6 questions for elephant researcher Farina Othman

April 25, 2016 - 1:39pm

Nurzhafarina Othman has a mantra: "There's no silver bullet for human-elephant conflict."

Instead, the Malaysian Ph.D. candidate relies on science to protect the imperiled Borneo elephant. Her data-backed accomplishments with the Danau Girang Field Centre and other NGOs in Sabah — halting a bridge project that would have blocked elephants, securing migration corridors, providing satellite maps of elephant whereabouts to wildlife managers, reclaiming land from a palm oil company — underscore the complexity of protecting a giant animal in a sea of humans and agriculture.

In November, Othman was honored by the Disney Conservation Fund as one of 22 Conservation Heroes for 2015. Following her recent lecture at the Oregon Zoo, we asked her to elaborate on what's being done to prevent the extinction of this unique subspecies.

What do we know about the origins of the Borneo elephant?

Our genetics data and historical records support the theory that the Bornean elephant might be a remnant of an extinct population from Java. So these populations are unique. There are only around 2,000 left in the world and they can only be found in Sabah, although a few wander into Kalimantan from time to time.

How do human activities affect the movements of elephants?

Habitat fragmentation and habitat loss for any development purposes without proper planning of the land use could result in isolation between elephant populations. There would be no migration or emigration, which interferes with the gene flow between populations, leading to inbreeding. Inbreeding and low genetic diversity can increase the risk of population extinction, as the populations are more vulnerable to sudden changes such as disease outbreaks or climate change.

You successfully persuaded a palm oil company to halt development on 100 acres of elephant corridor. How did you do that?

We provided them with evidence that the land they intended to plant on was both prone to flooding and elephants. We used scientific data such as the elephant movement statistics along with remote sensing of the landscape, which we translated into simple images such as a map. Communication is the key.

When elephants enter and/or cause damage to oil palm plantations, how do companies typically deal with them?

They have people to safeguard the area, and they use other mitigation methods, such as burning tires or firing a cannon. Unfortunately, forcing elephants out of a plantation doesn't solve the problem — it only drives them into another company's plantation, and it goes on and on like that.

What does it take and cost to relocate an elephant, and whose job is it?

A translocation exercise involves heavy machinery and costs between RM 20,000 and RM 30,000 (around $6,400) per elephant. It is carried out by the Sabah Wildlife Department and Wildlife Rescue Unit. 

Borneo is seeing increased ecotourism. How can tourists help protect elephants while traveling in Sabah?

Support the local economy — for instance, choose a homestay program instead of going to a big lodge. This helps local people and gives them an incentive to support wildlife conservation — and the food is much better! Never encourage wildlife guides to get too close to the wild elephants or any other wildlife.

Photos courtesy Nurzhafarina Othman