One thief’s dinner

APRIL 13 ― Malaysia rejoices for it is April! While many of our temperate counterparts enjoy the ebb and flow of four seasons in a year, we find pleasure in just one ― the tropical fruit season. It is this period that our durian, mangosteen, langsat and many more gems of Nature bear fruit simultaneously.

Even urbanites are not left behind in the quest to make the most of this season. Malaysians who have made space for greenery in their garden can finally enjoy the literal fruits of their labour. This comes as a reward after months of sweeping up dead leaves, occasional pruning and fertilising.

My neighbour is one of those lucky people. Apple mangoes, the size of bowling balls, are ripening in his garden...  increasing in girth and changing colour from pale green to a pinkish-yellow hue as I write.

Mangoes which have not only attracted envious glances from myself and other neighbours, but have also been receiving nightly visitors from near and far.

Thieves in the night

Fruit-eating bats have been feasting on the mangoes alongside the neighbourhood common tree shrew. For the former, the fruits are a welcome pit stop; bats travel hundreds of kilometres to search for food every night. For the latter, this season of abundance is a boon to their diverse dietary choices.

These two are common visitors that come to share the spoils annually. This year, however, another visitor has decided to pop by for a midnight snack. One that has the strength to grab a giant mango from my neighbour’s garden, climb onto my roof and polish off the fleshy fruit down to its pit.

What is left behind is some scat, littered with seeds of other fruity conquests including ciku.

I have yet to see the thief for myself but the signs suggest that an Asian palm civet (Paradoxus hermaphroditus) also known as musang pandan has been visiting! Although civets are distributed widely across Malaysia and are known to inhabit semi-urban areas, it is rare to see a wild one due to their secretive and nocturnal nature.

Contrasting opinions

What is interesting, however, is the reaction of people following such a discovery.

My neighbour whose mangoes have been stolen is indifferent about it. Despite his valiant efforts to deter the furry thieves ― by wrapping the unripe mangoes and hanging reflective CDs ― he shrugged off the thievery by lamenting “What can we do? It is their food source.”

Another neighbour does not share the same sentiments. In a similar position as our household, they complain that the civets make a lot of noise and leave behind a mess. To them, this nightly visitor is an unwelcome nuisance, or to put it more bluntly: a pest.

Same script, different locations

On a macro level, scenes like this have been playing out throughout Malaysia but with a variety of species. It is difficult to avoid human-wildlife conflict when we continue to settle in undeveloped areas especially ones that border healthy forests.

However, more often than not, it is the wildlife that faces eviction. For example, elephants are often translocated when they trespass into human territory. What happens after and during translocation is another story altogether.

Statistics show that a little more than half are successfully translocated while about one third dies in the process. Once released at the new site, they not only have to compete for resources with existing elephant populations but also the Orang Asli who live near the forest as one investigative feature has shown.

Disturbances to wildlife need not be that direct. Malaysians have an appetite for Sambar deer (rusa) and barking deer (kijang), which also happen to be key tiger prey species. The dwindling numbers of these species will ultimately affect the survivability of our Malayan Tiger. Despite a nationwide deer hunting moratorium that lasts until November 2021, illegal hunting still continues to this day.

In another poignant example of wildlife conflict in human settlements, an Indian rhinoceros casually strolled into a Nepali village looking somewhat dazed. The video of the incident depicted shocked villagers who were more keen on taking pictures than attempting to chase it out.

Finding a necessary balance

Here, I argue that a balance must be found between human and wildlife needs. Yes, we do need to develop but the development called for must be sensitive to needs of the original inhabitants.

In areas where charismatic species like tigers and elephants no longer exist, we must cherish whatever remaining Nature we have left. I, for one, relish the fact that civets are in my neighbourhood. It proves that there is still wildlife out there, living, even thriving.

For my neighbour, it is true that one thief’s dinner is another man’s mess. A mess I hope my other neighbours will learn to forgive, accept and eventually welcome. Who knows with a nationwide change of heart, we might one day find our very own Sumatran rhinoceros walking down the busy roads of Bukit Bintang.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.