Late last year we were asked by the UK online Magazine – Trek and Mountain for an interview for a “local hero”. The Local Heroes section basically involves hearing from the guys on the ground (local porters, chefs, trek leaders..) who help make trips so memorable for tourists travelling abroad to hike. We agreed to it after selecting a local hero that would be a great fit on the specific section featuring our local hero. The interview ran in June this year and published for Trek and Mountain.

Introducing Norsalleh Abd Malik to the world! The forest guardian of Kinabatangan, who works for our local project partner Kopel Community Cooperative at Batu Puteh. To Camps volunteers who had the opportunity to work alongside Norsalleh over the past years will agree that he is a very kind hearted individual, passionate about his work, generous with sharing his knowledge about the forest and his mission to conserve them.

Here’s an extract of the interview of what a unique and inspiring individual Norsalleh is to many…

Do you know of anyone working for Camps who might be a good fit for this section? I am 33 years old and I live with my widowed mother. I have one sister and four brothers.
What was your early life like and what struggles have you faced along the way?
Life was very difficult as a child because I cannot hear or speak. I had very little formal schooling and only attended to a primary level, as the local school was not set up to handle children with disabilities. Moreover, I was always the brunt of school yard ridicule so I dropped out of school early at age 13.

How did you become a guide for Camps International?
I have been integrally involved with the village cooperative KOPEL since 2003, working as a team leader in forest restoration and looking after seedlings and planting activities. I have also become responsible for taking visitors, students and conservation volunteers on all field activities associated with the forest restoration program. Given that Camps International is a major supporter of the forest restoration work of KOPEL and provides hundreds of volunteers each year, I have grown to be a key member of the Camps International Team during their work and stay in the Kinabatangan area. I have become an ambassador for the area and am told I have a no-nonsense but friendly approach that has earned me respect among the local team as well as Camps volunteers.

What do you love most about your country and your job? I love my work; I love planting trees and l love looking after the rainforest, beautifying my surroundings and the environment.

How are you able to communicate with visitors? I cannot speak, however, I can communicate with sign language. My sign and body language is not the formal sign language, but involves using my hands and entire body, being more close to miming or mimicking specific activities or situations. I am mostly self-taught, however, over the years I have made many friends, both local and international, who share books and words, so today I can read and write basic English.

What does a typical day look like for you at Camp Batu Puteh? I normally do all the background preparation work before the Camps International volunteers arrive. This includes my tree nursery work to ensure there are adequate numbers of seedlings for the tree planting operations. It also includes setting up the jungle camp sites, ensuring wild animals are kept out, removing tree hazards, pumping water, setting up the canvas-covered spaces, and building steps and jetties for safe boat arrivals and departures. I am an experienced boatman on the Kinabatangan River and am usually involved in shuttling equipment, supplies and the camp‰’s volunteers to the jungle campsites.

The rainforest camps are ‰hammock camps‰ as this is the traditionally safest and most comfortable form of camping in the jungle. I love sleeping in the hammocks and will always stay on site to help with general camp duties, even though my core responsibility is looking after the forest restoration programs and tree planting. This is where I come alive and where I have earned my reputation with the Camps International volunteers. Although I can only use body sign language to communicate, I am told I have an inspirational way of motivating the local and international teams, even during the most steamy and hard tropical conditions. The work can be tough, and there are long jungle walks involved, however, I always try to find and point out the amazing wildlife hidden in the jungle.
What makes Borneo such a unique destination? In short, the wildlife along the Kinabatangan River there is nothing like it anywhere in South East Asia or anywhere else in the world! The Kinabatangan is a unique and special place for the wildlife that is concentrated in this area. There are more than 150 miles of forest along the lower reaches of this river’s massive floodplain, which plays host to six different types of rainforest including swamp forests, seasonally flooded forests, limestone forests and lowland dipterocarp forests. The botanical and tree diversity here is immense. These areas are home to the Borneon elephant, orangutan, clouded leopard, sunbear, proboscis monkeys, hornbills, storm storks, otters, the list goes on and on‰. The wildlife in this area is shy but can be viewed with the right local guide and by spending adequate time in the area to allow for bird and wildlife observation. Camping is probably the best way to experience the jungles and wildlife of this region experience it up close and personal! The rainforests of Borneo are of global significance, which makes efforts to conserve them of great importance.

What advice would you give to someone from the UK to help them prepare for a trip to the Borneo jungle? Always try to behave your best and be prepared at all times for whatever situation may arise and please stay in love with nature. What is your biggest passion outside of your work? I wish to build my own home one day and landscape it with flowering plants. I used to be a keen footballer but my biggest sport passion is playing volleyball and sepak takraw (a traditional game using head and feet with a woven rattan
ball).

These days my growing passion is for photography. Who inspired your love of photography? No one in particular I just spend a lot of time observing nature until I find the right opportunity to take a picture. I also like exploring different angles with the camera, because sometimes the normal point and shoot snapshot just cannot capture the full true sense of the situation.

Finally, have you travelled in any other countries and where would be your dream country to visit? I‰’ve never had the opportunity to travel any further than Kota Kinabalu (the state‰’s capital) and have never really thought about travelling to other places. There are so many interesting places out there, it is too hard to decide!

“I love my work, I love planting trees, and I love looking after the rainforest…” – Norsalleh