Meet the lady with a Jumbo mission


  • Animals
  • Tuesday, 09 Aug 2016

Cheryl Cheah (in green, holding trunk) with a team doing elephant collaring in Sabah. Photo: Laura Benedict

World Elephant Day is on Aug 12. If you’ve ever dreamed of doing the stuff you see in National Geographic, let me share my own journey with you.

I studied biology for my first degree. Then, I was supposed to work on Malayan sun bears genetics for my postgraduate degree.

One day, I attended a presentation by Wong Siew Te from the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation centre at my faculty. He spoke about radio-collaring sun bears in Sabah to study their basic ecology, such as their feeding habits and activity patterns. I was hooked to his presentation as I did not know that such research was being done in Malaysia.

I remember watching this type of research in National Geographic documentaries and thought it was only conducted in Western countries. I was that ignorant!

After that eye-opening presentation, I spoke to Wong. There and then, I decided that sun bear ecology was what I wanted to pursue!

How did I make the leap from studying Malayan sun bears to Borneo elephants? Well, after I graduated with a PhD in sun bear ecology, it was time to carve a new adventure for myself.

Luckily for me, WWF-Malaysia had an opening for a programme officer in elephant conservation, which involves a lot of collaring work. Since I already had collaring experience, I decided to try my luck and was hired in June 2014.

Cheryl Cheah is dedicated to saving elephants in Sabah. Here, she is tracking the satellite collars on them using a VHF receiver and antenna. Photo: WWF-M/Mazidi Ghani
Cheah is dedicated to saving elephants in Sabah. Here, she is tracking the satellite collars on them using a VHF receiver and antenna. Photo: WWF-M/Mazidi Ghani

Tempting meals

The Borneo elephant is smaller than the Asian elephant, but it still needs considerable room in the forest to thrive. It is estimated that there are less than 1,500 Borneo elephants left in the world, and almost all of them are found in Sabah. Loss of habitat due to land conversion for commercial use has shrunk the elephant’s range considerably and has resulted in elephants coming into close contact with humans.

Imagine if someone placed a fragrant, steaming plate of nasi lemak near you – wouldn’t you be tempted to eat it? Similarly, when there’s edible stuff next to forests, especially young palms, it’s a very tempting meal for elephants.

Out of sheer frustration, some may resort to extraordinary tactics to keep elephants away from their plantations. Sadly, these steps may end up with both the elephants and humans getting injured or killed. This situation is what conservationists refer to as human-elephant conflict or HEC, something that we all need to solve.

At WWF-Malaysia, I focus on reducing HEC as it is one of the main threats to Borneo elephants in Sabah. This involves a lot of engagement with plantation companies and government agencies to develop joint steps to reduce HEC.

I currently supervise six staff and dedicate almost 30% of my time to doing fieldwork. The rest is spent doing what seems like mundane, but important, work such as writing reports, analysing data and yes, attending many meetings.

What I love the most about my job is the fieldwork; that’s where all the fun and adventure is! To be able to observe elephants busily foraging, oblivious to my presence – even if it’s from a distance – is truly magical.

A Sabah Wildlife Department ranger trying to cool down an orphaned elephant calf soon after its rescue. Several baby elephants were found wandering alone in February, indicating that their mothers had died.
A Sabah Wildlife Department ranger trying to cool down an orphaned elephant calf soon after its rescue. Several baby elephants were found wandering alone in February, indicating that their mothers had died.

Gentle giants

Catching just a glimpse of these gentle giants, observing how they “talk” to each other and how they interact with nature is a humbling experience. It makes all our hard work to protect them and their habitat worthwhile.

Our fieldwork comprises:

• Satellite-collaring elephants to know their movements. We share this information with the Sabah government to advocate the protection of key elephant habitats, and with plantations in HEC-prone areas to help them better understand elephant behaviour.

• Estimating the density of elephants from dung decay work (my colleagues like to joke that I have a “shitty” job!).

• Conducting conflict surveys with plantation companies every three months.

Animals need safe passages to other parts of the jungle when their habitat is encroached. The biggest challenge in my line of work is to continue convincing the plantation people to set aside a bit of land for “wildlife corridors” for elephants. This is because the corridors would result in some loss of revenue.

Therefore, we need to continue to engage and convince them that this initiative is for the plantation companies own long-term benefit, and also to change the misguided perception of elephants as “pests”.

The truth is that the elephants are part and parcel of the landscape where these companies have established their plantations. These giants will continue to be there in the years to come.

So let’s work together for the benefit of everyone, and every creature, involved.

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