Malaysia is one of the jewels of South East Asia, full of dream-like scenery, rich cultural history and amazing travelling adventures. Whilst simply backpacking through the country can be fantastic, spending time working on a volunteer project can be an incredibly rewarding experience.
Planning your gap year around volunteering is a brilliant idea for all sorts of reasons; it’s a lot of fun, great for learning life skills and you can really feel like you’re making a positive contribution to something meaningful.
Working with animals is a specific kind of volunteering experience, and thoroughly worthwhile. But what kind of animal volunteer projects can you do in Malaysia? What wildlife will you encounter? Gapyear.com takes a look at some options of volunteering with animals in this beautiful part of the world.
Probably the star of Malaysian animal volunteering, working with orangutans is an insanely popular area.
Classified as two separate species – the Bornean and Sumatran – the orangutan’s name literally means ‘man of the forest’, and it’s likely the human resemblance that has helped orangutans endure as such an endearing species to volunteers. There is a strange air of wisdom to them, and they seem to naturally evoke empathy with their large eyes and striking orange-red fur.
Although the ‘man’ part of their name isn’t technically accurate, the ‘forest’ aspect is completely apt. Orangutans are total forest-dwellers, living in the lush, exotic back garden of Borneo. They feed on fruit, sleep in nests and move through the rainforest canopies in graceful sweeping motions.
But like many species around the globe the orangutan is endangered, and it’s thought that numbers are less than 60,000 worldwide. Sadly, their habitats are frequently destroyed by mining, logging and fires, and they’re sometimes killed for food or because of their disruptive effect on human communities.
There are lots of ethical and good value volunteering opportunities to work with orangutans, most of which are located in Malaysian Borneo. The focus of these ventures is conservation and rehabilitation – looking after orangutans that have been injured, orphaned or otherwise need caring for. The ultimate aim of these projects is to protect orangutan numbers and eventually re-introduce as many of them into the wild as possible.
Every project will have its differences, but working on a placement with orangutans will typically involve working alongside other volunteers and project staff to assist in animal care, husbandry and maintenance. So you could end up working on everything from mucking out the animal enclosures and painting buildings to seeing new orangutans being born and helping others return to the wild!
“It was fantastic experience!” said former volunteer Caroline Martin. “I loved every minute of the program and it was worth every penny that I struggled to save!”
Caroline was particularly loved the chance to clean and feed the orangutans, as well as observe their released behaviour and welfare.
She added: “If I had the funds, I would return tomorrow.”
Its African cousins might grab all the headlines, but there are elephants in Malaysia too.
Asian elephants are smaller than their African relatives, but are still enormously impressive as well as culturally iconic. They have been worshipped for centuries and are still used for ceremonial and religious events.
However, unlike their western counterparts the Asian elephant is struggling and sadly finds itself on the endangered list. The World Wildlife Foundation claim that the number of Asian elephants in the wild is between 25,000 and 33,000, and that their populations are highly fragmented – decreasing their chances for survival.
There are various projects in Malaysian Borneo that offer the chance to monitor elephant numbers and feeding patterns to help authorities manage the situation.
Being involved in activities designed to help protect the Asian elephant is a hugely rewarding experience, although it’s worth pointing out that you may not have any direct contact with these creatures if you are monitoring wild elephants.
Just being in their presence is incredible, though. Seeing elephants majestically move across the landscape en masse is a joy to behold, and hearing them generate a cacophonous symphony of ground-crushing, water-splashing and trunk-blowing is simply breathtaking.
If you do decide to get involved with a monitoring placement you’ll be taking part in river ‘cruises’ as you record what’s happening. And it’s not just Asian elephants that you might come across; you’ll often spot pygmy elephants, orangutans, birds and other wildlife along the river bank too.
It’s a brilliant opportunity to observe the natural behaviour of animals up close and keep records that will be of great use to wildlife conservationists. Oh, and it’s also an awesome way to get some amazing photos!
Former elephant volunteer Yvonne Hadley said: “I could have stayed longer. It’s fantastic to watch the elephants just be elephants – with no tourists on their backs.”
She added: “I would definitely recommend it.”
Malaysian turtles are attractive, compelling to watch and sadly on the edge of extinction.
The country is home to the Olive ridley and Green variety, both of which are endangered, as well as the Leatherback and Hawksbill, which are critically endangered.
The numbers of each sub-species vary across the region, with most of the breeding areas spreading across the beautiful islands of Sabah, Sarawak, Terengganu, Pahang, Johor and Perak.
The main problem for the turtles lies in the vulnerability of their breeding behaviour. Females lay hundreds of eggs each nesting season, but relatively few young survive through to adulthood. Baby turtles are eaten up by crabs, lizards and birds either before they hatch or as they struggle through the sand and make their first forays into water. Once in the shallows, many more hatchlings are eaten by fish.
This is, of course, the way of the natural world. However, when you factor in humans harvesting eggs and fishing hatched turtles for food and jewellery, the little turtles’ chances for survival head even further south.
Pretty much all turtle conservation projects in Malaysia have the same objective: collect and protect. As a volunteer you will typically be involved in nightly beach patrols, collecting data from adult turtles, nests and hatchlings, surveying forest and coral environments, assisting in running conservation and English language school clubs and assisting with various other art, recycling and community projects.
Clare Maher volunteered on a turtle conservation project in the Perhentian Islands, Borneo, and said: “I can thoroughly recommend it. You take part in turtle conservation, reef checks and can get a diving qualification as well!”
The end goal for these collective projects is the small matter of conserving an entire species. Just to be even a small part of that can be incredibly fulfilling, and working together with other volunteers around these amazing creatures can be a huge experience.
Some animals might not have specific volunteering projects built around them, but you might still encounter them whilst working on other placements. Here are some of the rarer animals in Malaysia that you might come into contact with.
The proboscis monkey is instantly recognisable from its large nose. They are extremely rare, and can only be found in Borneo. An endangered species, it is thought there may be as few as 3,000 proboscis monkeys left in the wild. There are some volunteer campaigns working towards saving this species all across the Malaysian, Indonesian and Brunei areas of Borneo, though you might still also some proboscis monkeys whilst on other animal volunteer placements.
Less well known than their friends, sun bears are the smallest species of bear in the world. They have a distinctive honey-coloured crescent shape of fur on their torso, so have been nicknamed the ‘honey bears. They are extremely rare, and listed as vulnerable in the endangered species lists. While there are very few projects in Malaysia dedicated solely to sun bear conservation you may be able to work with them on a general ‘zoo assistant’ type placement. To work with these amazing creatures would be a fantastic experience.
The smallest of the big cats, clouded leopards are secretive and rare in the wild. They are classed as endangered owing to their habitat undergoing deforestation. An attractive animal, it is also much sought after for its fur, skin and bones, and authorities are trying to control the illegal trade in leopard goods. Volunteer projects to work with clouded leopards in Malaysia are not very common, but with some research you may well be able to find somewhere doing good work. Working with one of these animals would be a wonderful experience and an immense privilege.
A small and cute primate, all five species of the slow loris are either listed as vulnerable or endangered. This is largely due to habitat loss and illegal trade – from them being used as exotic pets or traditional ‘medicine’. As with the other examples above, you may not find a great deal of projects in Malaysia based solely around slow lorises, but they there may be some being cared for at other conservation centres.