Nature Escapes

A Field Study Environment Makes a Big Difference for Learning About Science

Field Study Environment of Dreams in a Malaysian Swamp

By Rick Gregory

Sometimes you have to find a new study environment; do something out of the ordinary and totally different.

Shaking up a routine life or leaving a dead end job means you have to take a chance on something else. For others, an opportunity to get away and explore the world is the perfect elixir to get a career on track.

For volunteers opting to go on Coral Cay Conservation terrestrial projects, the terrain is tough but the payback is enlightening.


Seven women, all at different stages in life, from the United Kingdom found themselves in the field study environment of a swamp ecosystem and seashores on the east coast of Malaysia. Maybe an unlikely place to get away from it all, but isolated environments have a way of putting things in perspective.

Each person signed on to join the Malaysian Tropical Forest Conservation Project (MTFCP), a biological assessment of the Setiu wetlands, an important mix of forest and swamp habitats critical for migratory birds and water birds, sea turtles and river terrapins and unique mammals and reptiles.

mangroves fieldwork

Volunteers slog in spongy peat swamps, erect mist nets to capture birds and bats, hide small wire and metal boxes to trap rodents and sit for hours at observation points to spot birds. The days are hot and sweaty; the nights linger with the murmur of mosquitoes.

Camped out in the scrubland next to a peat swamp forest, eating Maggie Mee noodles and sandwiches smothered with Marmite, I pried into their professional and personal lives to find out how things were going.

“I wanted to come out and get some practical experience which I didn’t gain through my degree,” said Scientific Officer Colette O’Neil, a recent graduate from Swansea University who studied zoology.

An enthusiastic birder, she first spent six weeks in Indonesia studying birdlife before heading to Malaysia to assist with the MTFCP. Taking on tasks with the zeal of an intrepid explorer, she marvelled at nature’s simple offerings, such as a white-rumped sharma caught late one evening.

Other swamp animals and creatures are not as well liked. “The worst things here are the mosquitoes,” moaned Colette. “I swell up like a balloon every time I get bitten. But it’s all part of the experience.” Setting her future sights on a PhD. in parasitology, she reveals how traveling alone for the first time “really does open your eyes to more opportunities.”

Standing at attention like a Buckingham Palace sentinel, one volunteer tilts her head skyward and surveys the blueness above. Only the flicker of bird wings ends her stoic stance and sets her scrambling to identify the feathered intruder.

Lorna Bousfield is a paragon of the MTFCP programme. At 24, she has an applied biology degree, worked a year for the Forestry Commission and now seeks to get some hands-on training. She already has a job lined-up with an ecological consultant to survey habitats targeted for development.

With a job, house and partner back home, life will soon be busy. “It’s really good to just kick back to basics and appreciate the little things in life – having to write letters instead of email,” said Lorna. “ And just to have a Nescafe beng (ice coffee) is such a delight.”

Jennifer Sanderson and Kristen Furley, both 19, have just finished their A-levels. Coming to work in Malaysia during their gap year is a chance to gain some field experience before going to university.

mangroves camp

"I’ve never done this before, expect for like maybe one night in my back garden,” said Jennifer while making a thick veggie sandwich. Planning to pursue a zoology degree in Scotland and study animal behaviour, the young volunteer is gaining firsthand experience with wild critters in camp: “Lots of ants … didn’t expect there to be that many ants.”

One of the key benefits of the MTFCP is making camp in a variety of habitats. From coastal hill forests to peat and mangrove swamps, the Setiu wetlands offer unique discoveries.

“By the end of eight weeks I should be knowledgeable,” said Kristen, who is going to Southampton to study environmental science. “I hope to go into conservation. My father is a zoo vet, so I’ve kind of done the animal thing, now I’m trying to do the environmental thing.”

Adapting to new environs amid harsh habitats is one adjustment; another is your presence in a totally different community. For volunteers arriving from Europe straight into the traditions of Peninsular Malaysia’s east coast villages, the intermingling poses some cultural challenges.

To respect local ways, the volunteers made a consensus decision not to drink alcohol for the duration of their time in Setiu. However, there were no restrictions on eating local foods. Pisang goreng (fried bananas) fast became a camp favourite for most, but others had different tastes. “The roti canai (fried pancake) impresses me,” smiled Lorna. “It’s interesting sampling local stuff.”

Regardless of your age, your education level, your fondness for forests or fauna, it all comes down to finding your own strengths. Heading for a field study environment with a team of strangers to get professional experience is a sure-fire way to discover and build your individual character.

After that, all you have to do is start dreaming.

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