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T.R. Hubback: From Hunter to the Father of Wildlife Conservation in Malaysia

Nestled in the heart of Malaysia lies the inaugural and oldest officially protected area in the country. Designated as a national park on June 23rd, 1939, it has consistently attracted adventurers and nature enthusiasts from across the globe. 85 years on, Taman Negara remains a haven for unparalleled biodiversity[1].

But behind the lush foliage and teeming wildlife lies a story of determination, passion, and one man’s unwavering vision: Theodore Rathbone Hubback, also known as T.R. Hubback.

Engineer Of Conservation

An enigmatic figure with a penchant for adventure, T.R. Hubback was born with a silver spoon, and was the son of the Lord Mayor of Liverpool[2]. His early years were marked by his love for cricket, and he once represented Malaya along with his brother in a test match in Hong Kong organised by the British Colony[2].

Source: britishmalaya

Initially, T.R. Hubback arrived in Malaya in 1895 to work as a civil engineer on the Malayan Railway Tracks in Selangor, joining his brother, Brigadier General Arthur Benison or A.B. Hubback, in the endeavour[2]. A.B. Hubback is renowned for his architectural contributions to Malaysia, including the design of enduring landmarks such as the Kuala Lumpur Train Station (now commonly known as The Kuala Lumpur KTM Komuter Station) and The Railway Administrative Building in Kuala Lumpur during The Massive Buildings Period[3].

In his later years, T.R. Hubback transitioned from his engineering career to become a plantation owner in Pahang, immersing himself in the then-nascent rubber industry of Malaya. Alongside this shift, he ventured into game hunting, a passion that would shape his legacy. 

Renowned for his expeditions and literary contributions on hunting, including “Elephant and Seladang Hunting in the Federated Malay States” (1905) and “Big-Game Shooting: with an article on the Tiger” (1924), Hubback’s writings earned recognition among fellow hunters. His mark on the field was indelible. Particularly noteworthy is the Malayan Gaur, the second-largest mammal in Malaysia, which bears his last name, “Bos gaurus hubbacki,” honouring his well-documented seladang expedition of 1899, which led to the discovery of a new subspecies of the mammal[2].

Source: Sinar Daily

In Malaya, as in other regions, big-game hunting gained popularity in the mid-19th century, reaching its peak over a century later. Initially viewed as a pursuit for the wealthy elite, hunting served various purposes, from collecting specimens for museums to eliminating problem animals threatening remote villages[4].

At the time, authorities recognised the need for regulation with the growing popularity of hunting. The establishment of the Game Department marked a significant step in issuing hunting licences and overseeing wildlife trade. 

By 1896, the first wildlife law was enacted, followed shortly by the establishment of the Chior Wildlife Reserve in Perak in 1903, becoming the first protected area in Malaya[4].

Lowering The Gun For A Good Cause

Following a trip to Alaska, where he immersed himself in the study of rare sheep breeds shortly after World War I, T.R. Hubback’s focus shifted from hunting to conservation efforts[5].  

Inspired by the legacy of the 26th president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, whom he shared his first name with, Hubback underwent a transformation reminiscent of Roosevelt himself. Despite Roosevelt’s reputation as an avid hunter, his writings often conveyed profound concern over the loss of species and habitats. 

Utilising his presidential authority in 1901, Roosevelt spearheaded conservation efforts in the US, founding the Forest Service (USFS) and overseeing the establishment of numerous national forests, bird reserves, game preserves, national parks, and national monuments[2].

Armed with determination and a deep-seated belief in the importance of preserving nature, Hubback returned to Malaya in 1920 with a newfound purpose starting from a remote village in Pahang[2].  

Source: britishmalaya

The regulation of wildlife hunting in Malaya during the era revolved around a system of hunting licences, guided by the principles of closed and open seasons. However, the issuance of licences, coupled with the liberal granting of hunting permits to planters under the pretext of “defence of property and person,” led to a notable decline in wildlife populations[2]

While certain governmental bodies recognised the looming threat of wildlife extinction, they lacked the authority to effect change. Instead, their primary focus lay in the collection of fauna specimens for preservation in museums[2].

Hubback saw this as an opportunity and tirelessly advocated for the enhancement of wildlife laws in the Federated Malay States in 1921[2]. The new legislation saw the appointment of State Game Wardens on a volunteer basis, with the notable exception of Johor, where Sultan Ibrahim, a passionate game hunter, wholeheartedly supported wildlife conservation efforts and appointed salaried game wardens. Subsequently, the scope of wildlife protection laws was expanded to encompass states outside the FMS, including Kelantan, Terengganu, and Johor[2].

With the support of the respective rulers, Hubback later established seven wildlife reserves in Perak, Pahang, Negeri Sembilan, and Johor between 1921 to 1937. In recognition of his expertise and dedication, he was appointed as the first Wildlife Commission Chief in 1930[4]

Within two years, Hubback’s extensive knowledge culminated in the publication of a comprehensive report advocating for the establishment of a centralised Game Department headquarters.

Confronting Conservation Challenges

However, Hubback’s vision for wildlife conservation faced formidable obstacles, including from plantation owners and bureaucratic indifferences. Undeterred, Hubback laid out his plans for the administration of the British Empire, pushing for proper legislation and a proper Game Department in 1925 [2]. His proposals were well-received in Britain with the approval of the Colonial Office, establishing a formal Federal Game Department[2].

Even so, his suggestions fell on deaf ears back in Malaya, as the officials were indifferent. Some states failed to allocate any funds towards game protection. His vision also faced strong opposition from vested interests, particularly from the Rubber Growers Associations (RGA), which opposed any measures that would restrict their ability to protect crops from wildlife incursions[2].

With the ongoing conflict between plantations and wildlife, Hubback proposed a national park. Among the seven wildlife reserves Hubback helped to establish, one of them was the 1,425 square kilometres area near Gunung Tahan in Pahang. Hubback proposed to extend the existing reserve to the headwaters of the Terengganu and Kelantan rivers, transforming it into a National Park. 

Despite initial resistance from the High Commissioner of Malaya, Hugh Clifford, who feared the closure of vital jungle roads, the tide turned when W.G.A. Ormsby-Gone, Britain’s Parliamentary Under-Secretary, visited in 1928. Clifford eventually relented, persuaded by Hubbacks’ argument that a national park would resolve wildlife conflicts[2]

However, the agreement came with conditions, wildlife conservation efforts outside the national parks were to be curtailed and wildlife protection laws were relaxed. Clifford, on the one hand, interpreted wildlife conservation as preserving species rather than protecting habitats, leading to the removal of protection for elephants and sambar deer outside the planned national parks, along with the abolition of most other wildlife sanctuaries at the time[2].

The economic depression of the time added further hurdles, as establishing a national park seemed counterproductive to an economy heavily reliant on agriculture. 

…whenever there is a clash between the interest of agriculture and the interest in wildlife preservation, the interest of agriculture should always be paramount. – The Straits Times, 27 May 1931[7].

However, proponents of the park emphasised its economic potential through tourism. Unlike in other countries where wildlife is recognised as a valuable resource, it was not similarly valued in Malaya at the time.

Why ignore that wildlife is one of the resources of the country? It is so recognised in North America, in South Africa, and many other countries. It is probably not recognized as such in China, Tibet or Siberia. Whom shall we follow? – Theodore Hubback, as quoted in “Civilizing Nature: National Parks in Global Historical Perspective[2]

The support Hubback needed to initiate the national park came from Sir Thomas Comyn-Platt of the Society for the Preservation of the Fauna of the Empire (SPFE), who endorsed the park’s potential after a boat ride down the Tembeling River, a tributary of Pahang River. 

In 1935, the Malayan rulers of Pahang, Kelantan and Terengganu agreed to name the park the King George V National Park, commemorating the monarch’s 25th Jubilee celebrations[2].  

After enduring numerous legal and administrative delays, the park was formally established in 1939, marking a significant milestone in the conservation efforts of Malaysia. Three years later after his vision was realised, T.R. Hubback passed away at the age of 72[6].

Enduring Sanctuary For Biodiversity

Hubback’s persistence played a pivotal role in the establishment of the King George V National Park, but it also led to his undoing. His reputation as a “tactless wildlife fanatic” eventually resulted in Hubback being terminated as Malaya’s Honorary Adviser for wildlife. Some believed that Hubback’s unwillingness to compromise hindered efforts to strike a balance between agriculture and wildlife protection[2].

Despite this, Hubback’s legacy is clear as day. He led a transformation in wildlife conservation, shifting the focus from hunting to preservation and advocating for the capture of wildlife on camera rather than killing them for trophies. In addition, Hubback was agreeable to the indigenous Batek tribe to maintain their nomadic lifestyles provided that no hunting will take place within the protected area. 

Hubback’s efforts laid the groundwork for Malaysia’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Jabatan Perhilitan) and the development of more robust wildlife protection legislation[2].

In many ways, Hubback was a visionary ahead of his time who had a huge influence on wildlife conservation in Peninsular Malaysia, probably more than any other figure in history. One of the main outcomes of Hubback’s tireless efforts was to empower the Federal Government to actively manage protected areas and wildlife, both of which were exclusively under State jurisdiction. – Excerpt from “The legacy of Theodore Hubback : father of wildlife conservation in Malaya”, authored by Sivananthan Elagupillay, Dylan Jefri Ong and Surin Suksuwan [8]

Following periods of neglect during the Japanese occupation and the struggle for independence, the park experienced a revival after Malaya gained independence in 1957. Renamed Taman Negara, it shed its colonial associations to become a national symbol of the newly independent nation[2]

The National Park spanned across three states: Pahang, Kelantan and Terengganu.  The largest of the three is in Pahang, covering an area of 2,477 square kilometres (57%), followed by Taman Negara Kelantan at 1,043 square kilometres (24%), and Taman Negara Terengganu at 853 square kilometres (19%) [9].

In fact as a National Park, it is today the dream of a great man – (The late) Theodore Hubback who first persuaded the Government to set aside…. with all its wealth of vegetation, and wildlife … and to make it accessible to any inhabitants of this country who care to go and see it – E. O. Sheabbeare, former Chief Game Warden [10]

Today, it remains home to 479 bird species, 3,000 species of flowering plants and over 150 species of wild mammals that roam freely, from the majestic gaurs and elusive tigers to the gentle giants, the Malayan tapir [7]. Additionally, Taman Negara lies within the ancestral territory of various Orang Asli groups, with the Batek people notably present on the outskirts of the park. Furthermore, the legislation governing the park acknowledges the customary rights of six Orang Asli tribes, namely the Ple, Temiar, Ple-Temiar, Senoi, Semang, and Pangan, within Taman Negara.

Source: Taman Negara

With an estimated age of 130 million years, Taman Negara stands as a testament to the ancient natural heritage of Malaysia. Indeed, Hubback’s belief in the value of wildlife conservation has been supported by the rise of wildlife tourism in recent years. Thanks to T.R. Hubback’s persistence in ensuring its preservation, pristine wilderness throughout the nation has a fighting chance at enduring for generations to come, as today Malaysia has 25 Taman Negara (both terrestrial and state) boasting their individual charms. 

Explore our sources:

  1. Jamaluddin, M.H. (2014). 75 years of natural splendour. New Straits Times. Link 
  3. Free Malaysia Today. (2021). How Brig-Gen Arthur Hubback left his mark on the country.  Link 
  4. Teh, A. (2019). Tracing the origins of wildlife conservation in this country. New Straits Times. Link 
  5. The (2019). Who Are The Hubback Brothers. Link 
  6. Fama, P. (2013). What you should know about Taman Negara. Yahoo News. Link 
  7. UNESCO. (n.d.). National Park (Taman Negara) of Peninsular Malaysia.  Link 
  8. The Straits Times. 21 January 1931. Page 11.The Federal Council: Chief Secretary and Wildlife Inquiry.
  9. Elagupillay, S., Ong, D.J., and Suksuwan, S. (2019).The legacy of Theodore Hubback : father of wildlife conservation in Malaya. Malayan Nature Journal , Special Edition 2019
  10. Sunday Tribune Singapore. 23 March 1947. Page 2. Charms of Malaya’s National Park.

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