Q&A: ‘Build female capacity in conservation’

Elisa Panjang
Elisa Panjang attaching a GPS tracker to a pangolin Copyright: Miriam Kunde/Danau Girang Field Centre

Speed read

  • Sunda pangolin is the world’s most trafficked wild mammal
  • Conservation work is physically demanding and dangerous
  • Communication is important in diffusing tension, engaging community

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Urgency and passion have always defined Elisa Panjang’s research on the critically endangered Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica) of Sabah, Malaysia. Her first sighting of a pangolin at the age of 10 cemented her deep fascination for the animal which, 23 years on, is the most trafficked wild mammal in the world.
Panjang serves as the pangolin conservation officer at the Danau Girang Field Centre. Her research focuses on the pangolin’s landscape ecology and behavioural responses to habitat fragmentation and degradation in the Kinabatangan area. She has been studying the animal for seven years now, picking up several accolades along the way. Her name is  synonymous with this little understood species and she has been instrumental in pushing legislation to make all hunting of the pangolin species illegal. 

“I really want to help this animal. But my challenge now is time management – to be able to balance the different components of conservation work effectively”

Elisa Panjang, Danau Girang Field Centre

SciDev.Net spoke with Panjang about the challenges of being the face and voice of a non-charismatic species, the risks of working in the field as a woman, and how conservation leadership should be driven by hope and courage.

You have only seen 8 pangolins in the wild over the past 7 years. How do you ensure that your research methods are in step with the threat of poaching?
Pangolin research started just 10 years ago, so the baseline data for this species is not on par with elephants or orangutans. My effort is to determine what kind of landscape pangolins can survive in, given the deforestation and development in this area. My methods are multi-disciplinary: camera trapping, Global Positioning System tracking, signs survey (for burrows, claw marks on the trees, faeces, etc). I need to try out different techniques because pangolins are semi-arboreal (partly live or spend time on trees) and difficult to work with.
I also use local ecological knowledge and social science approaches involving villagers and plantation workers.
At a time when young conservationists are struggling to carve a career in the field, do you think your pioneering work on pangolins also brings added pressure to deliver above and beyond?
I think that’s true because right now people see me as ‘Elisa-Pangolin’ and I need to manage their expectations. I want to make sure that my findings are integrated into enforcement work and decision-making by the government. But I have also been reminded to put priority on my research.  
Apart from being a scientist, I’m also the honorary wildlife warden with the Sabah wildlife department where I’m involved in law enforcement and in education and outreach activities. At night, if we get tips from the locals, we go into the jungle and do surveillance work, at times we rescue and release pangolins.
The thing is, I really want to help this animal. But my challenge now is time management – to be able to balance the different components of conservation work effectively.
About your field work in the jungle, have you experienced dangerous situations?
In general, my field work can be physically demanding. But risky situations can occur during field work.
Last year during a nocturnal survey, I encountered two poachers at a plantation site. They had guns and I only had a machete with me as I faced them in the dark. I knew it was a life and death situation, so it was crucial as to how I manage the whole situation. So, I talked to them nicely, explained that I was there with my research assistant as scientists. We left slowly and cautiously — it was scary, but I stayed calm.
I have also interviewed locals who were angered by the questions in my surveys. I tread carefully if I suspect they are poachers or involved in the illegal wildlife trade. Respondents can become angry and the situation can quickly escalate and turn unpleasant. This requires communications skills which I have learnt over the years through my community outreach work.
What kind of obstacles do you want to cut through as a young female conservationist?
As a project leader, it’s important that I always voice my opinions and not merely follow orders. I am capable and knowledgeable in my field of study, and I will make sure I follow my principles and do what is right. If the locals are open to talking to me during my outreach work it is perhaps because women can attune themselves to be sensitive and perceptive, and make people feel comfortable.

Over time, I learnt how to carry myself and to be brave in making decisions. But it’s still a challenge. In Malaysia, there’s a gender bias in a lot of occupations, not just in conservation. Top positions in this field and in academia are helmed by men. Building female capacity and leadership in conservation is one way to address this.

How do you think collaboration can help build local expertise, especially in advancing female participation in scientific work?

I’m fortunate that the Danau Girang field centre provides capacity building, supports young scientists like myself, and acts as a platform in spreading awareness amongst the public about the work that we do. I also work closely with local schools, I do radio and TV interviews, and I present my work at conferences. Students approach me, expressing their interest in studying pangolins or to be involved in conservation. They tell me that my work is inspiring, and I’m really happy to hear that from the youth.

I regard the villagers as scientists too. They are aware about the importance of the forest ecosystem, medicinal value of the plants, and about wildlife. I share my research with them so that they know more about how to use resources sustainably and to show that they have a role and responsibility in taking care of the environment.

A scientist should, of course, be a researcher. But a good scientist will also be able to use that information to engage with local people.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.