Kanitha Krishnasamy is the Director for Southeast Asia at TRAFFIC.
Why did you choose to become a conservationist?
I think in some ways conservation chose me! I’ve always had an interest in animals, and wanted to learn more about them. But the Malaysian public education system is such that you don’t often get what you want. I was offered a degree in Forestry, which was not something I had selected. Learning about the forestry industry (which was largely what the degree was about) was a new, exciting and eye-opening experience, especially in Sabah, Borneo. But that was not quite the turning point for me.
I volunteered with the Malaysian Nature Society (also an ASAP partner) for three months as part of a compulsory placement, required to graduate from University. Among others, I was fortunate to be part of their expedition to Langkawi Island to document its natural wonders….and the rest is history as I didn’t leave until about eight years later!
Which topic are you working on at the moment? Why did you choose this topic and how do you think you’ll make a difference?
It’s hard to pick one as there are always multiple things happening in a region that’s a hotbed for illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade. But just last week, we worked jointly with the Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia (PERHILITAN) to highlight the issue of trafficking in Malaysia’s Oriental Magpie-robin.
For those of us living in Southeast Asia, we recognise it as a common and widespread bird – even my six-year-old niece knows it by its look and call. But few realise it is highly sought-after for the pet trade. We started observing a spate of Oriental Magpie-robin seizures in Malaysia, spurring us to dig deeper.
Our research revealed that more than 17,000 birds were seized in 2020, compared to the 3000-odd in 2019. Another shocking find was that thousands were being smuggled into Indonesia, to feed demand there. It is not a protected species in most places, so its capture and trade are not recorded, monitored, or regulated in any way.
We wanted to use the findings as a basis to establish preventive measures – a more effective regulatory system – before trapping spirals uncontrollably and pushes the species’ fate to a point of no return in the future. We have seen this happen far too often to other species, including many ASAP species.
What are your biggest achievements related to your work in conservation?
I have researched and investigated a range of illegal wildlife trade issues, engaging with stakeholders to find solutions to the challenges faced in Southeast Asia. In a number of places, in-roads to influence change was achieved when policy and regulation was strengthened. But my achievements are really those we have collectively achieved as the TRAFFIC team, particularly here in Southeast Asia. I believe we have raised the profile of illegal and unsustainable trade of many species and the issues surrounding them, which has contributed to the diversified effort by so many parties to tackle it.
Like so many others, passion to protect species and habitats is at the core of my motivations, the drive to do more. But passion alone is not always enough. Building, maintaining and encouraging a strong team is critical. Knowing I played a part in shaping this for the TRAFFIC team in Southeast Asia is very rewarding. It’s people we rely on to make a difference in the world.
Have you faced any prejudices as a woman in conservation? Were you able to overcome these?
I have been fortunate not to experience difficulties because I am a woman. My Mum wanted all her kids to have the opportunities she never had, and through her quiet demeanour, was the powerhouse that pushed us to be better. Then there was Dad, opposite in character from Mum – strict, authoritative, conservative – but they shared a desire for their children to succeed in a competitive and crowded world. So, growing up in our household, with (loud!) and strong-willed siblings, was a great recipe for building character, resilience and tenacity. These are qualities needed to tackle the ever-challenging world of conservation, regardless of gender.
Starting a career with the country’s oldest membership-based conservation NGO also helped shape who I am today. It was filled with some of the greatest conservation minds who intimidated the then 23-year old me, who challenged and encouraged me. Membership-based organisations are a unique kind of breed too… it was like dealing with the challenges of a small democratic country sometimes – a combination of chaos, drama, excitement and drive, which forces you to think on your feet more times than you can count.
These are all lessons I carry with me still and have proven to be valuable on countless occasions.
Featured image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay