An anthropologist with an agenda: Working towards biodiversity conservation
In carving out his career, Dr Cyren Wong Zhi Hoong never lost sight of what he loved as a child — nature. Today, the ethnozoologist and ecological anthropologist comes close to his childhood dream of exploring the world à la National Geographic explorer. And this is thanks in part to his decision to pursue a PhD which allowed him to better understand the protection of nature in partnership with indigenous and first nation communities, and work his way to become a biodiversity conservation activist.
The Monash University Malaysia academic staff initially pursued a degree in writing, literature, and film studies instead of anthropology “more out of necessity than choice”.
His parents, who were concerned about the possibility of his limited job prospects of studying a niche field, were unwilling to support his passion at the time and an undergraduate degree in the arts seemed like the most accessible option for him.
“The initial plan was to apply for scholarships during my first year and drop out the moment I got an offer to enrol in entomology or zoology course at a local public university. Nonetheless, I found that I had quite a knack for arts and the humanities and eventually decided to see it through,” he told U2B in an email interview.
Despite that, his love for the study of ecology and nature never wavered — he continued to self-study and sat in for many scientific lectures as an undergraduate student.
When the opportunity to pursue his PhD in the field of ecological and environmental anthropology at Monash came up, he seized it.
The words “ethnozoology” and “ecological anthropology” might sound like Greek to most people, but Wong explained that they are sub-branches of anthropology.
“Essentially, we still study humans and human culture, but what sets us apart as ethnozoologists and ecological anthropologists is our strong focus on our past and present relationship with animals, as well as our connection to the world around us,” he said.
“This can be anything from understanding how our relationships with certain animals — for example, the domestic chicken — have influenced the development and progression of our societies, to documenting different cultures’ perception and understanding of nature, and natural resource management.
“On more pragmatic terms, the work we do as ethnozoologists and ecological anthropologists is increasingly important due to the recognition of the intersections between nature and society. Many of us in this profession frequently collaborate with environmental and biological scientists in an effort to bridge the long-existing gap between natural and social sciences.”
Surviving the PhD journey
Wong is unflinchingly honest about the challenges of pursuing a PhD.
Mental health issues such as anxiety and depression often plague doctoral students due to the challenging nature of the course. Top it off with balancing one’s personal responsibilities, managing one’s finances, and making ends meet on a PhD candidate’s meagre stipend, and it’s easy to understand why many experience some form of psychological distress.
“With so much on one’s shoulders, it is very easy to spiral with overwhelming feelings of inadequacy and like so many other PhD candidates, I developed many unhealthy coping mechanisms and suffered from depression and anxiety disorders during my candidacy,” he said.
“It’s ironic because I know more PhD candidates with these feelings than those without, and yet, it is not an issue that we discuss very often.”
To help him cope, Wong regularly met with his university counsellor who taught him to manage these emotions by practicing mindfulness. He also found that taking a step back from his project and reminding himself that his PhD is simply a means to an end helped him put things into perspective.
But the PhD struggle wasn’t without life-changing moments such as living with forest-dwelling indigenous peoples.
For his fieldwork as a doctoral student, Wong leaped out of the concrete jungle and into the dense Bukit Kinta Rainforest where he lived with the Semai communities for 16 months. He was “adopted” by an indigenous woman and was quickly made to feel like a member of her community.
“Through her, our neighbours, and some of the youths I hung out with, I learned how to walk in the forest and see histories and stories in place of nameless trails, characters, and kin in place of animals and trees, and entire human support networks — some spanning thousands or even millions of years old — embedded within the ecosystem itself,” he said.
How his PhD helped him work his way towards becoming an educator and biodiversity conservation activist
Wong considers himself an educator and activist for biodiversity conservation and indigenous peoples’ rights, laying the foundations from as far back as 10 years ago when he set up the Facebook page, Naturetalksack with Dr. Cyren Asteraceya, which chronicles his flora and fauna explorations.
It morphed from a platform that he shared with collaborators from all over the world to become a personal blog which he uses to share his thoughts, insights, and snaps from his journeys into the field. He has accumulated over 180,000 followers from individuals around the world over the years.
“I am a firm believer in the age-old adage that it takes a village to raise a child, and I suppose I see this as a responsibility I have to the future, by educating and supporting the next generation of ecologists, anthropologists, and scientists, to never stray far from their passions, and keep contributing towards the realisation of a more equitable and sustainable future for all,” said Wong.
“Conservationists are a dying breed, and I am sure I am not alone when I say that we are always on the lookout for the next person to whom we can pass our torch.”
Wong views empathy as an essential trait in his role as an educator and biodiversity conservation activist, adding that “it is this quality which has seen me through most of my professional career”, adding that it is important to be able to put oneself in the shoes of another.
“For an educator, this can mean learning how to anticipate and adapt to the needs of your students, and for a conservation worker, this can mean taking a step back to understand the implications of top-down policies for conservation (eg. hunting prohibition and laws that curb the exploitation of nature) through the eyes of localised communities (eg. indigenous communities) or other marginalised groups. In both situations, a little empathy can go a long way in terms of securing a more favourable and sustainable outcome,” he said.
Traits such as passion, sincerity, and integrity are often bandied around when it comes to career success, but Wong staunchly believes that these are essential ingredients for any aspiring anthropologists and ethnozoologists to get far in life.