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Saturday September 10, 2005
Good nature guides spin intriguing tales of the forest and ensure clients’ safety. LEONG SIOK HUI met some aspiring guides who slogged through “tough” training.
Pictures by JOEL CHAN & G.C. TAN
Helen Yap’s voice quavered as she described the Meranti Kepong tree.
“Its tree bark was traditionally used for constructing walls for houses,” said Yap, in halting Malay.
“How is the bark processed to make that?” asked one of the examiners, Che Nor Che Ismail. Yap, 40, looking all jittery, hesitated, before admitting, “I’m afraid I don’t know.”
Then Che Nor threw out another question, “Why can’t you take rotting wood out of the forest?”
“Err . . . because Perhilitan said we cannot . . .?” Yap stammered.
It was not surprising that Yap was a nervous wreck in her presentation. It was, after all, the final hurdle for her and 49 others. They had gone through two-weeks of nature guide training at the Institute of Biodiversity in Lanchang, Pahang. Aside from a written test, the field presentation decides whether the trainees will get the licence to become nature guides.
This intensive 14-day training, also dubbed the Green Badge programme, produces Localised Nature Guides (LNGs). It was initiated by the Ministry of Tourism (Motour) with the help of the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan).
LNGs are only allowed to guide at the area designated on his or her licence. They are not licensed to conduct city tours or transfers from airports to hotels.
The programme at Lanchang was also run in co-operation with Fraser’s Hill Development Corporation. The trainees – comprising travel operators (with own travel businesses), freelance and part-time guides, and novices – were mostly from Pahang, Perak and Kuala Lumpur. Led by Che Nor, the 12 trainers, experts from different fields like botany, wildlife and outdoor survival, ran the course in Malay and English.
A special committee of Perhilitan and Motour officers, as well as individuals and agencies in the ecotourism industry, created the broad syllabus. Ninety-five of the trainers are Perhilitan officers.
Everyday, from the crack of dawn to late at night, the trainees shuffled between the classroom and outdoors. They listened to lectures on forest ecology, tree species, jungle herbs and wildlife behaviour/ habitats. Tramping in the forest reserve, they learned to spot wildlife tracks and signs, and honed their bird-watching skills.
The trainees picked up tips on how to make their talks fun and engaging, and deal with fussy or boorish tourists. On some days, they brushed up on practical outdoor skills like map and compass-reading, jungle survival, first aid and camping techniques.
“Our objective is to impart knowledge and skills to individuals who are interested in becoming localised nature guides,” said Che Nor, a senior assistant wildlife officer at Perhilitan.
Based at Taman Negara on their first week, the trainees mingled with Gunung Tahan guides and shared their experiences. The group also dropped by the elephant sanctuary in Kuala Gandah and the Jenderak Seladang and Deer Captive Breeding centre.
“We teach them about tourism products in their locality and tourism trends,” said Che Nor who has trained many Perhilitan officers and nature guides in the last 15 years.
“Once they have identified attractions, they learn how to make profitable travel packages. In essence, we guide them to be successful entrepreneurs.”
On the last day, the trainees were ready to present what they had learned. Each of them picked a topic – a plant species, wildlife or forest ecology – and presented the topic to examiners as though they were guiding actual tourists.
“In the written test, we find out how well they’ve understood the syllabus,” explained Che Nor.
“In the field, we assess the person’s personality, his or her product knowledge, clarity of speech, style, ability to generate interest and problem-solving skills during emergencies.”
Some trainees wore inappropriate clothing like jeans (too hot and heavy) or fancy belts and didn’t carry any gear, not even a First Aid kit. But a couple of them were well-equipped with compass, binoculars and proper hiking gear.
Gerard Richard, a guesthouse manager in Cameron Highlands, was the first trainee to greet us.
Self-assured and articulate, Richard, 36, talked about the Dipterocarp forest, explaining its different layers, tree varieties and shrubs. He rattled on about the chenang, meranti and jelutong tree species, and medicinal herbs like wild ginger and Panah Arjuna in loud, clear and precise English, had good eye contact with his audience and seemed well-prepared.
But aside from reciting facts, trainees have to dig up further information on specific topics, be creative and think on their feet.
One of the trainees was taken aback when Che Nor cheekily asked, “Can I take this herb? I’ll pay extra too. There is so much in the forest, I’m sure it’s OK to take one or two.”
Or what do you do if you stumble on a wild animal while leading your customers in the jungle?
How the trainee tackles each situation is assessed in the exam, Che Nor said. The examiners then send the assessments to Motour and suggest who has the potential to become nature guides. Those who fail have to re-take the entire course.
One trainee spoke in such a listless voice that we almost dozed off while another just droned on and on and lost our attention. Some trainees were ill-prepared with their subjects while others were edgy and stuttered. Other than Richard, most of the trainees in this group of 50 presented in Bahasa Malaysia.
Some of the Chinese trainees (like Yap) who weren’t proficient in both English or Malay, still had to use either language for his or her final presentation.
“Some trainees may falter. We empathise with them and will take note of their product knowledge during assessment,” explained Che Nor.
A part-time tour leader, Yap has been taking Malaysians to China and Taiwan as well as to local nature-based attractions like the Kuala Gula Bird Sanctuary, Perak and Kukup fishing village, Johor in the last seven years. Her clients speak mostly Cantonese and Mandarin.
Once during the course, the students were asked to demonstrate how to set up a tent. Yap struggled to express herself in Bahasa and English. Then, the instructor said, “OK, you can speak in Cantonese.”
“I felt like a bird let out of a cage. It was such a relief,” said Yap in Mandarin .
“I couldn’t stop talking and the presentation went smoothly.”
Yap’s lack of language skills and crazy schedules didn’t deter her from joining the course. The mother of four kids juggles her part-time tour job with taking care of the family (including her elderly parents) and even whipping up fried noodles at a stall during lunch hours!
“I took the course to help myself, and to get the licence to take people to nature attractions,” said Yap whose husband also works in tourism.
“Besides, my friends didn’t have faith in me. They said, ‘You’re a city person and can’t handle the training and lifestyle of a nature guide.’ I took it as a challenge to prove to my friends and myself that I could do it. But I do need time to work on my language.”
Mohamad Rashdi Rashad, 47, a safety officer for an oil refinery company, has been working as a part-time guide for three years. He helps his friend (who owns a travel company) take tourists to nature spots like Sg Lembing and Gunung Tapis.
“When you reach a certain age, you get tired of a routine job,” said Rashdi who plans to run his own tours in the future. “Working with nature and the local communities refreshes our minds. And you never stop learning and passing your knowledge on to others.”
Like most trainees, Rashdi felt the two-week programme was too intensive.
“Sometimes I had to stay up till 2.30am to prepare my presentations,” said Rashdi. “But it’s challenging. Maybe they want us to feel the pressure of handling tourists so that we don’t abandon ship when things get crazy.”
Whatever his or her level of experience, every trainee seemed to get something out of the course. Muhammad Khafiz Othman of Kuantan, a travel operator with a diploma in tourism management, owns a travel agency that takes students on excursions to Taman Negara, camping trips to Raub or bird-watching in Fraser’s Hill.
“I’m usually a tour leader and when I get to the destination, I pass the group to the nature guides,” said Khafiz, 23.
“I learned a lot in this course, especially the interpretative talks – how to describe nature’s elements and talk about conservation practices.”
Even Richard who seemed to be a “natural” nature guide found he benefited from the course.
“It’s just been great! The facilitators are like walking dictionaries, they’re always around you and you can ask anything,” said the bubby fellow. “This whole course makes me appreciate nature so much more.”
As for Yap, she’s waiting anxiously for the results.
“I will be very sad if I don’t pass,” she confessed. “But I take heart in knowing I’ve learned a lot and that I need to keep “upgrading” my performance.” W
What the experienced guides say . . .
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