, as well as about issues in tropical rainforests.
These would have included news involving the iconic orang-utan, which finds its home in parts of Sarawak.
In fact, in the past six months, there’s been news of a baby orang-utan born to a semi-wild mother at Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, an Indonesian politician discovered keeping a baby orang-utan as a pet, a Tapanuli orang-utan found wounded and malnourished at a plantation in North Sumatra, and – astonishingly, an image of a wild orang-utan reaching out its hand to help a warden out of a snake-infested river in Kalimantan captured by an amateur photographer.
It is ironic that a wild animal reaches out to help a human being, while its own species is endangered because of human actions. Indeed, the orang-utan, the only great ape to exist in the wild outside Africa, is deemed Critically Endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red list of mammals.
In Sarawak, thanks to the concerted efforts of the state and conservation organisations, reinforced by the support of the late Chief Minister Pehin Sri Adenan Satem, proclaiming a zero-loss policy on orang-utans in August 2015, Pongo pygmaeus lives free in the wild mostly in Batang Ai National Park and the adjoining Lanjak Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary.
Sarawak’s orang-utan population is steady at 2,000, but vigilance and law enforcement are essential to ensure it continues to thrive. In other parts of Borneo and Sumatra, the iconic red ape is not so fortunate.
So, as the excitement of the debate tournament fades and the debaters face the rigours of their studies and other school activities, what will these 306 students take with them?
Certainly, we hope they will have improved their critical thinking and oratory skills, developed new friendships, and gained from the experience of emotional highs and lows. But will they remember the environmental debate?
The Tree of Life? Their pledge to commit to healthy debate and conservation? The scenes of wildfires consuming the habitats and the lives of endangered species?
The rainforest flourishing as the lungs of the Earth? The image of a shark sinking to the ocean floor still alive, with its fins cut off so humans can consume shark fin soup?
Will they give this planet we share with wildlife a chance? We hope so.
Among the treetops
Maias roams, teaching her young.
What do we teach ours?
Christina Yin is a senior lecturer in the School of Foundation Studies and advisor to the Debaters’ and Green Clubs, Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus.