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Mike Kavanagh, WWF Malaysia

 

 
 

All over the world what remains of our primal forests and untamed jungles are slowly but surely being squeezed and squandered. From South America to Indonesia the rain forests are shrinking as man engages in deforestation for logging, mining and agriculture. The resulting loss of habitat can have a devastating impact on finely tuned ecosystems that have developed over thousands of years. In Malaysia the forest is cleared to make way for rubber and oil plantations and that means that one of the most endangered animals, the tiger is slowly being backed into a corner. But there are people who stand up for the rain forest and the animals that it protects and in Malaysia one of the leading advocates of conservation and protection is Mikaail (Mike) Kavanagh bin Abdullah.

Mikaail Kavanagh bin Abdullah

 

Born in Surbiton, England in 1945 to Stephen and Dorothy Kavanagh, Mikaail was originally christened with the more familiar name of Michael. In the 19th century his great-grandfather, named Stephen, was taken to England as a small boy. Accompanied by his mother Stephen eventually settled in Surbiton where he matured into a successful property developer and became a Justice of the Peace. Also a Chairman of the Borough Council, Stephen was a widely respected pillar of the community. After Stephen came Herbert who distinguished himself in WWI and won the French honour of the Croix de Guerre. After Herbert came Mike's father Stephen, who maintained the very Anglo-Irish tradition of involvement in the building industry with a life-long career as a quantity surveyor.

Mike enjoyed a conventional English middle class childhood though his family were keen to indent a keen sense of his Irishness upon him. He especially enjoyed reading books on Irish heroes, which instilled a deep feeling of connection with Ireland, despite being three generations removed from the old sod. He also enjoys a Norman, German and English heritage.

Mikes education was conducted primarily at King's College School Wimbledon. From there he went on to attend Sussex University during its heyday as the trendy university of the sixties. Although signed up to study social psychology for his bachelor's degree he had always been more interested in biology. He rapidly developed an interest in the evolution of behaviour, an area that was of little interest to most social scientists in the 1960s. In 1968 he graduated with a B.A. (Hons) in Psychology

Mike has enjoyed a varied and interesting career. Before settling into full time employment he had a number of temporary jobs ranging from a shop assistant, farm labourer and a scaffolder's mate. He also served stints at Chessington and Jersey zoos as a keeper. Following his graduation in 1968 Mike joined the staff of the J. Walter Thompson Company, which was at the time the world's largest advertising agency. 1971 saw Mike return to academia when he attended the Department of Psychology at the University of Georgia, researching captive monkeys and doing field work in Colombia. After receiving his Masters Degree in 1973 Mike returned to England. At the University of Sussex he obtained a Doctoral Degree for research on the behaviour and ecology of a species of monkey found in Cameroon.

In 1978 Mike moved to Malaysia where his work on primates continued as the co-ordinator of a multi-university primateogical research programme. He also led an international team on a six-month field survey on behalf of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). In 1982 he took a year out, travelling between the US, Uganda and England while researching books on primates and the international primate trade. The result was "A Complete Guide to Monkeys, Apes and Other Primates" (Cape, London 1983 and Viking, New York 1984), a readable description of the humankind's closest relatives that is still widely read today.

Returning to Malaysia in 1983 Mike joined the WWF as a Project Executant. He was seconded to the Sarawak Forest Department (located on the north-west coast of the island of Borneo) and helped to establish the wildlife sanctuary of Lanjak-Entimau, the largest in Malaysia, and the Batang Ai national park. Both reserves are home to wild orang-utans and Lanjak-Entimau can boast healthy populations of gibbons and other mammals as well as a rich diversity of bird and fish species.

As time progressed Mike began to involve himself in fundraising and high level advocacy. He also assumed responsibility in the crucial area of developing conservation policy. In 1986 he was made a Project Director at the WWF. He developed his ideas on the use of natural resources and began to work with regional state governments and their agencies on implementation. This work led to a request from the department of the Malaysian Prime Minister that Mike establish a team to develop a national conservation strategy. The resulting report, which was very much a joint effort by many people and agencies, became a key document for natural resource management in Malaysia.

In 1988 Mike established a Conservation Department for the WWF and was appointed its director. This new role saw him take overall responsibility for all fieldwork and policy development undertaken by the WWF in Malaysia. That same year also brought changes in his personal life; converting to Islam, Michael Kavanagh now became Mikaail Kavanagh bin Abdullah. In Malaysia, it is traditional for a convert to Islam to take a new name and to add "bin Abdullah" which implies that he takes Allah as his "father". Mike chose to be "Mikaail" because in Islam, the angel Mikaail is responsible for the land, the sea and the air. Mike liked the idea of being named after the angel "with the conservation portfolio."

1988 saw another big, positive change in Mike's life when he married Norlidah Wati bte Haji Rasib. They have been blessed with a son Iskandar, and a daughter Shakira. Malaysian names traditionally lack a European-style surname. Mike and Norlidah Wati, however, wished the Kavanagh name to go forward to the next generation, so their children are respectively "Iskandar Kavanagh bin Mikaail Kavanagh", and "Shakira Kavanagh binti Mikaail Kavanagh", in an unusual merging of traditions.

In 1991 Mike became Executive Director of WWF Malaysia, a position he still holds today. Under his stewardship the WWF has grown from a rather small organisation into a widely respected national institution. Recognised as a voice of conscience, under Mike it has also been accepted as a voice of authority on the practical implementation of conservation in the face of progress. In fact, as elsewhere in the World, WWF Malaysia promotes conservation as an essential part of sustainable development. If we want to leave our children a living planet, then we had better manage start managing the Earth properly right now. It is at least partly due to this very practical approach that WWF is taken so seriously by governments. In Malaysia, Mike and his colleagues frequently get asked to help solve conservation problems; and Mike himself serves on various very senior committees that advise government.

Recently Mike has been active in defending the tigers of Malaysia. The encroachment of man on the rainforest means that encounters between humans and tigers are becoming more and more common. A series of reported attacks and three deaths in the state of Kelantan have resulted in many people calling for action from the authorities. Tigers enjoy protected status in Malaysia but that has not prevented the Chief Minister of Kelantan calling on the army to purge all the tigers in his state. Thankfully, the Federal Government of Malaysia refused to take such a drastic step and is allied with the WWF in seeking practical ways for humans and tigers to live in close proximity to each other where the forests meet with human habitations. So the struggle continues and Mike and the WWF continue to stand up and give a voice to those who have none.

Mike Kavanagh in the forest with colleagues who are working on camera traps to survey tigers

For his long service and outstanding work in Malaysia Mike received the equivalent of a knighthood in 1996, giving him the title "Datuk". In accordance with convention, his wife is now a "Datin" (equivalent to "Lady"). This year he was also made a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE). Mike recognises that these honours are a tribute to the work of many equally deserving people and is quick to acknowledge the contribution of everyone concerned with Malaysian conservation. He feels therefore, that he and his family should always do their best to serve the community and conservation in whatever small ways they can.

Is there anything I can do to Help ?

For more information on the WWF in Malaysia please visit www.wwfmalaysia.org. One of Mike's biggest headaches these days is simply to find enough money to keep the WWF in Malaysia going, so any members of the Clann, or their friends, who would like to help should contact WWF Malaysia through the website.

Images Copyright © WWF Malaysia.