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I started my career working with EcoHealth Alliance in September 2017, as a lab technician focusing mainly on processing and screening wildlife samples at the molecular zoonosis laboratory, at the National Wildlife Forensic Laboratory, at the Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia (PERHILITAN). But in June and July 2018, I had an opportunity to join our field team for sampling at Pos Hau, Gua Musang, Kelantan and Pos Yum, Kuala Kangsar Perak. I was very excited to be back in the field as I had not been animal sampling for a year since finishing my Masters in Zoology.

Land use change from palm oil and logging risks wildlife and human contact

In late June, EcoHealth Alliance rangers, accompanied by PERHILITAN and the Gua Musang District Health Team, ventured to Pos Hau and the surrounding villages in the district of Gua Musang to sample the Orang Asli [the indigenous people of Peninsular Malaysia], their domestic animals and livestock, and the wildlife in the forest around their villages. After 16 days in the field we headed back to Kuala Lumpur for a rest and to prepare for our next trip to Pos Yum a week later in Kuala Kangsar, Perak. Driving through the vast logging areas into Pos Hau was quite shocking, it is sometimes easy to forget when you are in KL that this scale of land clearing is still happening.

The track we used was quite challenging compared with our next trip to Pos Yum with PERHILITAN and the Kuala Kangsar District Health Team, which has been connected by a proper road since our research project began in 2016. These roads and tracks are used by loggers and planters to transport the palm oil and logs. The roads and tracks really benefit the communities in terms of access to work outside the villages, medical facilities and education. But it also allows for easier access for hunters, loggers (legal and illegal) and plantation companies (palm oil, rubber, durian) to expand, often at the expense of the Orang Asli communities. So while these roads bring benefits by connecting these communities to the rest of Malaysia, this increased connectivity increases disease risk as it allows for more land use change that results in increased human wildlife contact and conflict.

As the forest is cleared for logging and palm oil, Orange Asli communities are under increased risk of contact with animals that carry disease.

Destruction of wildlife habitats forces animals closer to humans

Being with the Orang Asli communities gave me a golden opportunity to learn about their lifestyle and see how they live with the forest. Fruit trees and vegetables were planted around the villages attracting wild boar, rodents, bats, and gibbons to come nearer to the communities to take advantage of these food sources, as their natural habitats are being destroyed, disturbing their food chains. I got a chance to see the place where the wild boar wallowed and it was less than 50 metres from Pos Hau. During our time here two wild boars crossed the road right in front of our vehicle nearby the village. One of our rangers saw a bat licking the banana trunk beside one of the huts we slept in. In Pos Yum, on our way back from setting our mammal traps, we saw a beautiful jungle cat at the roadside watching us pass by. This was the first time I have encountered a wild cat and I was very excited – but at the same time concerned for its safety as an animal like this normally stays in the forest away from humans.

"This was the first time I have encountered a wild cat and I was very excited  but at the same time concerned for its safety"

Educating Orang Asli communities to avoid disease transmission

Orang Asli communities used a lot of bamboo to build their houses, they harvest it to sell, and use it for cooking. Bamboo is also an important habitat for some species of rodents and bats. We found some bamboo with a tiny hole and found 21 bamboo bats inside. This might be something we should consider advising the communities (as part of our ongoing efforts to educate them regarding the risks of zoonosis) to look out for and avoid cutting bamboo with these holes that are a tell-tale sign of it being the home for some bamboo bats. Avoiding cutting these bamboo poles would help preserve the bats’ habitat and reduce human wildlife contact and therefore the risk of disease transmission.

A bat is sampled in an Orang Asli village. Bats can carry diseases that have the potential to spillover into the human population, and land use change is bringing indigenous communities in closer contact with these animals.

Development must not lead to an increase in human and wildlife conflict

It was fantastic to be back in the forest and to be part of the sampling effort, it also served as a great reminder of just how hard the field work is and how much effort goes into obtaining the samples that I screen in the lab. The Orang Asli sampling was intense with a constant flow of people, while the livestock and wildlife sampling required us to work from early in the morning till the small hours. To be reminded of the scale of land clearing still happening in Malaysia highlighted the importance of the work that we are doing to reduce the negative impacts of land use change. Better land use planning will protect important natural habitat and ensure that land that is cleared for agricultural expansion or road development is suitable for its intended purpose and does not increase the risk of disease emergence by increasing human wildlife conflict.