It’s Okay to Be Vulnerable. For 7 Women, Quitting Is Never an Option.

This International Women’s Day, our colleagues share thoughts on commitment and reveal private ways in making it work.

Part of my job is communicating closely with our colleagues who are working on the ground daily. 

Occasionally, we text. Other times, we communicate via video calls. 

“How did the field trip go?”

“Did you and the team have enough equipment to fight the forest fires?”

“When is the next negotiation meeting with the community leaders?”

The conversations often start with work. But sometimes I get lucky and we become fast friends. Then, the chats reveal struggles I know nothing about. From sudden health scares in the midst of a field trip to physical attacks by poachers, it’s difficult to understand the full extent of the challenges they face. 

While 28-year-old shark and ray conservation officer Ranny works at a beautiful, remote island of West Papua in Indonesia, 27-year-old community firefighter Santi works at Sumatra in Indonesia.

On this day, I want to celebrate our colleagues around the world who refuse to believe that giving up is the easier way out. 

Meet the people who inspire me everyday below: 

Mavic Matillano, 45, Project Manager

Latest: Mavic Matillano, one of the most important frontliners who spent two decades of her life protecting the reefs and the gravely endangered Irrawaddy dolphins in Northern Palawan, has passed away on Sunday, 19 April 2020. She was 45.

Occupation: Mavic supervises the overall implementation of marine protected areas in Palawan, Philippines. She also ensures harmonious relationships between communities and partners.

On the job: 25 years 

Unforgettable incident: “One day during reef assessment, we were driven away by a community leader who was waving a very sharp bolo (a cutting tool similar to a machete) in my face. We later learned (he apologised after) that he thought we were gold prospectors in the guise of scuba diving in search for sunken treasures within their ancestral waters. I guess the challenge of miscommunication is still commonly encountered especially in off-grid communities.”

Battling cancer: 2018 and 2019 proved to be personally challenging for Mavic. On top of managing projects and on-site activities, she was also diagnosed with cervical cancer. “This double dose of stress almost pushed me to give up the one thing I am truly passionate about: community development and immersion.”

What kept her going: “I had a three-month hiatus, with very minimal work-related communications. Almost everyone respected my request for “no-office talks”, but my WWF colleagues, friends and families, and especially, partners and co-workers from the communities (from the fishermen’s kids and wife to the mayor of the town!) are wishing me good health and sending prayers. These people gave me the courage to slowly but religiously recover and continue my advocacy for the empowerment and development of coastal communities and their environment. The realisation that aside from my family, there are also other families who will be very happy if I continue to be involved in their growth and progress – keeps me going.”

A tribute to Mavic Matillano, a critical frontliner in Palawan, Philippines.

Mavic has spent the last 25 years with WWF-Philippines working at some of the country’s most critical marine hotspots by supervising the overall implementation of marine protected areas in Palawan. She helped ensure harmonious relationships between communities and partners – and considered it a sweet reward to be able to talk to a fisherman’s wife and hear her discuss her day, her children and her fisherman husband’s catch the previous night.

Mavic has always been kind, strong, positive and compassionate – and a fierce fighter and defender whose heart beats for the future of Palawan.

One of her most notable contributions include equipping the coastal communities with invaluable skills to manage and champion more than a million hectares of coastal and marine area with over 120 islands and islets, and at least 50 fishing villages. This was part of the country’s big win in securing more than one million hectares of marine protected area that was declared in Palawan in 2017. 

A remarkable testament to Mavic’s success, we can still see the Irrawaddy dolphins in their habitat today.

Her health deteriorated in 2018 when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. But her relentless spirit to get back to work continues to inspire many around her. 

As part of our ongoing efforts and commitment to continue Mavic’s legacy in ensuring sustainable fishing practices and environmental policies, WWF-Singapore continues to support the Marine Protected Area (MPA) for Improved Fisheries in Palawan, Philippines project since 2016. This is critical in safeguarding priority habitats like the Coral Triangle, securing livelihoods and providing for millions, while proving resilient to climate change.

Read more about Mavic’s job in helping to manage more than a million hectares of marine lives.

Siti Norazliyana Binti Ali, 32, Team Leader

Occupation: Yana is the team leader of the Melaka Hawksbill Conservation Programme. As part of the Turtle Guardian Programme, WWF-Malaysia recruits community members which include ex-poachers and converts them to protectors to reduce egg poaching rates

On the job: 11 years

Personal calling: “Here in Melaka, being responsible for the continuity of the critically endangered hawksbill turtle population gives me the chills. The population here represents the biggest population of hawksbill turtles in Peninsular Malaysia – which contributes to one of the important populations in Southeast Asia.” 

Dealing with turtle egg poachers: “We work as a team with the local communities to monitor nine nesting beaches every night from April to September annually. When it comes to dealing with the turtle egg poachers, the team needs to be physically (and mentally) prepared.”

“The hardest thing I had to face: when the egg poachers found the nest before our team. The drama that ensued might lead to a diplomatic agreement or argument. We often have to deal with harsh words, threats, and even physical attacks.”

Her pet peeve? Knowing how the egg poachers will disturb the nesting females by lifting the turtles. Some of the egg poachers also consist of drug addicts who desperately need money. To keep herself and her team protected, she has had to lodge a police report a few times.

Receiving the job offer: “There is not an option to give up when you are dealing with critically endangered species. When I received the offer to be the Team Leader here, I knew it won’t be easy but I took it as a new challenge and opportunity. There are ups and downs and the only thing that keeps me moving is this question: If I give up, what will happen to my team and the local community who have willingly joined us as turtle guardians? Who will take care of the hawksbill turtles?”

Her undying love for marine turtles: “I have been doing this for more than 10 years and my love towards sea turtles is everlasting. This is my passion and I live by this principle: a positive change needs to happen before I let go of any projects. This is why I put all my efforts in not only protecting the nesting hawksbill turtles but also their nesting habitats. I look forward to the gazettement of Padang Kemunting beach as the first turtle sanctuary in Melaka.” 

Read more about our memorable (but heartbreaking) experience on shadowing a ‘turtle guardian’ on duty.

Susanti, 27, Secretary & Community Firefighter

Occupation: Collaborating with the government and authorities to mitigate peatland fires, Santi’s daily tasks include rewetting burnt peatlands, monitoring her village areas, and handling administrative and financial matters. When a fire breaks out, she also helps to arrange transport for the firefighters to reach the fire incident site as promptly as possible. 

On the job: 8 years 

Biggest difficulty: “I was at a fire location trying to find a water source to put out the fire. The dry season has also made it extra difficult to extinguish the fire quickly. We also had incomplete personal safety equipment like masks and fire-proof shoes.” 

Splitting the responsibility: “In the beginning, I chose to give up. Whenever there is a fire occurrence, the responsibility will immediately fall on us – the community firefighters. But that’s not our full responsibility. To me, it is a shared responsibility, so it needs support from everyone in the community.

“This is also because our main task is to prevent fires by employing mitigative measures such as patrolling the village areas and conducting outreach activities.”

“Though there are parties who often place the entire responsibility on us, I will remember the struggles (plus for the sake of my beloved village) and motivate myself to not give up. I try to be positive: every good thing will be rewarded with kindness too.” 

What kept her going: “I like a job that’s challenging and social. But it’s also because I love my village. I want my village to be able to breath fresh air. At least with my involvement as a woman, I could help socialise the mothers in my village to equally prevent fires and look after our surrounding environment.” 

Read more about how Susanti and her firefighting team helped 10 villages in Riau escape the yearly fires.

Ranny R. Yuneni, 28, Shark & Ray Conservation Officer

Occupation: Supporting the government’s role in developing a strategy and National Plan of Action (NPOA) on shark and ray implementation in Indonesia, Ranny’s daily tasks include research on shark population status, bycatch mitigation technology, and marine protected areas for sharks. 

On the job: 6 years 

Balancing act: “I once went to a small village in East Flores called Mekko for an underwater survey on the utilisation of shark species. It was far away from the city. At that time, the electricity was only available for one and a half hours from 6 to 7.30 pm and there were no water sources. The area, though, has a high abundance of reef sharks and beautiful landscape.” 

“In the midst of a field survey, I suddenly had four kinds of illnesses (laryngitis, ear tube infection, digestion and skin problem) all at one time. It was scary because I needed a five-hour ride via motorcycle (with bad road conditions) to arrive in the city district without good medical facilities. Then, I needed two more flights to reach Bali and got myself treated.”

“I have to be out in the field often, and at that moment I felt like I needed to have a stronger body immunity. But you know what? Two months later, I came back to the same place.”

Supportive team: “Honestly, it’s hard to say I never complained. But quitting is not an option. At least, I try to be optimistic. I also feel that I have a team who always supports me to make sure I remember my goal and continue to make me strong.”

Dr Cheryl Cheah, 34, Manager (Elephant Conservation)

Occupation: Working in Sabah, Dr Cheryl finds joint solutions with plantation owners and government enforcement agencies to reduce human-elephant conflict. She also conducts surveys and research on the elephants with the field team to advocate for change. 

On the job: 11 years

Living together harmoniously: “One of the hardest things I have to face in my line of work is convincing the plantation industry that the only viable long-term solution to mitigate human-elephant conflict is through co-existence.”

“This involves proper land use planning which factors in elephant requirements by allowing wild elephants to access certain parts of their plantation areas where crop or property damage is negligible. This can be achieved by electric-fencing vulnerable areas such as newly planted oil palm trees and settlements whilst allowing them to access other parts of the plantation.”

Seeing tangible impact: “I have not thought about giving up because we have seen some progress where more and more plantations are playing a larger role in conservation by committing to more sustainable practices. But much more can be done and I see a lot of opportunities to engage and collaborate with the plantation industry.”

What motivates her daily: “Knowing that at the end of the day and amidst all the challenges, I have contributed to securing a better future for the elephants.”

Read more about how Dr Cheryl Seah and her team helped to reduce human-elephant conflict by collaring the elephants.

Regan Pairojmahakij, 43, Landscape Manager 

Occupation: Regan fosters transboundary conservation cooperation by supporting programmes in Myanmar and Thailand. She also helps build up the respective programmes in the Dawna Tenasserim landscape. 

On the job: Approximately 15 years

The everyday struggle: Though Regan considers herself as an optimist, some days prove to be difficult. “Though I truly feel we are making a difference, it does often feel like it is not happening fast enough or at a great enough scale. The threats of commodities and short turn profits ebbing away at forests that have been there for decades are difficult to understand. Slowly over time, it is sad to see forests burning or being degraded.”

“But I think that the Dawna Tenasserim is at least a place where we really dig in and draw a line. There is strong support from the governments involved and this is essential.” 

Getting personally involved: “There are days when I feel like quitting. My role is transboundary and working across countries, scales and programmes also mean there are a lot of different dynamics and complexities. Prior to this job, I knew it was going to be challenging, but I couldn’t imagine just how challenging or in what ways. I swore I would never lose sleep over a job, but you really do become personally involved.” 

Pressing on: “I live for the chances to be out in the field. To see the forests, breathe the air – it really is a different world and it completely grounds you and justifies all of the efforts. We simply cannot afford to lose landscapes like this. I also have two small children and, like many others, I’m motivated by the kind of world I hope for them to live in.”

Duangkamol Wongworachan, Conservation & Marketing Communication Manager

Occupation: Duang works closely with the conservation field teams on the ground and helps to campaign and communicate stories that advocate for change.

On the job: 2 years

Most challenging period: Back in 2018 when I started my career in WWF, one of the most challenging assignments in my life was the regional “Travel Ivory Free” campaign to combat illegal ivory trade.

“As a new panda in a new workplace, new environment, new culture – it was challenging but I didn’t feel like giving up.”

Personal growth: “Thanks to the tremendous support from the WWF-Thailand team, donors and teams in various country offices to kick off the campaign, I learned more about conservation – especially how we deal with the rest of African elephant species left in the world.”

“I also learned about the law and regulation in order to have a clear understanding of the issue. The more I learn, the more I fall in love with what I am doing and that is the essence of working in WWF as a conservationist.”

Thinking ahead: “There are still so many challenges for me. For one, I know that the things we do every single day may not be able to fix the environmental issues we face in our lifetime.”

“The most important thing is what we are doing today to deliver the right messages and pictures to the next generation.  I always tell my son about challenging stories of my job, including how to make this world a better place to be in. I am happy to see the kids have an understanding of environmental issues and starting to do something, making a difference with their little hands.”

Watch our video below:

Like this story? Read more about Singapore’s ivory trade ban, why it may be too late if we leave it to our kids to fix the planet and the low down on Singapore’s newest climate targets and plans.

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