Where is pigboy?!

First posted in NUS’ “The Change is Me“, 30 Mar 2012

We adopt the names of the animals we research, so I go by the name Otterman. My students are variously branded Ottergirl, Smammal girl, catboy, civetgirls, catgirl and the wild pig research student, Ong Say Lin, was gleefully branded “pigboy” by Smammal Girl.

Since last semester, Say Lin has explored the reappearance of wild pigs (Sus scrofa) in mainland Singapore, setting out to ask some obvious questions, like their distribution, numbers, group demographics, impact and interaction with man. Research students typically begin with a simple question which inevitably becomes complex and ends up requiring lots of work.

IMG_0161-1yw01lz.jpg 2,048ձ,536 pixels
Wild pig foraging in the forests of mainland Singapore.

So Say Lin has been in the field, setting up camera traps, talking to fellow researchers and the public, following up on records and examining maps. However, he disappeared a week before report submission!

His project, part of the Undergraduate Research Programme in Science, requires that he submit his two-semester, 8-modular credit report next week, by 2nd April 2012.

Where is pigboy?

Well ACRES announced the reason for his absence today with, “A warm welcome to Say Lin to ACRES. He will be the Director of ACRES Lao PDR!”

Say Lin & Louis
Say Lin and Louis in Laos PDR. Photo by ACRES.

Isn’t that lovely? Say Lin aka pigboy is in Laos PDR for the signing ceremony of the Memorandum of Understanding between the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Singapore) (ACRES) and Laos Zoo for the establishment of the first Wildlife Rescue and Education Centre there. This was accomplished with the support and partnership of the Thai wildlife organization called Love Wildlife Foundation.

See all the news reports on WildSingaporeNews.

Seeing bears permanently in cage to be milked for their bile is heart wrenching. Say Lin will be able to do something about it directly now and help many other animals in abject conditions as well.

Thoughout his undergraduate years, Say Lin has had many mentors because he stepped forward, got engaged, sought help, reflected on his experiences and kept the plight of animals in his heart to help him maintain his focus.

Sun Bear at Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC)
Rescued Sun Bear at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre
Photo by Ong Say Lin

One of his mentors was Dr Wong Siew Te, founder of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC). Siew Te spoke passionately in Singapore in 2007 and the impact of his talk would result in Say Lin spending five weeks in internship at BSBCC on husbandry, volunteer management and communication about sun bears (Helarctos malayanus).

Still, going to Laos to be the director of an animal rescue centre was no easy decision. Say Lin reflects about this in his personal blog a few days ago:

“Never in my life have I experienced each week passing by so quickly. This year has been filled with a whirlwind of activities for me, and my eyes widen upon the reminder that it is only March. Perhaps I should not have signed up for so many things in the first place, but nothing would have prepared me for the tonne of opportunities that landed on my plate.

Right this moment, I am 4 days away from my first trip to Lao PDR. The thought process that led me to take up this job offer has been cycling through my head the past 2 months. I have reasoned it out with my closest friends, and I find it worthwhile to record it down here.

Ultimately, my interest lies in conservation, particularly wildlife conservation. Animal welfare is something related that I am passionate about, so working in a field that involves both these disciplines would be a dream. With my current research on wild boars in mainland Singapore, I have gotten a better appreciation of the distinction between academic research and conservation. Neither is better, or more important than the other. However, one can argue which has a more urgent need to be pursued in order to really make a difference.

In order to be in charge of a sanctuary, or any conservation program, I would require a PhD qualification. On top of that, I would also require the credibility and experience in order to be able to approach NGOs, governments and businesses for funding. I am at least 8 years from that.

The bear bile farming industry is a horrific trade. It is the sort of stuff that people 100 years from now would look back and be utterly disgusted that it ever existed, assuming bear bile farming doesn’t exist by then.

I’ve now been given the chance to set up a sanctuary for rescued Asiatic Black Bears as well as revamp a 3rd-world zoo. The task is difficult as it is without a boss who is fiercely optimistic (bordering unrealistic). But hey, there’s a reason why he’s come so far. I need to trust him. I have to. The next 2 years of my life is invested in his and my decisions.

This decision makes sense because it is everything I believe in at this point in life. I am not sure if I will ever get such an opportunity in life, ever. Even with a PhD and multiple published papers wouldn’t secure me such an opportunity. My family is financially secure with no one suffering from any serious illnesses. I am relatively young. I am technically not romantically committed to anyone. If not now, then when? When could I ever afford to do something crazy like this? Last but not least, I won’t be alone up north. I will be with like-minded people, something that I appreciate so much about. It’ll be just like in N.Minnesota. Masters or PhD? I’ll have time for that in the future.

Yes, these are justifications to a decision already made. Whatever I see next week, I am already destined to be there for a while. Things may overwhelm me, but when I enter that first bear farm… The sights, the smells and the sickening groans from imprisoned and mutilated bears… That will remind me that it isn’t about me after all. It isn’t about the money. It is about them. It is about freedom. “

Louis Ng and Ong Say Lin
Louis and Say Lin at University Town, 12 Mar 2012

Louis Ng, his boss, is his senior from NUS Life Sciences from about a decade earlier and is indeed a worthy mentor. Louis embarked on his personal mission even when he was an undergraduate and presented the issues in NUS way back in 2002.

At a recent session in NUS, Louis spoke and engaged with a bunch of students. He engaged them very well, presented his stand and issues clearly, provided solutions and opportunities, was not judgmental yet communicated his passionate stand.

Say Lin has a tough example to live up to but he’s is up for the challenge. In addition to ACRES staff and volunteers in Singapore, he has the support and well wishes of fellow students and staff back in NUS and that of the many naturalists in Singapore who are communicating with him via twitter and facebook.

Despite the heroics, he still has a final report to submit for his UROPS! I will go through the draft with him once he’s back and he will battle corrections during the weekend and I am sure meet the deadline in exhaustion.

That exercise will be yet another arsenal in his array of experiences which he will tap on when he is in Laos championing the cause of animals there.

Pigboy isn’t lost. He’s just becoming Bearboy!

Captive Sun Bear in Laos
Captive Sun Bear in Laos PDR
Photo by Ong Say Lin

You can follow Say Lin’s thoughts on his personal blog and his conservation perspectives and even volunteer at the centre during your holidays. You can follow him on twitter at saylinsays

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