From left: Sanjitpaal Singh, Ravinder Kaur and their trusted field guide, Helson Hassan. Photos by SANJITPAAL SINGH / jitpics.com

“She keeps me away from dangerous animals like crocs and scorpions,” he begins.

“There was this time when a crocodile locked eyes with him as he kept clicking away with his camera while balancing on a tiny boat. It seemed as though a bond was forged between the two... they were slowly gravitating towards each other,” she says, laughing. “To the contrary, I was getting nervous and yelling ‘Boatman. boatman. let’s go!’”.

I hadn’t even begun asking them any questions yet but it’s amusing how they both simultaneously launch into stories of their experiences together in the wild. Not exactly the way I imagined how married couples spend quality time together. But it works for Ravinder Kaur and Sanjitpaal Singh.

After all, despite the seemingly different career paths they’ve embarked on — she’s a research assistant with University Malaya while he’s a professional photographer —they’ve found a way to merge their two worlds for a common passion: Nature conservation.

And it’s been the right mix with surprisingly fantastic results. She’s just been bestowed the 2017 Future Conservationist award given out by the UK-based Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP) — one of the 17 across the globe and the only Malaysian to receive the award this year.

He, on the other hand, has been invited for the second time to exhibit his work in Paris by French NGO, Plante et Planète, representing Malaysia for their international congress on Plants and Knowledge from April 17 to 28 and to participate in pedagogical tours and dialogues through the European nation, showcasing Malaysia’s amazing biodiversity.


On the field, with the team from HUTAN/Kinabatangan Orang-utan Conservation Programme, a local NGO based in Sabah.

IN SEARCH OF HORNBILLS

It’s hard to associate the soft-spoken 34-year-old conservationist sitting across the table with the mental image of an adventurer braving the jungles of Borneo in search of hornbills. But that’s exactly what she does. “It’s not as wildly exciting as you make it out to be,” says Ravinder with a smile, when I tell her that.

“We spend hours searching for hornbill nests, observing the ones that we find from as early as sunrise towards evening. We just sit there observing their feeding habits. And gather their droppings!” she says matter-of-factly. She makes it sound so prosaic; however, it’s anything but — Ravinder’s research focuses on hornbills and their nesting habits in Kinabatangan, Sabah.

“The main objective of my research is to find where the hornbills are nesting. Once we know where they nest, there’s a lot of information concerning these birds we can uncover. For example, if we find a helmeted hornbill’s nest, we can observe their behaviour which provides essential data for conservation work and we can also help safeguard their nest as well,” she explains.

This would, of course, benefit this particular bird species (and all other hornbill species as well) recently identified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world’s foremost authority on the status of species in the wild, as “Critically Endangered”.

With her recent award by CLP, Ravinder hopes to extend her research programme that will culminate with the building of artificial nest boxes to help alleviate the nest-hole crisis suffered by these birds, in particular the helmeted hornbills and their close cousins; this will be in collaboration with HUTAN/Kinabatangan Orang-utan Conservation Programme, a local NGO based in Sabah.

She speaks rather dispiritedly of the intensive logging in Kinabatangan which has destroyed almost all the trees where hornbills nest (tall trees with large natural cavities). This has inevitably led to the current decline in population as the birds are unable to access suitable breeding sites.

“The idea is to introduce these artificial nest-boxes with controlled temperature conditions suitable for these birds for their long-term survival.”


Deep in the forest researching hornbills.

SEEKING THE BIGGER PICTURE

It seems incongruous for such a serious and oft-regarded pedantic industry to incorporate wildlife photography in the mix. However, Sanjitpaal, the multi-award-winning photographer, seems to fit right into this setting and his wife’s serious research work.

How did he get into her world of hornbills and fieldwork? “Well, to begin with, I married her!” he quips, with a wink.

“I get to photograph wildlife, which I especially love. Opportunities like this don’t come often, and I’m happy to tag along and be able to photograph nature and wildlife,” he says, adding: “I get pictures for my own use, and she gets to use these pictures for her reports. So it works well for the both of us.”

His wife chips in: “His photos are important for my research. There’s a lot of information I can obtain through his images. For example, you can actually identify the hornbills individually which means you can tell if this is the same pair which was nesting in this tree last year.”

She also relates the example of the nesting cavity that has slowly gotten smaller over time, information that can’t be picked up from observation alone. “When you look at his pictures taken both years, you can see the difference. Then you understand why the bird won’t use that same cavity for nesting again ...because it can’t enter it. In that respect and more, Sanjit’s photographs have helped me tremendously in my project. I’ve got pictures to back up what I say.”

It’s unsurprising that Sanjitpaal is deeply committed as she is to the cause of conservation in Malaysia. And his platform for raising the profile of the nation’s incredible biodiversity is through his prolific body of work.

“I’m involved in a lot of conservation-related activities and projects. I contribute my images for this purpose and they’ve been used by a lot of NGOs here in Malaysia, and other organisations across the globe,” he shares, adding: “And my participation in the upcoming international congress in Paris is part of the efforts made in creating a global workgroup on raising awareness on the importance of plants to humans.

“In a group consisting mostly of researchers, biologists and scientists, I’m the only photographer invited and representing Asia at that!”


Sanjitpaal presenting at the 2015 International Congress (Dialogue of 5 Continents) in Paris.

A PRETTY GOOD TEAM

They’re immensely proud of each other. “I’m really proud of him. I’ve had the honour of being in the front row seat watching him grow and achieve great things over the years. Of course I’m a little concerned he’ll be surrounded by all those beautiful French women!” says Ravinder, tongue-in-cheek.

The 35-year-old photographer is equally forthcoming with his praise: “There are really no words to express how proud I am of her. I’ve seen her go through some tough challenges but she’s been really relentless in making a positive change in the world despite everything. That’s truly admirable.”

“We work as a pretty good team,” she says proudly, patting him on the back. “We’ve learnt not to be hard on each other, not to sweat the small stuff, and the journey’s been amazing. Of course, we’ve had our ups and downs but we’ve learnt to work together over the years.”

Enthusiastically, Sanjitpaal concurs: “As a photographer, the synergy I get working with her is none that I’ve experienced before. It’s fulfilling.”


“Pale and Light” which won Sanjitpaal the International Photography Award (IPA), USA.

They’ve known each other “almost all our lives” as she puts it, recalling how they were pen pals way back during their schooldays. Recalls Ravinder, chuckling: “I wrote to many people all over the world, but this boy from Petaling Jaya was the only one who kept writing back!”

They’ve come a long way since then, with their bond now further strengthened over shared meals deep in the forest, trudging uphill on slippery slopes lugging equipment in search of nests, and spending hours observing hornbill behaviour up in the trees.

She relates another story: “There was this time, when it was really a dry day — no nests or hornbills in sight and our work was almost done as it was already evening. Suddenly we heard a call ‘kok’, and immediately about 30 rhinoceros hornbills flew over our heads. There we were, totally unprepared ... Sanjit fumbling with his camera and me, fumbling with my notes!” They laugh heartily over that recollection.

And that, in essence, is their relationship. And it’s just as well.

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