A chartered biologist with a keen interest in environmental studies, zoology and a long standing voluntary commitment to environmental issues and museums, Dato Sri Gathorne - Earl of Cranbrook, was born in June 1933. He obtained his BA in Natural and Moral Sciences from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge in 1956 and, subsequently, a PhD from the University of Birmingham in 1960. As one of the early conservationists to have worked in Malaysia, Dato Sri Cranbrook is a specialist in the biology and management of cave swiftlets, the biology of living mammals and zooarcheology of the Malaysian region. He has contributed immensely to raising awareness of conservation issues in Malaysia and his wide body of work has added to our understanding of the ecology and biology of Malaysian mammals and birds.
In 1958, Dato Sri Cranbrook introduced systematic sorting, conserving and identification of animal remains excavated during the Sarawak Museum’s active archaeological campaign at the Niah caves in Sarawak. This work radically changed perceptions of regional zoogeography. His field and museum research on mammals resulted in the publication of two widely used references: Mammals of Borneo and The Wild Mammals of Malaya/Peninsular Malaysia and Offshore Islands Including Singapore.
In the late 1960s, Dato Sri Cranbrook, in his capacity as a lecturer at University of Malaya, introduced students to the richness of the tropical forest by emphasising the values of biodiversity and the dangers of environmental exploitation. He obtained funding (from the Nuffield Foundation) for the Ulu Gombak Field Studies Center where teaching and research continues today. He says: “In 1964, I obtained external funds sufficient to pay in full for the construction of the Field Studies Centre, Ulu Gombak, at no cost to the University, formally opened in 1965. The FSC has since been refurbished on my original layout and is still in regular use. The Year 2015 will mark the 50th anniversary of this world famous research center, well used by Malaysians and international scientists. I look on this lasting resource for the University with great satisfaction.” The Field Studies Centre, situated on 120-hectares of secondary and primary forest, is a veritable fountain of biological & ecological knowledge, with the area’s fauna and flora extensively studied and documented throughout the site’s 40-year history. A favourite research centre for foreign researchers conducting biological and ecological studies, the site is also popular with geology students and, under the leadership of the present University staff member in charge, remains an excellent training ground for students to experience their first fieldwork practice. The centre is also open to school children who want to experience the wonders of nature firsthand.
In the late 1970s, Dato Sri Cranbrook co-authored the first (environmental) management plan for the Mulu National Park. The site is valuable for baseline studies of ecosystem processes in the humid tropics. In addition, the combination of alluvial, sandstone, and limestone ecosystems is unique in Southeast Asia and provides opportunities to understand long-term ecosystem dynamics, landscape ecology and the impacts of visitors on tropical protected areas. A second management plan was compiled by the Sarawak Forest Department in 1992 and a third management plan is currently being prepared.
From 1989 to 1990 Dato Sri Cranbrook was appointed leader of the International Tropical Timber Organisation (ITTO) Mission. The subsequent report presented in 1991 (in Bali) became a major policy setting document in Sarawak State Forestry Management. Sarawak Forestry is currently working towards the goals set out in the policy setting document stipulating that 10% of the State be designated as a Totally Protected Area.
In 1994 Dato Sri Cranbrook, supervised a talented University Malaya graduate student, who undertook research into the biology and sustainable management of the cave dwelling edible nest swiftlets. Their joint publication, Swiftlets of Borneo: Builders of Edible Nests was the only source book for advice to swiftlet cave managers and has since become a manual for the industry. Swiflet nests are an important constituent of traditional Chinese medicine and, since the 16th century, their harvest and trade have thrived in the Borneo area. Over the last decade, illegal harvesting of bird nests, indiscriminately destroying eggs and nestlings, caused a drastic decline in the swiftlet population and even led to local extinction. Moreover, recent large scale forest clearing in the area and conversion of pristine forest vegetation into oil palm monoculture have altered the integrity of the ecosystem, reducing the quantity and variety of aerial insect food sources for the swiftlets. The conservation of swiftlets is crucial as many local owners of cave rights depend on swiflet nests as a source of income. The publication provided a proper conservation guideline which could also benefit local people.
Since 2000, Dato Sri Cranbrook has resumed productive cooperative research into Malaysian zooarcheology and paleo-environments and, also, the biology of edible nest swiftlets while simultaneously pursuing his own interest in the history and literature of Sarawak. He has been the Honorary Curator of the Mammals, Sarawak Museum, since 1960. He is also currently the external adviser to Yayasan Ulin, a charitable foundation for the promotion of conservation in unprotected habitats in Kalimantan, founded by the oil palm plantation company, REA Kaltim. Dato Sri Cranbrook has authored (or co-authored) books on the mammals, the birds, the tropical rainforest, and wonders of the natural world of the South-East Asian region as well as many scientific papers on these and related topics. He was awarded the Royal Geographical Society's Founder's Gold Medal in 1995.
Today, Dato Sri Cranbrook, continues to be a frequent visitor to Sarawak and Southeast Asia. His extensive body of work has created an enduring legacy. From his initial documentation and quantification of remains on site and his first publication in 1958, his work has dovetailed the discipline of zoology with that of archaeology through innovative research and analysis. His work remains a benchmark in zooarcheology in the region.In this regard, his wide-ranging work in environmental conservation, and his foresight and passion embodies the Spirit of Merdeka.