Now I know a lot of people, including Malaysians, are going to look at that title and wonder what the hell I am going on about now. But there will also be a lot of people out there – from all corners of the world - who will instantly know the name Dennis Yong. He is, in his field, famous. Dennis is the consumate birdwatcher and knows more about Malaysian birds than any person alive. He is one half of a bird guiding tour company located in Kuala Lumpur (Kingfisher Tours), but he is much more than that – he is an environmentalist and the best field naturalist we have. He can tell you about everything from bears to ants to freshwater fish (another passion of his).
Going out into the rainforest with Dennis is always a fascinating learning experience. And I am always reluctant to turn in for the night on a camping trip if Dennis is there – the sitting around and yarning after a day’s work is all part of that learning. When it comes to birding and understanding the ecology of the rainforest and other tropical habitats, he has been my mentor.
And it’s been such a fun ride at the same time. I have so many memories:
Dennis spending the night in the car with two unwashed local forest guides when sun bears raided the camp kitchen; Dennis showing me my first pitta, way back when, by calling the bird in; me pulling a huge thorn out of his scalp after a peat swamp foray; us discussing whether we could really put a bottle of french wine on the expensive account when we were working for one of the world’s most exclusive (and expensive) island getaways; us getting eaten alive by sandflies one night down on that mangrove project; Dennis driving a fourwheel drive across a bridge that was more holes than boards – while I got out and walked…
So what is his Big Bird Year all about?
Malaysia has 742 birds on its national list (of which Dennis was one of the compilers.) And in 2006, he is going to try and see them all. Well, as many as possible. Why?
Well, it’s a bit like climbers and the mountains: because they are there. But it’s more than that too; it’s publicity for our avifauna and ecotourism – and how they are worthy of conservation effort. It’s a way of finding out just how easy or difficult it is to see Malaysian birds. It will provide a benchmark for the state of birds in the country. (See here for further details and updates.)
And I wish – like Tory Petersen and James Fisher back in the 1950s – he’d write a book about his Big Bird Year afterwards, but knowing Dennis and his dislike of tying himself down to a desk to do anything as prosaic as writing, I doubt it.
Good luck, Dennis. And I hope we meet up out there in the field this year as you bird you way towards 742…
Photos: Dennis and self in the field, taken by Lim Kim Chye