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Our female conservationists
Published on: Saturday, March 11, 2017

MANY women are joining the likes of the founding mothers of primatology trained by anthropologist Louis Leakey to study the great apes: Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Biruté Galdikas studied chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans respectively.

These bold women made amazing discoveries that forever changed our perception towards these primates.

Their careers were not without obstacles. Fossey was forced out of her research area during Congo’s civil war, while Galdikas worked with traumatised orphaned Orangutans in Indonesia. Young Goodall was only allowed to travel to her study site in Tanzania if she was accompanied by her mother.

Today’s women are into different areas of wildlife endeavour. One of them is Joannie Jomitol, WWF-Malaysia’s Kudat Team Leader for its Marine Programme.

“I always take it as a challenge, as in: Oh you think I can’t do this? I’ll show you that I can,” she said.

This Sabahan is a familiar figure in Kudat, where she works closely with the coastal communities.

One of the biggest challenges that she faces is community engagement takes time to bear results.

“Building relationships and initiating change is a long-term game. Sometimes it takes more than a generation to change a community’s mindset,” she shared.

“Some communities also have the ‘What’s in it for me?’ mentality but you can’t show the conservation benefits immediately. For example, if they stop fish-bombing, the fish stock won’t replenish overnight.

Nature needs time to heal.”

One of the prevailing mindsets in communities is that men should lead the discussions, which her colleague Umi A’Zuhrah Abdul Rahman can attest to. As WWF-Malaysia’s Senior Community Engagement and Education Officer for its Peninsular Malaysia Terrestrial Conservation Programme, she works closely with Orang Asli communities.

“I usually bring along a male colleague for meetings until I become a familiar face and the communities are comfortable working with me directly,” Umi said.

As a female who travels to field sites with male colleagues, Umi observed that they have an easier time camping in the forest. “They can relieve themselves anywhere they want to!” she said, laughing.

“Every time nature calls, I have to make sure I am strategically covered by bushes.”

Umi’s biggest challenge is not privacy but conducting social surveys in 19 Orang Asli villages in the sweltering heat of 2015’s Ramadhan period.

With only one boat and one four-wheel-drive vehicle available, she had to shuttle a team of 13 to the villages daily for a month. Some developed a mild fever due to the heat and the long hours.

To make matters worse, a wild elephant was spotted close to their base camp.

Luckily, an Orang Asli village nearby alerted them so they managed to build fires and made loud noises to scare it off.

“That harrowing experience really drove home the importance of working together with communities to reduce Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC),” Umi reminisced.

“Furthermore, these villages are far from towns; they can’t get authorities to help on time whenever an elephant appears. So it’s important that we build their understanding and knowledge on HEC so they can handle it effectively.”

Besides working with communities to reduce HEC, WWF-Malaysia also engages businesses such as palm oil plantations in Sabah, where Borneo elephants have been known to roam due to their shrinking forest habitat.

The work is undertaken by Sabah Terrestrial Conservation Programme, currently led by its Deputy Manager and Interim Programme Leader, Julia Ng.

Like her colleague Umi, Julia also ventures into isolated areas from time to time.

“My parents are used to it by now. It makes the time we get to spend together much more special,” she said.

Initially, Julia’s parents were not so supportive of her animal-loving ways. As a young girl living in Kuala Lumpur, she would constantly beg them for extra pocket money to buy food for stray puppies that she rescued.

As an adult, that tenacity has helped her communicate convincing proposals to donors and conservation partners, aided by technical input from her 30-strong team.

“Sometimes I wish I was a man so I could hike faster in the forest and carry heavier loads,” Julia said, chuckling, “but women are better at communications, multi-tasking, and empathy. These are much-needed skills for effective conservation in Malaysia.”

As a young female leader in a field dominated by men, Julia has faced interesting opposition from men who do not take her inputs seriously. She said it’s not an isolated issue.

“I am proud to lead a team of mostly female officers who are brave, intelligent and committed to the cause,” she said. “They don’t have it easy. In fact, they have to work harder to prove their worth to sceptical outsiders.”

Sexism is not the biggest challenge in Julia’s career. Instead, she recognises that it is hard to balance between conservation and economic development.

“If we conserve forests, we guarantee our supply of clean air and water. We can’t see the air that we breathe, and the water we use usually comes from pipes, so a lot of people can’t make the connection between fresh air and water with healthy forests,” Julia explained.

“But if you talk about bulldozing forests to make way for roads and development, a lot of people will say it’s a good thing as the roads will link remote places with towns, schools, clinics and therefore improve the well-being of the people”.

Julia believes that conservationists need to read extensively on current issues and try to understand where the other side is coming from.

“It’s important that we also look at the other side of the coin,” she said, adding, “we must remain objective and present the right facts when negotiating with stakeholders.”

What does it take to raise a girl to become a conservationist? For Joannie, encouraging perseverance is a must.

“My family used to suggest that I quit and become a teacher instead because they assumed that working for an NGO is not a financially stable position. But over time they saw how passionate I am about my work, so in the end the suggestions stopped,” she said.

Umi advises aspiring female conservationists to share their passion with like-minded people.

“Since high school, I’ve been interested in people and culture. When I started working in WWF-Malaysia, my senior colleagues opened my eyes on the importance of getting community support for our conservation efforts.”

“We need more women leading conservation in Malaysia,” said Julia. “We need our girls to grow into bold young women who are capable of driving change, so our society needs to start seeing them as potential leaders and groom them as such.”

Julia’s parting words certainly resonate with the campaign theme of this year’s International Women’s Day celebration, which is “Be Bold for Change”.

Celebrated annually on March 8, this global day celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. It also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity. For more information, please visit www.internationalwomensday.com.

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