Roger Rajah: Small but mighty

A small membership base has not deterred Sabah Birdwatchers Association from thinking big and organising the state’s first Asian Bird Fair. Roger Rajah, organising chairman for the Asian Bird Fair 2023, and also the vice president of Sabah Birdwatchers Association, shares more

With only 14 members in the Sabah Birdwatchers Association (SBWA), does it put a strain on members to organise the upcoming Asian Bird Fair 2023 (ABF2023) in Sabah this October?
In some ways it does, but in a good way. It forces us to work with people who are not members of the association but have a passion for birdwatching and this is a great membership drive in itself.

For the Asian Bird Fair, we have assembled a working committee made up of members and non-members, who volunteered their time, energy and knowledge towards this meaningful niche event. Also, this is the first international event for the association and it teaches us about the workings of a world-class event and how we can apply this to our own local events in the future.

What are the current challenges you face in organising this event, bearing in mind that ABF 2023 is the first major event organised by the association?
The biggest challenge for us – and for a lot of other associations running events I suppose – is finance and finding sponsors for ABF 2023. Although the event is partially supported financially by the Sabah Tourism Board, we still need to fund the entire event through registration fees and sponsorships.

As this is a niche event, our pool of potential sponsors is small and targeted towards tourism bodies, birdwatching gear and equipment brands. On a positive note, we do get great support from local stakeholders like hotels and tour agents, who give us good rates and benefits to offset some of our event costs.

How many delegates are you expecting and what can they expect from ABF 2023?
We are expecting about 300 exhibitors and conference delegates, and another 1,000 visitors who can visit the booths free of charge.

This year, delegates are in for a host of exciting activities even before the event begins as we have planned for pre-event activities. In the lead up to ABF 2023, there will be four online talks, titled “ABF Bird Talks”, which will be taking place monthly from this month (June). There will also be a bird photography competition that is open to bird photographers around the world.

At the event itself, there will be a trade and consumer exhibition, a two-day forum, children’s activities such as colouring contests and games, and a bird sketching workshop. The forum will discuss ecotourism, birds and children as the future generation in birding and bird photography.

This year’s ABF will be five days long. How does it benefit Sabah as a destination?
Sabah is an important birding destination in the region since birding first made its debut circa 2010.

However, just running birding tours and activities without having discourses on their sustainability and conservation will lead to its detriment. ABF 2023 is the first international birding fair and forum for Sabah, and what is significant about the forum is that it is where we will discuss issues, challenges, and current topics about birding.

Birding as a tourism and economic activity is vital but so is its importance to the bigger picture of environmental conservation, social well-being, and community development. The forum will be key in exchanging knowledge and sharing information among experts from around the world.

Having been held in various Asian countries in the past, staging this edition in Sabah will draw the attention of avid birders to Sabah, a destination some birdwatchers have never set foot on. It will also be a lifetime opportunity for these birdwatchers to increase their bird count in an exotic location with endemic birds not found anywhere else in the world. This will also open up opportunities for future birding tours and activities in Sabah.

What support is Sabah Tourism Board providing for this event?
Sabah Tourism Board is very supportive of ABF and encourages good event content by having a notable keynote speaker, an exciting cultural dinner, and a highly sought-after birding field trip for delegates. Through their support, the event can provide a memorable experience and provide high-quality content to all delegates and visitors.

Sabah Tourism Board is also helping to promote ABF 2023 through their marketing network and tradeshows they are participating in, and for this, we are very thankful as it helps reduce our marketing costs and encourage more sign-ups to our event.

It will also be a good opportunity to showcase Sabah’s diverse offerings to foreign delegates. What is being planned?
Apart from birding activities, which will of course be first on all delegates’ list, ABF aims to feature Sabah’s other offerings such as great food, captivating culture and an exhilarating rainforest experience. These are done through the various dinner events throughout the event and the pre- and post-tours.

Tell us more about your association and its activities.
SBWA was born due to the rise of the need to regulate birding ethics and management in terms of better education in ornithology. We are also looking into providing future birders with a better platform to pursue their interests, especially at the schooling level.

We aim to work with schools and create junior bird clubs where young birders will have us as mentors and guides, to encourage them in this hobby or vocation. These young birders could be our future birders, conservationists, and birding tour guides.

We will also be launching a series of Basic Birdwatching Seminars in Kota Kinabalu, this year. This will, hopefully, be a yearly affair and encourage new and amateur birdwatchers to be more involved in this outdoor pursuit. Along the way, we will also be organising birdwatching activities for children and special needs kids at the Sabah Wetlands.