Palm trees, beaches, contemporary furnishings – typical descriptions of a tropical resort. The real distinguishing factor is the people working at the resort. YTL Hotels’ latest gem, Gaya Island Resort, in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia, will open its doors to guests very soon. General Manager Mr. Jeffrey Mong graciously invited us to speak to several outstanding people working in this gorgeous getaway before its opening. Here’s the last of this series of three.
While kids his age roughed and tumbled with neighbourhood friends in playgrounds and concrete-structured schools, little Justin Juhun played with wildcats, barking deers and gibbons that grew up with him in a softwood plantation on the west coast of Sabah, Malaysia. Jungle Boy’s fondest wish when he was growing up was to have his very own pet elephant. So adamant was he about having one, he went on strike! Guess which career path he chose when he grew up…
LPP : Can you tell us about your childhood. Where did you grow up? Has this influenced your career path?
Justin : My father worked in a softwood plantation in Tawau so I grew up there. He loved animals, he’d rescue injured ones and nurse them back to health at our house. One time, we had as many as 40 animals in our compound! (laughs) So many, that the Wildlife Department heard about it & they came over to investigate.
LPP : Oh dear. What happened next? They made you release the animals?
Justin : No, no. They found that we had taken such good care of the animals, they gave us the license to keep them! So we had a mini zoo in our house.
LPP : So you’re like your dad, both of you love animals.
Justin : Ya, he taught me how to take care of animals, taught me about living out in the wilderness. Today, I pass on this love for animals to my 2 kids. I bring them to zoos, to pet stores… but I’m in trouble now. They’re asking for a pet iguana, those costs RM1,500 EACH! My kids and I are working on a compromise…
LPP : Did your dad ever get you that elephant?
Justin : No. But he got me a baby porcupine instead and I was happy enough with it to end my strike. (victory!) Baby porcupines have very soft hair. These grow harder and become dangerous quills as the porcupine are older.
LPP : Where did your career as naturalist start?
Justin : I didn’t receive any formal education as a naturalist. Everything I learnt and know is from my father and from growing up in the plantation. I can recognise all tropical plants, all wildlife, all insects, all birds I see here in Sabah.
After obtaining my diploma, I started work in a plantation and later, worked in several hotels. One of the hotels I worked at had a dense hilly forest next to it. The hotel adopted it as its own nature conservation project and I was appointed to manage it.
LPP : If one or both of your kids want to follow in your footsteps & be naturalists, what’s your advice to them?
Justin : This work isn’t about enjoying yourself, it’s not glamourous. It’s about patience. It’s about waking up early in the morning & taking walks in your “office”, studying the plants & the animals, and learning to protect them. As naturalists or even more importantly, as conservationists, we have to correct the imbalance that man has created in nature. We can do this by educating people.
LPP : What’s a typical day at work here in Gaya Island Resort like?
Justin : The guests and I’ll trek through the forest behind the resort & we’ll spot flora & fauna together. I’ll answer all their questions and I’ll tell them stories…
LPP : Eeeer, what about leeches?
Justin : (tilts his head slightly, looks a little confused) … but there are no leeches in coastal forests….
LPP : Oh, (sunshine & smiles) in THAT case, let’s go hiking!