Sukau, Sabah province – Borneo, Malaysia
Sukau is a sleepy little town on the eastern side of Sabah, tucked along the Kinabatangan river. What brought me here is an unlikely acquaintance made via Facebook. A few years ago I got a message from one Nurzhafarina Othman saying she was studying the social organization of Bornean elephants, and she had come across my thesis – could I answer some questions for her? Of course, I said, and so began a little exchange of emails about studying elephants. I grew curious to meet Farina, who seems an unlikely candidate to be traipsing around the forest given her otherwise conservative Malay Muslim background. Since I too come from the Sri Lankan Malay community, it seemed we had a lot in common. Little did I know.
Fast forward to earlier this year – I had three elephant collars waiting to be deployed on the elephants in Uda Walawe. After several years of delays, I thought it was time to send these collars elsewhere before they drained their batteries. I asked Farina if she knew anybody who could use them in Malaysia. Incidentally, her own supervisor turned out to be Benoit Goosens, someone who had many years of experience tracking just about anything that moves. Coincidentally, I had just read a rather interesting paper on which Dr. Goosens was a co-author. Optimally we would be able to add our three collars to their pool, and Farina would be able to integrate them into her study of social organization among females while also gaining data on which areas the elephants were using given their highly constrained habitat, which is surrounded by swamps and palm oil plantations. As her research interests were similar to mine, it would be a good complement to our work in Uda Walawe and a chance to build collaborations. After another exchange of friendly emails, everything clicked into place – I booked my tickets and there I went.
We were mutually pleased to meet one another. To me it seemed something nearly inevitable, so strongly was I drawn here. Farina could chatter away at a mile a minute, but even though she is four years younger than me, I was astonished to learn she had a toddler. For two long weeks out of every month she spends time away from her husband and daughter to trek around in the mud and climb up trees on the trail of elephants from dawn till dusk. That she loves these elephants nearly as much as her family it is obvious. Oh how I can relate! But so dedicated was she, that she pursued this endeavor even as she was expecting! Somehow she manages to uphold all the duties required of a Muslim and maintain this line of work. These are the stories that need to be told to remake the image of what it means to be Muslim around the world, least of all a Muslim woman. Too often what we see are stories of chaos, hatred, and stupidity; of holy wars conjured up by madmen.
The elephants Farina studies are a small population, under two hundred. Like elsewhere in Malaysia, the thin strip of forest along the river’s edge is hemmed primarily by oil palm plantations. Farina spends her days skimming up and down the river looking for the elephants, and she tells me on any given day the chances of finding them are 50/50. This week they are lucky, they see the elephants every day. It bodes well, since her task at the moment is to keep track of them so that three can be collared. My first morning we encounter her primary target: Gading, a hefty one-tusked bull who reminds me of Raja back in Uda Walawe. This too bodes well.
The afternoon before the collaring, Farina, myself and a small group set off to keep tabs on the herd so that they’ll know where to go first thing in the morning. We spot them along the river bank as usual, and though Gading is not in sight, we are hopeful that evening.
We “camp” out at a little shelter housing the Iron Ladies of the Hutan tree planting project. Hutan is an NGO that employs many people around here in conservation-related work. These women are tough, spending 20 days of each month out here replanting the forest one tree at a time along the river. They are always happy to have guests, and I drift off to a light sleep despite the merry sing-alongs downstairs set to the strumming of a solo guitar.
Early morning we head back to find the herd. We step on land, watching the herd parade past us in little cliques. Are they one herd or many? This is what Farina and I want to know. Finally, last of all as Farina predicted, comes the bull. He is not so much tall as bulky. He’s a tank.
A few hours later, the entire collaring team plus a handful of guests descend on the scene. They track the herd tensely through the mud and muck while we visitors stay safely in the boat. Once they’ve darted Gading, we slosh through the forest to where he towers immobile, in a stupor punctuated by gentle rumbles as he slumbers standing up. What an odd dream this must seem to him.
Farina and the group manage to collar two females after that. I have to leave early next morning though, bound for the peninsula to meet another colleague. Farina and I have dinner with everyone, and I have the pleasure of a long chat with Benoit followed by another with Farina as we discuss life, science, and the visions of our lives. I hope to return some day, to visit Benoit’s renowned Danau Girang Field Center (he acts like a proud parent about it). Likewise Farina hopes to visit Uda Walawe. Let’s see what the future brings.