Lasting legacy of Diana — Elephant conservationist shares on loss and friendships forged

“SHE’S dead,” she says simply before lapsing into silence, eyes glistening. It’s been a tough week for Dr Nurzhafarina Othman. The elephant specialist had just received news that her elephant, whom she’d been observing for over a year, had been found dead in a plantation in Kinabatangan, presumably of suspected poisoning. It’s the same elephant she named “Diana” in honour of her friend, Dr Diana Angeles Ramirez Salvidar, who passed away suddenly two years ago.

“How do you cope with this sense of loss… again?” she asks bleakly.

There’s no easy way to comprehend grief. Death reveals the fault-lines in those who are left behind, even the deepest, most hidden ones. If you know about loss, you know about family and friends, and about love, survival, resilience and strength. If you know about loss, you know about life. In trying to preserve life, Farina (as she’s fondly known) has become well acquainted with the tragedy of death.

Lasting legacy of Diana — Elephant conservationist shares on loss and friendships forged

She’s never forgotten Ramirez. 

Memories of their time together remain fresh in her mind. Just before we spoke via a Zoom call on that rainy Friday night, Farina sent me a poignant note she wrote about her late friend. Back in 2013, Farina and Ramirez, a veterinarian from the Wildlife Rescue Unit (WRU) led a team of wildlife rangers to fix satellite collars on five elephants over a span of five days.

 Farina and Diana Ramirez with a juvenile elephant they found dead during the collaring program in 2013.
Farina and Diana Ramirez with a juvenile elephant they found dead during the collaring program in 2013.

Satellite collars are a tried-and-tested tool for wildlife monitoring that allow scientists to monitor, in real time, when and where individual animals are moving across the landscape. That information is used to chart their vast habitat, which not only helps researchers identify and manage essential wildlife corridors, but also informs landscape-level conservation efforts and land-use policies — especially when development pressure is high in areas that are critical for elephants. 

And though the collaring process is both labour-intensive and expensive, the effort is worth the payoff. By revealing whether an elephant is active, stationary, or injured, the collars enable rangers to respond more quickly and effectively to poaching incidents and human-elephant conflicts.

“We were ecstatic. Collaring five elephants was a personal record for me and we were bragging about this endlessly!” she wrote, adding: “Sadly, she’s gone now without having said a final goodbye.”

A year later, Diana the elephant came along.

Last June, Farina led another collaring team into the wilds of Kinabatangan in search of a lactating female elephant as mothers are usually more sensitive to the changes in the environment. After hours of tracking elephants in the humid morning, the team found the animal they’d been seeking — a 1.63-metre tall matriarch with a 2-year-old female calf. The collaring process was well-rehearsed, and everyone knew their role.

A veterinarian prepared the anaesthetic used to immobilise the elephant. The potent drug, once injected, would take effect within 15 minutes. With a sudden whoosh, a tranquiliser dart was fired at the female elephant. The dose was enough to put down a 2two-tonne elephant but the mother wasn’t giving up so easily.

Urged on by her calf, the tranquilised elephant fought sedation and kept on moving. “We grew impatient and a bit worried. We couldn’t sedate her any more than the required dose. But despite feeling drowsy, she fought back!” recounts Farina, shaking her head bemusedly. 

 The jubilant team after collaring Diana (in the background).
The jubilant team after collaring Diana (in the background).

They finally resorted to tying the hind leg of the older elephant to keep her from moving. But the incensed calf had other ideas. She continued to fight back spiritedly, trying to pull away at the rope and butting the people who were trying to collar her mother.

“They were so feisty,” she recalls wistfully, adding: “They reminded me of my late friend Diana. She fought many battles for the well-being of wildlife and captive animals in Sabah. I knew immediately that I would call the collared mother, ‘Diana’ in honour of her.”

PLIGHT OF ELEPHANTS

 Elephants have used ancient migratory routes ingrained in their memories for thousands of years.
Elephants have used ancient migratory routes ingrained in their memories for thousands of years.

For as long as the elephants like Diana could remember — and that’s a long time — they were free to roam through jungle so dense and vast that a troop of pachyderms could simply vanish within its shadow.

The largest of all land beasts, elephants are thundering, trumpeting monuments to the wonder of evolution. From the tip of that distinctive trunk with its 100,000 dextrous muscles; to their outsized ears that flap the heat away; to the complex matriarchal societies and the mourning of their dead; these lumbering creatures used to roam freely in wide expanses of wilderness across the globe. Yet today, these great nomads are restricted to ever-decreasing pockets of land.

These are sad and perilous days for the world’s largest land animal. Once elephants roamed the Earth like waterless whales, plying ancient migratory routes ingrained in their prodigious memories. Now they’ve been backed into increasingly fragmented territories. 

In Sabah, Bornean elephants like Diana number amongst 1,000 to 1,600 individuals, with the largest population found in the Lower Kinabatangan plains. The smallest of Asian elephants, the Bornean elephant is classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as endangered. 

In the past four decades, Sabah has lost approximately 60 per cent of its elephant habitat to cultivation, logging and plantations. 

 Shrinking forested landscapes have resulted in elephants entering into cultivated areas like oil palm plantations.
Shrinking forested landscapes have resulted in elephants entering into cultivated areas like oil palm plantations.

Elephants are now forced to spend a majority of their time in these cultivated areas or move through them in order to get to fragmented forest patches. With more forests being cut down to make way for agribusiness, the elephants’ shrinking habitats bring them closer to human settlements, increasing the instances of elephant visitations to those regions and conflicts.

Roads and highways cut up their habitat, making long-range movement more and more challenging. They’re electrocuted by illegal fences and low-hanging wires. On top of these accidental hardships, they’re deliberately injured or slaughtered in retaliation for damage to crops and property. In 2013, 10 Bornean elephants were found dead in a Sabah reserve, with officials saying they may have been poisoned.

“Elephants simply cannot live within the small fenced-off areas that we call the ‘protected area network,'” asserts Farina. Globally, around 20 per cent of their range is formally protected. “Their future hinges on their ability,” she explains, “to continue to share space with people — to be tolerated by individuals and communities.”

Most of us want to save wildlife, she points out, adding: “…but we have less and less space to do so, and our growth and ever-increasing consumption inevitably put us into contact with wild animals. The concept of ‘human-wildlife conflict’ is becoming central to conservation work.”

Elephant presence in human settlements and plantations can create damages as well as the ensuing resentment from the plantation owners. Farina is currently engaging with several oil palm estates and villages to find long-term solutions for people and elephant co-existence.

 Bornean elephants just like their counterparts all over the world, face habitat loss that threaten their existence.
Bornean elephants just like their counterparts all over the world, face habitat loss that threaten their existence.

She admits there’s no quick fix to halting elephant visitations; however, education, fencing, compensation for damage, and simple tolerance could go a long way in carving out a space for Malaysia’s elephants in a human world. However, they’d also need to understand elephant behaviour and their movements in order to develop strategies and early warning systems to reduce potential conflicts.

This is where elephants like Diana could help provide vital insight into understanding elephant movement in Lower Kinabatangan, especially when they venture outside protected areas. 

“We found that they have little choice when moving from one isolated patch of protected forest to another. They had to go through private lands, villages and oil palm plantations,” she says sombrely.

DIANA’S JOURNEY

 Diana with her herd.
Diana with her herd.

It’s hard to talk about Diana. The sadness is palpable but Farina is determined to give this female matriarch a voice. “We’d been observing Diana for a while,” she begins, softly.

Since the elephant was collared, Diana was usually safely ensconced within the forested area because she’s especially protective of her young. Mothers, like Diana, would normally avoid disturbed areas as the safety of the calf is especially important to her.

On the days leading to Diana’s death, she was observed to have crossed several small tributaries before moving downriver towards a village. When she spent a bit of time loitering in a forested area near the village, Farina wasn’t too worried as it was safer for Diana to remain there as the area is much quieter than other parts of Kinabatangan.

When she started heading towards the plantations, Farina began to feel a little bit excited and worried. “I was excited because none of the collared elephants had ever reached that part of Kinabatangan. This information strengthened our knowledge about elephant movement strategy in Kinabatangan,” she says. 

It was worrying, however, because the area she was at was located far from their field station. “It was a little hard for us to monitor her as our field work had halted due to the current pandemic,” she admits.

 Diana and her female calf.
Diana and her female calf.

The elephant and her calf were lingering around the same area, which was quite close to a human settlement. It was unusual behaviour, and the researchers were worried but hoping for the best. 

To have any hope of managing human-elephant interactions, she explains, we need to understand what makes elephants tick. Through the year, a herd of elephants may move over a very large area in search of food and water — sometimes more than 1,000 square kilometres. (There may also be a “cultural” element to these journeys, with generation after generation used to making them.) 

The “home ranges” are invariably larger than the protected area in which elephants are supposed to live, and the movement between protected areas makes interactions with people almost inevitable.

 Diana was found dead in late November.
Diana was found dead in late November.

On November 22, Farina received news that every elephant conservationist wouldn’t want to hear. Three plantation workers had stumbled upon the carcass of the 20-year-old elephant around 5.20pm. The elephant was believed to have died less than 24 hours before it was found, as the carcass hadn’t rotted and there was no stench yet. Her calf was nowhere to be found.

She was devastated. “I remember having questions running through my mind the whole day. What if I’d acted faster? What if I’d decided to monitor her the day she died? Would she be alive now?” she asks, crestfallen. “I felt I was losing a friend all over again.”

FARINA’S JOURNEY

 Elephant conservationist, Dr. Nurzhafarina Othman.
Elephant conservationist, Dr. Nurzhafarina Othman.

Farina’s love for elephants is the consuming passion of her life these days. But it was never the case, growing up. “Conservation was never on my radar when it came to a career. What more, elephants!” she declares, a glimmer of a smile appearing on her face. 

“I often wondered why I didn’t have an ambition growing up. I wasn’t particularly passionate about anything that I thought I’d spend my adult years pursuing,” she confesses. 

When she received her admission letter, she had little idea what the course offered to her would entail. Back in 2003, conservation biology was a degree rarely heard of. “I didn’t even know what conservation meant!” she admits chuckling. “My father and I were looking at each other after reading my offer letter detailing that I was offered a course on Pemuliharaan Biologi (Conservation Biology) by Universiti Malaysia Sabah. We were asking each other: ‘Apa ni Pemuliharaan Biologi? (What’s Conservation Biology?)'”.

Her parents were reluctant to send her packing to far-off Sabah, but she was determined to leave. “I’d never get this opportunity again to travel to Sabah,” she told her mother. 

 Monitoring elephants.
Monitoring elephants.

It was the first time she’d be out of her small town of Sarang Semut, Kedah, and the intrepid youth was keen on spreading her wings. “Let me go!” she urged her parents, promising that she’d be back after completing her degree. “Tapi tak pernah balik lepas tu! (But I never returned after that!)” she admits sheepishly, chuckling again.

The course opened her eyes to the field of conservation. “I found that I finally fitted in somewhere. I was happy,” she says, smiling. Elephants were the subject of her final year project, she shares. 

“It was the first time I was introduced to Bornean elephants,” Farina adds. Little did she know back then that this project would unlock her passion for these pachyderms, which in turn would eventually lead to a career involving these creatures.

Barely after completing her final year project, she was offered by her supervisor to pursue her Masters degree focusing on elephant genetics. “I wasn’t really confident but I grabbed it anyway. Again, the driving factor was the fact that I could travel overseas!” she tells me blithely. “How could I refuse that?”

 Tracking elephants in the wilds of Kinabatangan.
Tracking elephants in the wilds of Kinabatangan.

In 2006, she was finally introduced to the wild elephants in Kinabatangan. The Masters student was only 22. “I was seeing wild elephants for the first time in their habitat. It was a surreal experience,” she recalls.

The experience left an indelible mark. Shares Farina: “We heard a loud boom ringing from a cannon at a plantation nearby. That warning sound, aimed to prevent the herd from entering the plantation, both agitated and frightened the animals.”

Her compassion was awakened. “These far-ranging animals were trapped within the narrow confines of the forest and they had nowhere to go. Surrounding this forest patch were plantations,” she recalls grimly. From that moment, she knew she had to do something. 

“I’m Malaysian and should be seen to be doing something tangible to protect our natural heritage. And these creatures were every bit Malaysian as I am. Conservation isn’t a monopoly of one particular race or tribe,” she says. “Conservation is part of all of us. Yet for decades, looking after the environment has been seen as a ‘white man’s job’.”

 Farina can't imagine a world without elephants.
Farina can’t imagine a world without elephants.

Her heart set on elephant conservation, Farina went on to complete her PhD in ‘Movement Ecology Behaviour of Bornean Elephants of Lower Kinabatangan’ and the rest, as they say, is history. An elephant expert was birthed.

In 2018, Farina founded Seratu Aatai, which means Bersatu Hati (united) in Orang Sungai lingo. Orang Sungai is the tribe that lives in Kinabatangan, and Farina was determined to engage the local tribes and communities to join in the efforts of protecting elephants.

Seratu Aatai aims to promote co-existence between people and elephants through research and education in Sabah. With elephant ranges expanding and human populations growing and requiring more land for agriculture every year, she says that finding effective ways to deal with human-elephant conflict has never been more important.

She pauses, before continuing: “I hate to use the word ‘conflict’ as it implies an active antagonism between the two species, and that’s simply not the case. I prefer using the term ‘elephant visitations’.”

There’s been a sliver of hope so far with planters and communities wanting to equip themselves with knowledge on elephant behaviour and some plantations willing to provide safe corridors for wildlife to pass through. 

“We really don’t need to choose between development and environmental protection. We can try our very best to do both. Strengthen our agribusinesses as well as protecting our flora and fauna,” she asserts.

The journey is far from over and she confides there’s still much to be done. The quest to find a universal “solution” to the inherent issues that come from human-elephant interactions continues, but the real answer, she admits, may be to accept that there’s no universal solution. Each may work in one place, and fail in another, or work for some time, then fail at a later date.

 Satellite collars are a tried-and-tested tool for wildlife monitoring.
Satellite collars are a tried-and-tested tool for wildlife monitoring.

The tenuous relationship between people and elephants will continue, with both sides constantly learning and innovating. It’s a relationship that will be defined by improvisation by both humans and elephants. 

We need thousands of different solutions all over the world, continuously changing and evolving. Until then, conflicts and issues may still arise with elephants like Diana perishing on the frontlines.

“Diana’s death isn’t in vain,” she insists firmly. Eyes glistening again, Farina concludes impassionedly: “People often say that elephants like her belong to the government, or that they belong to the non-governmental organisations or scientists. No one says that elephants belong to all of us. Our wildlife, our heritage. We have to be united if we want to keep our elephants alive in Sabah.”

Legacies are meant to live on. From a spirited female elephant to a woman who spent her life protecting wildlife, these ‘Dianas’ have left an indelible imprint on the elephant conservationist’s heart. 

Concludes Farina softly: “You don’t forget those who have gone; you can never do that, and you shouldn’t worry that you’re going to. But you fold them, and their loss, into the new person you become; and maybe that, in the end, is the greatest tribute any of us can give anyone who has died. Two years ago, I couldn’t fathom a world without Diana, my friend, in it. Now, I can’t imagine a world without elephants.”

By : Elena Koshy – NST

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