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Goodbye to a Conservation Hero – Balu Perumal, Malaysian Nature Society

Balu Perumal – Head of Conservation for Malaysian Nature Society (MNS, BirdLife in Malaysia) – passed away peacefully on 6 August 2021 as a result of COVID-related complications.

By Vinayagan Dharmarajah & Hum Gurung

He was a leading conservationist in Malaysia and Southeast Asia and was liked and deeply respected within the BirdLife Partnership in Asia. We have lost a true conservationist and friend who influenced and inspired our work, and who helped us smile and rejoice in our camaraderie even during moments of incredible intensity.

Balu started his conservation career in the mid-1990s and was BirdLife’s focal point on a variety of conservation projects, including our work on species, forests, flyways and engaging business for conservation. He was also the project lead in Malaysia for the European Union-funded and BirdLife-led Forest Governance Project which also spanned Indonesia, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea. In addition, he was leading MNS’ efforts to update Malaysia’s Important Bird & Biodiversity Areas, and was working with MNS branches across the country on this at the time of his passing.  

His passion for Malaysia’s natural heritage – whether protecting tiger habitats, engaging hornbill guardians or reforesting degraded lands – was always evident, even as he maintained a calm and unassuming exterior. He believed in the urgency of his mission and – as he noted to MNS Executive Director I.S. Shanmugaraj and BirdLife’s Hum Gurung, during a trip to Endau Rompin National Park – ‘conservation cannot wait’. In addressing that urgency, he was willing to challenge what he probably saw as the rigidity of conventional wisdom and the sterility of more recently-conceived conservation narratives.

As Bryna Griffin, head of BirdLife International Forests Programme, remembers: “In the few years that I worked with Balu, I was struck by his willingness to challenge assumptions or speak out when he felt we weren’t focusing on the right things.  For him, it all came back to birds and biodiversity, and his passion for ensuring their future.  He was clearly less than comfortable when birds were absent from the conservation proposition.”

In his role, Balu was a great believer in BirdLife as the Power of Many and the capacity of the Partnership – especially in Asia – to collectively deliver conservation.  This was a message that he actively promoted. He was also a true believer of the bottom-up local to global approach to conservation, and was passionate about improving the livelihoods of indigenous people, especially the Orang Asli in Peninsular Malaysia. He fervently believed that local community empowerment was central to conservation success.

Lead image: Balu Perumal at Endau Rompin National Park, Malaysia © Hum Gurung

Balu started out as a botanist and always loved plants and trees © Hum Gurung

His relentless energy impressed many. As Ding Li Yong, Flyways Coordinator for BirdLife Asia, notes: “Balu was a force for conservation in Malaysia, working closely on so many different conservation issues across the country. I never figured how he managed to find the energy or time to juggle so many things, but one thing I know for sure is that he has Malaysia’s biodiversity in his heart, going back to his days as a botanist. Balu was a constant source of guidance and energy for our work on migratory bird conservation, including our projects at in Sarawak and Sabah towards the end of his career, and a source of inspiration for many of our younger colleagues. His untimely death is a huge loss to many of us in the BirdLife family, but his legacy in forest and wetland conservation in Malaysia will live on.”

He was also skilled at working with different stakeholders, a good listener and a believer in balanced solutions. In the spirit of Rudyard Kipling, he could walk with kings without losing the common touch. As Anuj Jain, Preventing Extinctions Coordinator for Asia, recalls; “He was an experienced conservationist who had mastered the art of balancing his passion for conservation with skilfully navigating the policy landscape and managing stakeholders sometimes with contradicting views. A natural at working with communities, he was always willing to listen, engage and talk things through. Somehow he always knew what was practical and achievable on the ground – when to up the pace and when to play the long game.”

Balu was also by nature an educator and a mentor to many conservationists in Malaysia and beyond.  Always in the background and seldom in the limelight, he chose to lead and inspire from behind, combining tenacity and steeliness with kindness and humility.

As Sue Mulhall, BirdLife’s Corporate Engagement Manager, reminisces: “When I first met Balu, I was completely new to conservation but I had the good of fortune of Balu taking me on a field trip in Malaysia. He was exceptionally generous and patient in sharing his time and knowledge – and always jovial. I learnt a great deal from him on that trip and in all other interactions. Even with his deep experience and wisdom he was always open to discussing fresh ideas and an absolute pleasure to work with. Balu’s positive impact is both immeasurable and enduring.”

On behalf of all of us at BirdLife International, we offer our deepest condolences to his family and colleagues at MNS. We are with you during this time and share your sadness and pain. Those who love and miss him can draw comfort and pride from the uplifting influence of his legacy on conservationists across Asia and beyond. A fantastic example of dedication and service that we can all aspire towards and seek to emulate. Let us embrace his passion, dedicate ourselves to carrying forth his life’s work and, to borrow from Roman statesman Cicero, place his legacy firmly in the memory of the living.

“Balu was a force for conservation in Malaysia, working closely on so many different conservation issues across the country. I never figured how he managed to find the energy or time to juggle so many things, but one thing I know for sure is that he has Malaysia’s biodiversity in his heart”

Ding Li Yong, Flyways Coordinator for BirdLife Asia

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