interviewed by Dr. Lee Hooi Ling
In the first part of the interview (Issue 8), Dr. Lim Boo Liat offered a glimpse into his life before World War II and his journey to becoming a zoologist in the Institute for Medical Research. Although officially retired in 1987, Dr. Lim continues to contribute his service in zoological discipline, particularly to the Department of Wildlife and National Park. In this second part of the interview, Dr. Lim discusses about his research findings such as ecological labelling and the Red List of Mammals, and dispense some wise words for those who are interested to pursue their dream as a zoologist.
Q1. You have been credited with the development of “ecological labeling by parasite pattern”. Can you please explain what this term means?
In zoology, the word “indicator” is used to group specific state of wildlife in nature. For example, habitats, such as lowland, hill and mountain forest types are often applied to define residential group of species diversity in each of these habitat types.
In research study on host-parasite relationships in relation to disease transmission cycle, it is essential that more in-depth knowledge of the niche habitats of the host and behavioural activity of the animal are gathered. I have found that parasites in particular are a good indicator.
In the study on the food habits and endoparasites of small mammals, I came up with the concept of “ecological labelling” by parasite pattern. Examination of stomach contents and endoparasites helps to establish certain facts as to the behaviour and food preference of the animal in their natural environment (niche-habitat, specific type of preferred food). For example, in our studies we came across a rare insectivore (Moonrat) about the size of the house cat. Being in the order insectivore, the Moonrat was thought to feed on insects exclusively.
However, the parasites in the intestines were parasitic to fish only. Based on this finding, we were able to trace the Moonrat to its riverine habitat. From then onwards, we found that the so-called “rare animal” is very common indeed. This concept of “ecological labelling” by parasite pattern has since been accepted by animal behaviourists and mammalogists throughout the world. The result of this paper was published in .
Q2. We understand that it took 50 years of effort from 1947 to 1997 to produce the Red List of Mammals of Peninsular Malaysia and it is considered as the first national Red List. What is the Red List of Mammals of Peninsular Malaysia?
Any wildlife taxa assessment, particularly on the ecology of species diversity and distributional pattern, require long-term field studies as a database for further information on the status of individual species in its natural environment.
My asset is only ‘experience’ in my specialised zoological discipline and I am very contented to be able to relay it to the layman, graduate and postgraduate students whenever needed
The main source of data was from the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP), with a focus on large mammal records from 1947-1997. For the small mammals, the main data source was from my collection at the Institute of Medical Research. Additional information was from scientists of foreign and local research institutions and universities who periodically worked on small mammal studies. With this large collation of database, the Director General and officers of DWNP and I decided to formulate a Red List of Threatened species of Peninsular Malaysia. A total of 222 individual species of large mammals (14 species) and small mammals (volant 93, non Volant 115) were compiled. All these individual species were based on field studies and field observations during the years. The results of the Threatened spp., the Red List is as follows:
- 3 spp. classes as extinct (EX)
- 1 spp. as critically endangered (CR)
- 26 spp as endangered (EN)
- 22 spp. as vulnerable (NU)
- 13 spp. near-threatened (NT)
- 157 spp as being least concerned (LC)
Q3. You were seconded to the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Indonesia after the completion of your PhD (Zoology) at Universiti Sains Malaysia. What were your job responsibilities at WHO during that time?
I was recruited as a Senior Scientist attached to the WHO Inter-regional Vector Biology and Rodent Control Unit (VBCRU). The first five years (mid 1977 through 1982), I was assigned to the interregional sector of VBCRU at Geneva, Switzerland, where not only I served in Indonesia but also in other Southeast Asian and South Pacific countries where there were problems on rodent-borne diseases and Rodent Control activities.
The last five years (mid 1982-1987), I was attached to the regional sector in Jakarta, Indonesia. I was promoted as a Senior Health Research Administrator in the National Institute of Health and Manpower Development (NIHRD) in Jakarta under the WHO South East Asian Regional Office (SEARO) in New Delhi. My main task was to assist local scientists in their research activities on vector- and rodent-borne diseases. I also helped to co-ordinate research activities and assist funding for three divisional centres, such as the Communicable Diseases Control (CDC), Nutrition Centre (NC) and Biological Research Centre (BRC). Together with the NIHRD, an annual grant of USD2 million was allocated to these four centres as operation funding. During the ten years’ period with WHO, it was very satisfying to see at least 25 young local researchers upgrading their ability and capability in undertaking independent research projects. A total of 58 scientific papers were published by these researchers with five of these scientists being internationally recognised.
Q4. You retired officially in 1987 but for the past 27 years, you have continued to work as a consultant, honorary advisor or visiting scientific fellow in many organisations. Perhaps you can share with us why you are doing that and what is the focus of your work at the moment?
In 1988, I was asked by the Director-General, Mr. Mohd Momin Khan of DWNP Kuala Lumpur to assist in creating a new Laboratory Research Division in the DWNP. The objective of this division was to train young graduate officers to work on small mammals in relation to host-parasite-relationships.
We started with six people, headed by a Research Officer, Mr. Louis Ratnam (retired). My service was to assist in the inventorying of lower vertebrate animals (mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians) in forest reserves throughout the country and to create a “Scientific vertebrate reference collection for the DWNP” for a scientific museum.
Today, the scientific museum collection has about 12,000 vertebrate taxa (mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles) deposited at the Institute of Biodiversity at Bukit Ringgit, Pahang. These scientific collections have been constantly referred by our university graduate and postgraduate students and foreign students and scientists as well. At least a few M.Sc and Ph.D dissertations from local universities were partially based on the collections.
Since my retirement to date, I appreciate that my service is still needed by different institutional organisations in the country. My asset is only “experience” in my specialised zoological discipline and I am very contented to be able to relay it to the layman, graduate and postgraduate students whenever needed. In fact, it is a partnership where the students gain from my experience and in return, I also learn from them to keep abreast with the latest technological scientific advancements.
Q5. It takes a lot of motivation and passion for you to continue working until this golden age. What is your advice to the younger generation who are keen to pursue zoology as their career?
To the younger generation who want to pursue zoology as their career, my advice is as follows:
- Develop an interest in a specific discipline in the field of zoology so as to become an authority in it.
- Carry out long-term research (3 – 5 years), as it is through long-term research that new ideas can be developed, or new animal spp. discovered.
- Do not be deterred by failure as persistency and perseverance will overcome it.
- Always consult research results with your peers (local or foreign) of similar zoological work.
- Publication is very important as you are judged through your published work internationally.
- There is no ‘shortcut’ in biological sciences such as zoology – be prepared for long-term arduous field and research activities.
Q6. What are the effective ways to promote science and technology in times when basic science is dwindling?
The dwindling of basic science in recent years is partly due to Government policy makers and also our graduates who are undetermined, and satisfied to obtain a degree just for the sake of the degree. Because science is more difficult and challenging, more students are opting for the arts stream.
Basic science research (long term research) is still the apex ground for turning out outstanding Malaysian scientists so as to be on par with scientists from developed countries
Basic science research (long term research) is still the apex ground for turning out outstanding Malaysian scientists so as to be on par with scientists from developed countries. The authorities in universities should coordinate with the Academy of Sciences Malaysia to make a strong case to the policy makers the need for funding basic science research.
Furthermore, we have to elevate the standard of teaching of science especially in schools so as to cultivate more students to take up science. We do train a large number of medical doctors and pharmacists as these are professional degrees. It is unfortunate that most of these specialists are contented with only a few interested in research. As such, there is a need to change the mindset of these professionals that research is indeed rewarding especially in the new biotechnology era.
This article first appeared in the Scientific Malaysian Magazine Issue 10. Check out other articles in Issue 10 by downloading the PDF version for free here: Scientific Malaysian Magazine Issue 10 (PDF version)
 Lim BL (1967). Note on the food habits of Ptilocerus lowii Gray (Pentail tree-shrew) and Echinosorex gymnurus (Raffles) (Moonrat) in Malaya with remarks on ‘ecological labelling’ by parasite pattern. J of Zool;152:375-9.
About the wildlife in Malaysia, did you know that …
Malaysia is rich with flora and fauna. However, many of these species, especially animals, are severely threatened and near extinction if further protection measures are not taken. The main threats are loss of their natural habitat and forced removal of the animals from the wild. Among the concerned species are Sumatran rhinoceros, Malayan tiger, Malayan tapir, Orangutan and Leatherback turtle.