Animal Sampling in Kuala Kangsar: Field Notes

At any given time, our scientists and local partners are working in more than 30 countries worldwide. That work takes many forms: community engagement, biosurveillance and wildlife sampling, and using sampling data to create models of risk assessment to identify regions which are particularly at risk for disease outbreaks. These are the field notes from our partners in Malaysia from a recent trip to the Kuala Kangsar District on Peninsular Malaysia.

In late October, EcoHealth Alliance rangers, accompanied by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia (PERHILITAN), ventured to Pos Kuala Mu and its surrounding villages in the western district of Kuala Kangsar to collect wildlife samples from around a community of Orang Asli people, Peninsular Malaysia’s first inhabitants.

We had prepared ourselves for a difficult off-road journey, packing shovels, chainsaws, and tire chains. But since our last visit to Pos Kuala Mu, the government has begun work on a new road making this once remote community far more accessible. New infrastructure means both benefits and problems for the community; while it increases opportunities for education and work, it also makes it easier for hunters, loggers, and developers to access the forests the community relies on. This development also means this once remote community is now more connected to the rest of the Malaysia, meaning a disease emergence event here could have an impact outside the community far more quickly than before the road’s construction.

As with all our sampling trips, this one was not short of adventure despite the easier journey.

EcoHealth Alliance Ranger Saifullah sets up a trap to catch animal specimens

EcoHealth Alliance Ranger Saifullah sets up a trap to catch animal specimens. The leaves on top serve not only as camouflage, but also to provide shelter for the animal it catches. (Photo: EcoHealth Alliance)

Things got off to a rocky start the first morning of trapping when we realized our trap lines had been disturbed. Checking the traps we’d set out, we found many had been ripped apart. Our hunt for signs of wildlife in the area ended in vain when we couldn’t find any telltale claw marks on trees, footprints on the ground, or other signs of animal activity. Some team members suggested a sun bear could be responsible, noting claw marks on the traps but this had never happened before. Other members of the team were skeptical, blaming villagers, as we found sirih residue–many Orang Asli chew Betel nuts, often mixed with lime–spat on the trail near where the traps were set and we’ve had problems with curious villagers “borrowing” traps in the past.

The mystery continued with much speculation among the team about who or what was responsible. It was not until our last day of rodent sampling on a wet, rainy night that we got our answer. As EcoHealth Alliance ranger Ronald Bin Herbert M Tinggu made his way up one of the trap lines baiting the traps, he came face to face with a sun bear playing with one of the tomahawk traps! Ronald’s training kicked in and he slowly backed away and alerted the rest of the team. Field Manager Jimmy Lee quickly gathered the team together and we left the site leaving 20 traps closed for the last night. While I was pretty disappointed that I was not lucky enough to see a sun bear in the wild and our trapping effort for our last night was reduced, I was glad that we had solved the mystery and that no one had been hurt by our close encounter with this amazing animal.

Sun bears are the smallest bear species and have extremely long tongues (around eight to 10 inches)

A sun bear with its tongue extended (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Sun bears are the smallest bear species and have dark black or brown-black fur with an orange-yellow horseshoe shape on their chest. They have extremely long tongues (around eight to 10 inches) and use them to extract honey from bees’ nests or reach insects inside trees. The sun bear population has declined considerably over the last 30 years as large-scale deforestation throughout Southeast Asia has dramatically reduced their suitable habitat. They are now classified as vulnerable by the IUCN and as we left Pos Kuala Mu I couldn’t help but think how the new road that made our journey so easy might make life for this magnificent animal that much harder.

Harp traps are used to capture bats for testing

Rangers test a harp trap which is used to catch bats humanely. (Photo: EcoHealth Alliance)

With breathtaking scenery all around us, we captured 94 animals (71 bats and 23 rodents) and managed to collect 773 useable samples while working in this beautiful pristine forest. Despite our friend the sun bear’s best efforts to stop us, our wildlife sampling mission to Pos Kuala Mu, Kuala Kangsar was a major success.

Having collected more than 700 samples from wildlife in the area of Pos Kuala Mu, EcoHealth Alliance rangers and the PERHILITAN team return to Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur. The samples are stored at PERHILITAN’s National Wildlife Forensic Laboratory where they are tested in the molecular zoonosis laboratories that EcoHealth Alliance helped to establish. Samples are screened for various viruses such as those within the families of coronaviruses (which includes SARS) and filoviruses (which includes Ebola, though Ebola itself is not thought to be endemic to Southeast Asia). The goals of this testing are myriad. For one, unknown viruses may be discovered and studied. Those can then be studied before they spill into human populations, possibly preventing a pandemic before it starts. Another potential outcome is that we may be able to track and prevent the spread of viruses which are already known to infect humans, like the aforementioned SARS.