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COVID-19 and Research Fieldwork: Management and Ecology of Malaysian Elephants (MEME)


Under its Environment pillar, Yayasan Sime Darby’s partnerships with Management and Ecology of Malaysian Elephants (MEME), Marine Research Foundation (MRF) and PONGO Alliance are aligned with its aim to support world-class scientific research to translate results into action, while developing highly skilled local scientists, researchers and custodians. However, pandemic restrictions have not only caused additional challenges such as dwindling research and travel funds and stresses of working from home, but also upended researchers’ data collection activities.

To understand the key challenges and opportunities faced by researchers involved in fieldwork in these pandemic times, YSD interviewed PhD Candidate Or Oi Ching of MEME.

Oi Ching accompanied by a field assistant recording data of dung samples collected by the main river of the Ulu Muda forest.

What are some of the recent highlights of your partnership with YSD?

YSD has supported my research work, from the beginning of my study in 2018 and provided some additional support during the Covid-19 pandemic that hit the country in early 2020. Despite the challenges with the pandemic, in the past financial year, I managed to conclude my field data collection in the remote forests of Hulu Perak and resume my laboratory work. My research work in MEME was recently featured in a programme – “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish” by ASTRO AEC on 21st March 2021. This programme features a series of wildlife-related scientific research works currently conducted in Malaysia.

Besides research, YSD has also provided a large amount of food aid to the indigenous communities living inside the Belum-Temengor Forest Complex, during the pandemic. Some of the Orang Asli are from communities that I know of, and it is a relief to see that they were given a helping hand when it was needed. Since I was based in Gerik at that time, I assisted YSD in coordinating the supplies to the relevant villages.

What were the challenges you face in the field before COVID-19?

As a researcher, we are taught to multitask and work independently. Sometimes, I will be managing many things and get overwhelmed by these tasks. This is where the MEME team members, supervisors and my friends provided their support, both physically and mentally, to encourage me to complete my work. I am very grateful for all the support given to me. Some of the challenges I faced are the complexity of the methods and study design for elephant population survey and managing human resource on the ground. I must make sure my field teams are able to conduct the work cooperatively, and at the same time ensure their safety. I also discovered that financial planning and budgeting were quite challenging as well.

How has the pandemic changed the obstacles you face as a wildlife conservation researcher working on the ground?

My research is result-oriented and highly dependent on field data collection. The pandemic has created a sense of anxiety on how my research work will be affected by this and the unpredictability of the situation was an unpleasant feeling. There was also a great concern about the safety of my family. The state of Emergency arising from the pandemic and subsequent Movement Control Order (MCO) implemented in the country has created a completely new and different working condition for me, requiring me to adapt with many adjustments in the past year. The many uncertainties and unpredictable conditions revolving around this pandemic have certainly affected the progress of my research.

When the pandemic hit Malaysia, I had just resumed my data collection after a long monsoon period. My team and I came out of the forest in Hulu Perak just two days before the first MCO without prior knowledge about it. Given that the initial MCO was for a short period and I was hoping to be able to resume work soon after, we stayed put in Gerik. As the MCO was extended several times, I was stranded there and was only able to safely resume fieldwork in the middle of the year. Even so, we had to strictly follow the SOPs as well, being extra cautious since we employed indigenous field assistants and do not want to expose them and their community to COVID-19. My laboratory work was affected as well, and I was only able to resume in June 2020 with strict regulations set by the university management.

Looking at the bright side, the pandemic has developed me to be more resilient, receptive to the possible changes in my working environment, and I feel I am more innovative in trying to resolve issues that have surfaced during this pandemic. I have also exercised a lot of self-restraint and self-responsibility when I have to observe self-quarantine at home.

What are the changes in strategies you employed to navigate the challenges brought about by the pandemic?

I had to accept the challenges brought about by the pandemic and learn to adapt and work around the situation to move forward with my study. At the beginning of the pandemic, while waiting for possible opportunities to resume fieldwork, I focused more on desktop research, participated in online webinars, communicated with my supervisors as well as actively engaged with the university and its efforts to manage pandemic challenges faced by the postgraduate students.

Have there been any silver linings for field researchers during these uncertain times?

I believe many researchers are hit hard by the pandemic in many ways. The experience with this pandemic has taught me to be more resilient and not to take things for granted as the situation can change at any time. We just have to adapt, explore the possibilities, do our due diligence, and be true and fair in handling our projects and all others who are involved.

Despite all the tough challenges, what makes you motivated to carry out your work with MEME?

I am here today because of the great vision of MEME to protect elephants in Malaysia, and they are doing so by nurturing more local experts. Nowadays, science-based knowledge is a powerful tool for species protection; I think MEME plays a major role in this country to help in conserving our endangered Malaysian elephants. We love elephants yet we do not really understand them enough to be able to protect them from further harm. I hope my study will complement the government’s conservation efforts in ensuring the long-term existence of these last remaining giants.

What are your favourite facts/attributes about elephants?

Looking at elephants through my eyes, I see them as neutral beings. Sometimes elephants seem friendly, but most of us are afraid when we encounter them in the wild. Perhaps that is our natural survival instinct because we know that elephants are powerful and can cause harm under certain circumstances. I wonder what elephants think when they see us in their home - the jungle.

What progress do you hope to see made in wildlife conservation as the world recovers from the pandemic?

We hear news about how captive elephants are badly affected by the collapse of tourism industries in many countries due to this pandemic. How about animals in the natural setting? They suffer too from poaching, habitat degradation, habitat loss, forest fire, mismanagement of natural resources, an increase in human population, etc.

In my opinion, there is still a long way to go for wildlife conservation in this nation either with or without the emergence of this pandemic. Wildlife conservation relies on support from the people, and we need all society to be on board to turn the situation around. Mother Nature seems fragile, but she has high resilience to recover if we allow it. Everyone can help lend a hand to conserve nature and wildlife, regardless of where they are, and what their profession is. Never underestimate any single good act, as the effect can ripple far and wide. It is up to us to make that change.

Oi Ching measuring the size of elephant dung, taken during a recce trip to a study site.

Oi Ching showing the signs of elephant rubbing marks on a tree in the forest.

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Last Updated:
27 Aug 2021
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