Even as a teenager, June Rubis knew that she wanted a career in environmental conservation.
Growing up in Sarawak, she remembers European environmentalists descending on her home state, tying themselves to tractors, waving banners in protest of logging in Borneo.
“I must have been about 14 or 15 at the time and I remember being really interested with the protests by Greenpeace in the 1990s. All these Europeans were in Sarawak protesting and I remember wanting to have these conversations but no one was quite interested,” recalls Rubis.
Although she grew up in Kuching, Rubis used to visit her father’s village in Bau, where she discovered an affinity with nature.
“I loved nature and going back to the kampung, swimming in the rivers and spending time with my cousins. But I could never quite connect with nature in the way that my cousins in the rural areas did.
“But I think I have found a way to do this through my conservation work, which brought me to the jungle,” shares Rubis, who is of Bidayuh and Filipino descent.
Now a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute and an orangutan conservationist in Borneo and Kalimantan, Rubis is living her dream.
The 41-year-old conservationist has spent most of the past 12 years working on orangutan conservation in Borneo, and is the first Dayak and indigenuous female wildlife researcher to commence long-term field research surveys in Borneo, focusing on primates.
Although she has been very much influenced and informed by Western research and knowledge on conservation – she did her undergraduate degree in Biology at the Simon Fraser University in Canada and subsequently her masters degree at Oxford University – Rubis is now hoping to “decolonise conservation”, particularly in Borneo.
Instead of dictating how conservation should be done and imposing a very theoretical and Western perspective, Rubis is engaging with local communities in Borneo and tapping into their knowledge on the environment and the wildlife around them to inform better conservation strategies.
“Conservation has to be for people as well. We need better alternatives that recognise the communities who live on the lands that we want to conserve.
“When I first came back to Sarawak as a fresh graduate, I was young and I believed so much in all these principles that I’d been studying. I was quite self-righteous and patronising.
“At the time, I prescribed to the prevalent idea that in order to conserve a protected area or the species in the area, we needed to take the indigenous people out.
“People were impediments to conservation. But increasingly I began to feel really uncomfortable with that idea,” she explains.
The more she worked with indigenous people, the more Rubis realised that their knowledge and understanding of their environment and wildlife are crucial in informing any conservation work in the area.
“Even when I was starting off, I was struck by the irony of my situation. Here I was, a young Bidayuh woman with just a year’s fieldwork experience, leading a team of men who knew the forests so much better than I did.
“I began to doubt the way we (conservationists) were going about our work. I mean, who were we, coming from town or from outside, to tell these (indigenous) people what to do?” she shares.
Proving her worth
Rubis wanted to work with orangutans. So, after her graduation, she returned home and worked with the New-York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) on their conservation projects in Sarawak.
The young environmentalist learnt early on that being a woman in conservation wasn’t going to be easy. She had to break down stereotypes about a woman’s ability to “tough it out” doing field work in the forests. But Rubis was up for the challenge.
“Female field researchers are faced with challenges almost right away. We have to overcome the skepticism that many people have towards women working in the field, especially if we present ourselves as traditionally feminine.
“I was really lucky to get that job without any field experience but my boss doubted my ability to be in the field. Perhaps I didn’t fit the image of a ‘typical’ conservationist,” shares Rubis, whose soft-spokenness belies a steely determination and strong sense of purpose.
For her first assignment, Rubis was sent on her own to the Krau Wildlife Reserve in Pahang to estimate its tiger population.
“I was sent, on my own, to Pahang to camera-trap tigers. I had to set up cameras (remotely activated cameras with a motion sensor to capture wildlife) which would record not just tigers but all wildlife in the area.
“I had with me a few Orang Asli and Malay men as my assistants. But I was literally thrown in and I had to sink or swim. I think they expected me to quit after that but I loved it.
“I didn’t just see tigers but other wild cats too. I saw sun bears, pythons, hornbills and black leopards. Did you know we have black leopards in Malaysia? It was really amazing.
“After that, I became a field assistant and finally, after a few years, I got to work with orangutans,” shares Rubis.
Over the years, she has had to prove herself again and again.
“Since those early years in conservation in Krau, I have conducted a one-year field survey of diurnal primates in Samunsam Wildlife Sanctuary (in Sarawak), all on my own, including camping in the bush.
“I did many years of orangutan field research, leading a team of Iban men from the local communities. In Central Kalimantan, I was leading teams of men.
“Very few people had faith that I would last this long in conservation, instead of working in the office in KL,” she says.
Maias or mawas, not orangutan
Rubis’ work now is not just about environmental justice but social justice as well.She speaks up for the rights of indigenous communities, who are often voiceless.
Although Rubis is more comfortable in the forests, fortifying her research and building relationships with the local communities than speaking at conferences or being interviewed by the media, she recognises that it will all be for nought if she doesn’t advocate for the change she hopes to see.
So in July, she delivered a plenary talk at the 2018 conference of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation in Kuching where she spoke about the need to include local and indigenous communities in any and all conservation efforts.
“Instead of telling these communities what to do, they have to be equal partners in our efforts. We need to be with them, live with them and understand their perspectives and concerns.
“And we cannot dismiss their knowledge as being unimportant or “the old way”, even though we have been ingrained to trust in scientific terms and hold on to the Western classifications of conservation.
“Through my work with local communities, I am discovering that local knowledge means so much,” she says.
Rubis uses the orangutan as an example.
“The indigenous term for primates is not orangutan but “maias” or “mawas”, with different terms for the different types of primates in the forest. The term orangutan doesn’t mean anything to the indigenous people.
“But if you say maias, they’d know exactly what their behaviour is like, where you can find them and so on. This knowledge is so important in helping us understand the primates,” emphasises Rubis, who has lived with the Iban community and earned their trust in the course of her work.
Indigenous people are often unfairly blamed for the deaths of orangutans or other wildlife, says Rubis. Many conservationists respond by trying to “educate” local communities on Western notions of conservation.
“I’m not saying we should dismiss Western knowledge but we need to not be condescending towards indigenous people and their knowledge.
“We must value their knowledge as much as we do science, and use it to inform our efforts and policies,” she says.
Rubis is also determined to publish her work to offer a different and local perspective about conservation in Malaysia and the region.
“A lot of the literature we refer to, even on Sarawak, is by outsiders and Westerners. But there are many Malaysians who have done good work in conservation.
“But we, Malaysian women especially, tend to not put ourselves in the forefront.
“I believe that outreach is very important. We need to get our writing out and talk about Sarawak wildlife and culture from our perspective,” says Rubis.