Wildlife protector receives award for his captive breeding efforts and arrest of poachers.
Mohd Khan Momin Khan retired from his wildlife job 22 years ago, yet he rattles off figures of animal species or forest cover effortlessly, as if he had just stopped working yesterday.
The former Wildlife and National Parks Department (Perhilitan) director-general can easily retrieve statistics from memory, thanks to time spent inside forests with field rangers, sometimes for as many as 20 days in a month.
Without pausing to think, he shares that Taman Negara has about 80 tigers left within its 4,343sqkm, and there are some 19 female tigers in the 117,000ha Royal Belum State Park in Perak.
The tiger population in the 63,000ha Krau Wildlife Reserve in Pahang is at no more than half a dozen. These data were based on census studies which Mohd Khan was involved in between 1999 and 2005. Though he retired in 1992, he continued working on various projects with the department for a good 14 years, including helping to recruit an additional 66 wildlife rangers in the fight against poachers.
For his tireless work in wildlife conservation, particularly on captive breeding and pioneering the mitigation of human-wildlife conflict, Mohd Khan, 79, was chosen for the 2014 Merdeka Award for the Environment category.
“This means a lot to me as it is recognition of not only my contributions but also the good work of our rangers and staff,” he says.
Together with his immediate successor, Datuk Musa Nordin (now retired), he raised RM8.6mil that went into allowances for rangers and purchase of new vehicles and equipment.
“The 66 men are critical for the protection of forests like Taman Negara. The forest can be dangerous because the poachers are fit people. We managed to arrest 55 poachers at that time. In court, they pleaded guilty. They didn’t mind going to prison as it beats camping out in the forest.
“Poachers will appear when you don’t enter the forests, so you need to schedule patrols such that your presence is felt and they will be afraid ... that was how I was trained. You cannot expect your people to do the work while you sit under air-conditioning in your office.”
It was also during his post-retirement years that he went to Sarawak to work in Lanjak Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary for two-and-half years, producing its management plan. Upon his return, he was roped in by a private company to create the masterplan for a new zoo in Batang Kali to replace Zoo Negara (the project did not take off due to social and environmental concerns).
Hailing from Taiping, Perak, Mohd Khan joined the game department (named so by the colonial ruler as the department was issuing licences for hunting and wildlife trade) fresh out of Form Five in 1958. An outdoors person, he played different sports in school. When he received three job offers at the same time, from the immigration, rubber research and game departments, there was little doubt on which he would accept.
He was stationed in Perak for over 12 years, climbing up the ranks from assistant game warden to deputy game warden.
“There, I got to know some of the best rangers ever. We had elephant shooters and forest trackers who can tell you how old a track is, or the direction an animal is heading, just by their footprints. I learnt so much from these rangers. We had only 15 of them to cover the entire state of 8,000 sq miles (20,720sqkm). I will always credit the rangers as unsung heroes who work hard and leave their families behind to earn meagre salaries. It’s a real sacrifice,” says Mohd Khan.
In 1965, he received a Fulbright scholarship and headed for Sacramento, California, where he worked for a year with the wildlife department there. He followed that up with a three-month whirlwind tour of countries rich in wildlife – Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Thailand and Burma (Myanmar).
Upon his return to Malaysia, he continued working in Perak, and learnt that elephants were creating havoc for poor rural folks, destroying their crops.
“We had no choice but to kill the elephants, targeting the bull and sometimes the biggest of the herd. There will be other bulls to take over its place so breeding won’t be affected. The rest of the herd will know that one of their members had been killed, so they will disappear for a few months. We also drove them away with thunderflashes and firing shotguns in the air.”
Between 1960 and 1970, some 120 elephants were killed and the population was reduced to about 500.
“I eventually got sick of killing these beautiful mammals,” says Mohd Khan. He stopped the practice in 1971 when he became head of the department. However, he still needed to resolve the villagers’ plight.
“I was sent to India to learn the Assam lasso technique of using a jute rope to capture elephants. The method seemed practical, so I introduced it here. But we only caught a baby (elephant) after a long while, so it was unsuitable and inefficient.”
He then explored the use of drugs. One was so quick-acting that the elephant is immobilised within five to 20 minutes. However, this proved to be highly dangerous as the other elephants will gather around the fallen one – so an inexperienced ranger could get attacked and killed.
“I had to use my best rangers to drive the herd away. The immobilised animal would be tied and dragged out by tame elephants we brought in from India. Once, a trainee was caught under the belly of an elephant but our rangers swiftly pulled him out. He was badly hurt but survived. A not-so-fortunate incident happened in Negri Sembilan when one ranger was trampled to death.”
The drug was later replaced by a sedative called Rompun that keeps the animal sedated but still standing. In 1974, he set up the elephant unit of Kuala Gandah Conservation Centre and this marked the start of the elephant translocation programme.
Mohd Khan is also instrumental in starting the seladang (gaur) and rhinoceros captive breeding programmes, which he contends are answers to declining wild populations. “Captive breeding is an important component of the overall conservation plan, especially when some species are isolated in population or have low survival rates.”
Mohd Khan says the wild cattle, gaur, is a highly-strung animal which can die from a muscle disease known as stress myopathy, and is vulnerable to poaching.
“We decided to capture babies between one and three months old and I started the Jenderak seladang and deer captive breeding centre in Pahang. The first two babies bred the first calf one-and-half years later in 1983. There’s also another centre in Sungkai, Perak holding 20 gaurs now. To habituate them back into the wild, you can either reintroduce them in places that previously had gaurs but none now, or through habitat modification, that is, improving habitats for new animals to be accepted.”
In the line of duty, Mohd Khan has had death threats but counts himself lucky to have known former top cop Tan Sri Zaman Khan who viewed the threats seriously. “I have taken many people to court and didn’t care how powerful a person is. If you have committed an offence, you have to be arrested, there are no two ways about it. Some people were nasty. There was an arrogant man who brought in a few hundred birds illegally for a bird park in Penang. We arrested him twice.”
Tomes on wildlife
He has written a collection of five books, one each on the big five (species) – rhinoceros, gaur, tiger, elephant and tapir – which will hit stores soon. He also wrote a book on mammals in 1992.
Mohd Khan and his men were also pivotal in creating the Merapoh trail for the hike up to Mount Tahan in Taman Negara. In 1985, then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad had instructed the department to build a jeep track to the mountain peak as the only route then, via Kuala Tahan, required some nine days of trekking (to and fro). The plan drew public outcry.
“Building the jeep track would have damaged and eroded the landscape. It could get dangerous during a downpour as the swollen river could gush down with tonnes of earth. One of my men successfully found a much shorter Merapoh alternative that requires just a two-day trek to the summit and one day to come down.
“That was how we diverted the issue and commotion. Today, Merapoh is frequented by 2,000 hikers every month, though Kuala Tahan is still accessed by those who want to camp and visit the park at leisure.”
In 2004, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) awarded him with the Sir Peter Scott Award for Conservation Merit. He has served on the Save the Tiger Fund for 15 years, was chairman of Asian Rhino Specialist Group for 20 years and also served as chairman of the Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group.