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The man with 2,000 plants in his backyard

Suzairi Zakaria started out taking pictures of nature but eventually found himself running a full-blown conservatory in his house compound.

Ahmad Mustakim Zulkifli
3 minute read
Suzairi Zakaria tends to some of his plants which include several species which he managed to save from logging activities in the state.
Suzairi Zakaria tends to some of his plants which include several species which he managed to save from logging activities in the state.

For 13 years now, Suzairi Zakaria has been photographing the Orang Asli and the lush forest landscapes in Terengganu and Kelantan.

A Terengganu native himself, he works as a freelance photographer so that he can focus on his pet project of documenting the Orang Asli community.

Several years ago, he went to the Setiu wetlands in Terengganu to capture the landscape and greenery there. When he thought of returning for another photoshoot, though, he discovered that the landscape had utterly changed due to development for agricultural and residential purposes.

It was then that Suzairi, also known as Dome, resolved to begin doing what he could to save nature.

Little by little, he collected cuttings of plants under threat from development and exploration.

Suzairi pauses to check on some fruits growing wild in the forest area.

“I went to areas where logging activities were underway, especially in Kenyir,” he said.

“When I first started out, a friend from the state forestry department also took me to collect orchid species.”

His collection ranges from endangered plants to those which are in no danger of dying out just yet. But even these will one day face extinction if nothing is done to protect them.

Suzairi’s interest in collecting plant clippings eventually led him to the discovery of new species including orchids, pitcher plants and fungus-like flora.

One of the newly discovered orchid species, Dendrobium mizanii, was named after the sultan of Terengganu, Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin.

Suzairi is a familiar face among the Orang Asli community in Kelantan.

Others are given names that are a variation of his own nickname, Dome – the Nepenthes domei pitcher plant, for instance, and the Thismia domei, a fungus-like plant from the Thismiacae family.

There is even an orchid species in Guatemala named after him by researchers in the Central American country who follow his activities on social media.

He has also named a species of the Thismiaci family after his mother – Thismia setimeriamae.

“I work with institutes like the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM) and Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) to study and register new species,” he said.

“The discoveries are then confirmed by international researchers.”

A pitcher plant, one of several species at risk due to logging activities in forest areas.

Specimens of the new species are then sent to the herbariums of the UPM, FRIM and Mardi research centres to be placed on record.

Suzairi’s exploits take him far and wide. He often crosses paths with elephants, and once he came across the tracks of a tiger.

Working alone and without external funds, Suzairi has collected over 2,000 plant species which he keeps in his backyard, 200 of which are orchids.

“I use my own money,” he said, estimating thousands in costs for the metal frames, pots and organic fertiliser he uses.

Suzairi crouches to examine a dead plant on the forest floor.

The biggest challenge for him is ensuring that plants from the wild can thrive in a domestic environment.

Part of what makes this tricky is the difference in temperature.

“In the wild, pitcher plants can grow to the size of a 1.5 litre mineral water bottle, but here, they are quite small,” he said.

He hopes to one day hand over his collection of plants to a conservation centre – but no such thing is yet available in Malaysia.

Still, he continues to collect plants in order to preserve them, even if for now, the only conservatory in sight is his own backyard.