We have dolphins or why a cetacean ecologist wants us to care about our environment

Cetacean ecologist and Transformasi Nasional 2050 ambassador Louisa Shobhini Ponnampalam. ― Picture by Choo Choy May
Cetacean ecologist and Transformasi Nasional 2050 ambassador Louisa Shobhini Ponnampalam. ― Picture by Choo Choy May

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KUALA LUMPUR, May 6  — Louisa Shobhini Ponnampalam worries that an entire generation of Malaysians growing up in urban areas is completely disconnected from nature.

“There is a generation of new Malaysians who have grown up with very little awareness about the importance of the environment,” the cetacean ecologist — she studies dolphins, whales and dugongs for a living — said.

“As a result, they don’t have empathy for it because they don’t understand it. Especially those who live in urban areas, they are even more disconnected,” she continued.

Example: Not many Malaysians know there are dolphins in Malaysia — yes, we do!

The Transformasi Nasional 2050 (TN50) ambassador wants to raise awareness about the environment — marine ecology in particular — among Malaysians, especially the younger generation, in order to help preserve it.

Louisa, 34, said the way to start is to tell people why they should care. One of the biggest reasons is that we as a nation are highly dependent on it, especially marine life.

“We are the highest per capita consumer of seafood in South-east Asia. That itself should be the reason why we should care.

“We cannot stop development. It happens worldwide but it should not come at a huge cost to the natural life support system that supports our lives. At the end of the day, we are dependent on it (the environment) for a lot of things,” she explained.

Called the “dolphin girl” by friends and family (she has been obsessed with marine mammals since she was 10!), Louisa wants to change the mindset of Malaysians and how they view environmental conservation.

She feels one of the key steps is to introduce environmental studies to schools and turn the future generation of Malaysians into “eco warriors.”

“We need to have some form of environmental education we need kids to go back to their parents and talk about stuff like composting.

“Parents listen to their kids. Adults don’t necessarily want to listen to other adults but they will surely listen to their kids,” she said, adding that one of the hardest challenges is convincing adults.

The MareCet Research Organisation co-founder — Malaysia’s first NGO dedicated to the research and conservation of marine mammals — also feels that Malaysians can monetise this, for instance, by turning trash on islands into money.

“How can we get people to start thinking about waste as a source of income...find ways to engage them in initiatives that they can benefit from it. It’s not a one-way process.

“It is not hard to do... it is not expensive and only takes a little bit more effort but you get to clean up your place and make some money while you’re at it,” Louisa explained.

One her list of short-term goals for marine life here is setting up a dugong sanctuary in Johor with the state and federal governments as well as rolling out a survey to gauge Malaysians’ understanding of marine conservation and coming up with a waste management system to be used on islands.

Louisa hopes her projects will gain traction with Malaysians and also open their eyes to the plight of the environment.

“Rome wasn’t built in a day. A lot of developed green countries had to go through a period of self-discovery and learning before they got to where they are today.

“We are a young nation, we have a lot of potential and natural resources that we can put to good use.

“A nation cannot be progressive unless we give respect and importance to the natural life support system that supports us,” she added.

* Louisa Shobhini Ponnampalam is one of 13 TN50 ambassadors handpicked to assist Putrajaya in mapping the country’s future based on their respective expertise.

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