Dr. Dzaeman Dzulkifli, tropical rainforest ecologist and cyclist

Words: Nadiah Aziz / Photos: Adrihazim Rashid

“I just really like being in the forest,” Dzaeman Dzulkifli declares, as we sit down to chat over a cup of coffee at one of his favourite cafes in the Ttdi neighbourhood. His bike is leaning conspicuously against the wall, having cycled over from his office nearby. You don’t quite understand how serious he is when making that proclamation, until you delve deeper into the inner workings of his mind. 

When I first met Dzaeman, he was barrelling down the steep and technical trails of Bukit Dinding with his full suspension mountain bike, on trails now infamous for putting even seasoned MTB riders on lengthy injury breaks. Whoops and shrieks from their group could be heard within that tiny parcel of green not too far away from the glittering Petronas Twin Towers and Suria KLCC; they were clearly having a whale of a time. 

Afterwards, Dzaeman could be seen packing up the bikes into his Land Rover, which is fully equipped with solar panels, a freezer, and all manner of things needed to disappear into the wild. The vehicle itself is set up to handle some pretty rough off-road terrain, all part of a day’s work for this intrepid 34 year old. One thing is certain, he’s not quite your average MTB enthusiast. 

“I work for the Tropical Rainforest and Research Centre,” explains Dzaeman, who trained as an ecologist and has a PhD specialising in forest restoration and rehabilitation.

“There are many non-profit groups out there, but TRCRC was predominantly formed as an action-orientated NGO to fix issues in forest management in Malaysia. The main programme we do is the Living Collections, where we safeguard rare endangered trees from each state that we work in - Sabah and Perak. We have teams in the forest targeting different forest reserves searching for different trees. Our forests, they more or less flower 4 to 5 years (for canopy trees) following El Nino events."

"In Perak for example, we’ve gone to about 40 forest reserves in about 160 trips we’ve done in the past two years, just identifying these trees and monitoring until they fruit and flower so we can reproduce them."

"The idea of it is to change the status of the trees from critically endangered to less endangered. We do it with a multiple approach - the first step is to protect the area, then we expand the population, but where to do the trees come from? We wait for the areas to be gazetted and conserved, then we start restoring the areas. We work with the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and we update the conservation status. That’s our core work.”

Essentially, it means getting his hands dirty. Literally. “If we don’t do it, who will?” he adds, laughing. “I do it because I want to spend time in the forest, as much as I can. It’s selfish, but I think it’s not just for me, it’s for all of Malaysia and the rest of the planet, we need to make sure that the forests are managed and kept well."

Obviously the TRCRC has its work cut out for it, what with rampant deforestation in many states in Malaysia, not just the locations where Dzaeman’s colleagues are based. 

How on earth does he find time to jump on a bike? Obviously by making it a point to combine the different facets of his life. “Now I mix passion and pleasure to be able to maximise my time outside amongst one of the oldest rainforests in the world and the top most mega diverse environments juggling work during the week - bringing me out remote corners of our country to micro adventures on weekends.”

“It’s often extremely hectic on work trips visiting sites and developing strategies but over the weekend, it's totally different - you can sit back and really observe and be immersed in nature. Bike packing really gives you such opportunity. One is not able to get to such remote areas with so little noise and impact than on a bike. The amount of animals you encounter doubles up. You hear more, you are able to look up more, but obviously the choice of trail depends a lot on this.”

While he lives in Ampang near intact forest areas like Kemensah, his office is a short jaunt away from Bukit Kiara, meaning post-work quickie rides are possible. “Kiara is fun for during the week, so I ride there twice mid-week if I can, and weekends I go out elsewhere.”

This is made possible by starting a grouping of like-minded people, also known as the Seekers of Good Times, a group of friends who get together at least once a month, “for all sorts of good times in all sorts of natural spaces.”

“In Switzerland I had this group called a Peak a Week, where we climbed a different mountain every week. I came back and needed a group of that sort that would be able to do different formats of adventure, but we were basically out to have a good time,” Dzaeman explains. “It consists of a group of very tight knit friends who first of all need to be capable of endurance and surviving in somewhat harsh conditions. Second, you need to be able to contribute to the team. If I tell the group the basic information of the trip, what we need and for how many days and for what format, they will all be ready to go without needing to prep them.” 

The skills that he’s developed over the years of mapping out forests means his field work doubles as accidental recce trips for bikepacking. But the idea of prioritising both work and play is not such a foreign idea to him, something that he picked up while doing his PhD in Switzerland.

“Having this balance is not really an Asian thing, I learnt this balance of work and activity there. Everyone had their own activity and they were unique because of it,” he reminisces. “Everyone could have a professional life, but had their extreme side as well.”

“There were people who were climbers, paragliders, skiiers, snowboarders, every sort of activity in the mountains that you can think of. Here, if they see you cycling all the time they just classify you as someone who plays too much. It’s not true, you can do everything at the same time.”

After rattling off the list of sports considered fairly extreme I spot a bit of a pattern. Coupled with the fact that Dzaeman is already known as a bit of a daredevil among those who know him, I have to ask, does that make him an adrenaline junkie?

“No, I’m not,” Dzaeman denies, with a twinkle in his eye. “I enjoy adrenaline, but it doesn’t have to be. I can enjoy different things.”

To be fair, one of the most common images you will see of him is of his feet propped up in a hammock, strung up either in his 4WD or out in the open in an unnamed location in the jungle, serenaded by the sounds of nature. There might be a warm beverage somewhere in the shoot too. I have to admit, I sure wish I could join him there.