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Jumbo: In the footsteps of Borneo's mega celebrity
Published on: Sunday, August 06, 2017

NURZHAFARINA Othman has made elephants her business, and she sees them in a very different light compared to the average tourist.

Farina, as she is known to her colleagues, is an elephant specialist, and her PhD research has taken her across Borneo on the trail of the island's grandest spectacle.

Her work defending habitat zones and proposing protected wildlife corridors had helped shaped the rainforest around us.


Among all the animals on the planet, Elephants are mega-celebrities. For the scientists at the Danau Girang Field Centre (DGFC) they are a daily wonder – and an occasional threat. Ultimately, though, their importance and popularity paves the way for much of DGFC's other work.

"Being a flagship species helps a lot in conservation", says Farina. "If we manage to protect more lands, more habitats for the elephants, that means other animals that live there could also benefit."

Danau Girang lies at the heart of the Lower Kinabatangan floodplain. For its founder, Belgian naturalist Benoit Goosens, the field centre is "an ideal, unique natural laboratory".

Borneo has been Benoit's lab for nearly 20 years; the island's extraordinary biodiversity, and the geography of the Kinabatangan, makes it the perfect place for Benoit and his team "to evaluate the impacts of anthropogenic habitat fragmentation on wildlife populations and to actively develop riparian corridor establishment guidelines".

Benoit slips comfortably into the language of scientists that the Borneo Jungle Diaries team has slowly gotten used to. But this is a piece of jargon too far for us.

Benoit explains; anthropogenic habitat fragmentation is the technical term for human expansion and industrialisation into natural wilderness. Riparian corridors are passages of protected land around rivers, that allow animals to move safely between territories. Ultimately, these are the core issues at the heart of DGFC's mission to further conservation efforts across Borneo.

Habitat Hazards "Landscape fragmentation is one of the major issues that wildlife populations are facing," Benoit said.

"The process of breaking up existing habitat into disconnected pieces automatically involves a reduction in the habitat area."

Fragmentation increases isolation; by dividing animal populations, biodiversity is diminished, placing some species under serious pressure.

"Furthermore, many species need a minimum amount of territory, or a habitat patch, in order to find enough food and resources to survive. By fragmenting a large habitat, larger species are swiftly eliminated, as they cannot roam far enough to support their diets.

"This can disrupt the entire ecosystem. Finally, as habitats are split, the negative edge effect – the area where two land types such as forest and farm meet – increases. These areas are often unusable for animal or human activity, can be hazardous for both."

The biggest industry in Borneo is palm oil – it is also one of the most destructive causes of habitat fragmentation.


However, Farina is quick to point out its importance.

"We expect locals to understand why they need to live in harmony with the wildlife as if we are saying it is their responsibility to protect the elephants – while we, outsiders and tourists, including me – we live in the city, and don't really do much to support them," she said.

"Local people also need to earn something, and to do something, and the quickest and longest-term solution, for example, is palm oil."

How then to balance the needs of humans and elephants? While it is tempting to side with elephants, Farina isn't so clear cut.

"We need to understand why local people sometimes treat wildlife as a pest."

Without support and a chance to communicate their own problems, "their tolerance to the wildlife will go down and down". Action is needed on both a personal and government level.

"The first thing is to think about how we use palm oil. Do we use sustainable palm oil?"

The second is to encourage ecotourism, using homestay schemes rather than restricting the tourist economy to hotels and wildlife centres. The final strand is governmental; "So far", ponders Farina, "there is no initiative or policies to help smallholders recover from the losses" from when elephants damage their crops.

Whilst elephant conservation is funded by a mix of government spending and global philanthropy, locals are forced to absorb the damage done by elephants trampling onto their smallholdings.

"Local people also need to earn something," Farina said. "We expect locals to understand why they need to live in harmony with the wildlife as if we are saying it is their responsibility to protect the elephants – while we, outsiders and tourists, including me – we live in the city, and don't really do much to support them".

What Borneo really needs, Farina believes, "is communication between all the stakeholders".

Local communities need to think carefully about who they choose to lead them; to "voice their problems, who could bring local knowledge to the upper levels".


Meanwhile, those who live away from conservation areas, the city-dwellers and tourists of the world, have their own responsibilities to live in a way that is not wasteful or damaging to the world beyond their doorstep.

"The burden is not only on the shoulders of the local community", Farina says firmly.

Can large wild animals like Elephants ever live in peace alongside humans? "Absolutely!" exclaims Benoit.

"I believe that people and elephants can live in harmony. We just need to allocate enough space for the pachyderms". Eco-tourism and sustainable palm farming methods can go hand in hand with protected wildlife corridors to benefit everyone. "Well managed, the benefits would be enormous."

For Farina, who has always called Malaysia home, it's a matter of faith. "Every living has their role that shapes our culture, our ecosystem," she said. "We need to be the model to the world that while we develop our country, we still have our wildlife in the forest that we have protected.

"I have faith in the younger generations. I am sure if we are given the opportunities we could make some positive changes to our environment." And with that, she was off, back to her research, doing her part to shape her culture and ecosystem, for the good of us all.

Borneo Jungle Diaries is produced by SZtv and follows environmental photojournalist, Aaron 'Bertie' Gekoski as he investigates life behind-the-scenes at the Danau Girang Field Centre.

All episodes have Bahasa Malaysia subtitles and be released on SZtv's website, YouTube and Facebook.

What's more, viewers are encouraged to take part in the competition that is being held;

All you have to do is answer five questions from the episode correctly each week to win a 4-day / 3-night stay the Danau Girang Field Centre. There will also be a grand prize at the end of the 10-series Borneo Jungle Diaries for those who get all questions correct across all quizzes.

For more information, check out Borneo Jungle Diaries on SZtv.

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