Dr Elizabeth Lesley Bennett was born in London in 1956. She obtained her Bachelor of Science from the University of Nottingham in 1977, and in 1978, she came to Malaysia to conduct field research on banded langurs for her Doctorate from the University of Cambridge. However, the proboscis monkey, a fascinating leaf monkey found only in mangrove forests on the island of Borneo, soon caught her eye, so in 1984, as soon as she had obtained her Doctorate, she came straight back to Malaysia. At the time very little was known about this unique species. “As an undergraduate student, I became deeply fascinated by primate ecology and behaviour, which led to my choosing to study this for my PhD. That involved more than two years of field research in Peninsular Malaysia on banded langurs - a relative of the proboscis monkey. During that time, I visited a colleague in Sabah and saw proboscis monkeys for the first time. Not only did I nearly fall out of the boat with excitement, but also realised that they were more extreme in terms of their behaviour and ecology than the other related species. Crucially, they were also a threatened species about which very little was known, so if they were to be conserved, we had to know more about them. So all of those threads came together in my deciding to study them.”
Proboscis monkeys are endemic to the jungles of Borneo, never straying far from the island’s rivers, coastal mangroves, and swamps. They are a highly arboreal species and will venture onto land only occasionally to move between areas of forest in search of food. Unfortunately, Borneo’s most threatened landscapes are home to these highly specialised primates. The rampant clearing of the region’s mangroves and rainforests for timber, settlement, and oil palm plantations has depleted huge tracts of their habitat. The fragmentation of the monkeys' range means they are being forced to descend from the trees more frequently and often must travel perilously long distances to find food. Over the last 40 years, proboscis monkey populations have plummeted. They are currently protected from hunting or capture in Borneo and are listed as an endangered species.
Dr Bennett conducted the first ever detailed study of the ecology and social organisation of the proboscis monkey, sponsored by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and WWF Malaysia. The study resulted in the determination of the status and habitat needs of the monkey as well as recommendations for their conservation. The results of her study were published in the book: “The Proboscis Monkeys of Borneo.” Co-authored with Francis Gombek, the book was published in 1994 by Kota Kinabalu based Natural History Publications.
Dr Bennett then focused on the conservation and management of wetland habitats in Sarawak by working closely with the Sarawak Forest Department to protect areas of coastal swamp forest in Sarawak. She also initiated conservation education and awareness programmes for rural people living around critical areas of wetland habitat. This sanctuary is an important site in Sarawak for coastal forest wildlife as certain species like the proboscis monkey depend on areas both inside and outside the boundary of the sanctuary.
From 1989 onwards, Dr Bennett has worked full-time for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), including from 1992 to 2002 as the Director of WCS’s Malaysian Programmes. The Wildlife Conservation Society was founded in 1895 as the New York Zoological Society and currently works with governments and other partners to conserve more than two million square miles of wild places in more than 60 countries around the world. As Director of WCS Malaysian Programmes Dr Bennett focused her attention on the unsustainable harvest of wild animals from the forests of Sarawak and Sabah, which threatens the existence of many species. She conducted research on the impact of hunting on wildlife - the first study of its kind in the region. The comprehensive study involved investigating the types and extent of hunting, its importance to local people, effects on wildlife populations and management implications.
She then worked with the Sarawak Forest Department in 1995 to develop “A Master Plan for Wildlife in Sarawak,” a comprehensive policy document that detailed all the steps needed to conserve and manage wildlife in Sarawak. The Master Plan was adopted as official policy by the Sarawak Government in 1997 and was the first such comprehensive plan for wildlife to be done for any country in the world. In reflecting on some of the challenges faced when developing the plan she says: “Probably the two greatest challenges were finding how best to balance the needs of wildlife with those of local rural communities whose lives are intertwined with the wildlife and forests, and second, in building support for the key recommendations. On the other hand, we knew that the science behind the recommendations was solid, we had an excellent team of people working on it with deep expertise in its social as well as biological aspects, and we had strong support throughout from senior-most levels of the Sarawak Government.”
In 1997, Dr Bennett was seconded from Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) to the Sarawak Forest Department as the Head of Wildlife Master Plan Implementation Unit to coordinate the implementation of the Master Plan. The two main themes of the plan were wildlife conservation in different categories of land and control of unsustainable hunting. The outcome of the implementation of the plan was an integrated conservation programme including writing and implementing new wildlife and national parks legislation and extending and upgrading the management of Sarawak’s system of protected areas where two new laws were implemented - The Wildlife Protection Ordinance (1998) and the National Parks and Nature Reserves Ordinance (1998). Implementation of the ordinances involved state-wide conservation education and enforcement programmes, formal training for government staff, the creation of important new protected areas, and reduction in sales of shotgun cartridges. Major publicity, conservation education, and enforcement programmes were then carried out repeatedly in the rural and urban areas. Within five years, almost all visible commercial wildlife trade disappeared from the major markets in the cities and smaller towns. The Sarawak case shows that unsustainable commercial wildlife trade can be curtailed through the combination of education programmes, strong laws, and effective enforcement.
Dr Bennett has published widely with more than 120 scientific and popular publications including seminal publications on hunting in tropical forests and illegal wildlife trade. Thirteen (13) of the publications were published in Tier 1 journals (high impact factor journals), such as Conservation Biology, Science, Trends in Ecology and Evolution, PLOS Biology, Emerging Infectious Diseases, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences and BioScience.
She currently serves as the Vice-President of Species Conservation at the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York.
Dr Bennett’s work has contributed significantly to the conservation and management of wetland habitats and, also, to the endangered wildlife in Malaysia through research, advocacy and policies. In recognition of her work in Malaysia, she was awarded the Pegawai Bintang Sarawak (Order of the Star of Sarawak – Officer) by the Sarawak State Government in 2003 and, also, the Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 2005. Having spent many years in Malaysia, her message to young Malaysians striving to achieve excellence and contribute to the Nation is: “Malaysia is a unique and highly special country. It is a land of stunning natural beauty from its mountains and forests to its coastal islands, with some of the most magnificent plant and animal species on the planet. Its warm tropical environment also makes it highly productive for growing agricultural and forestry crops. Combined with that is Malaysia’s hospitable and industrious people, with rich cultures, high levels of education and global outlook, which mean that Malaysia is also a centre of arts and industry. In many ways, within that context, the country is at a cross-roads. Will further development mean the loss of its natural heritage? Or can they be in balance? I firmly believe that they can be in balance, and that Malaysia is in the ideal position to demonstrate that - to itself, and to the world.”
A committed and passionate advocate for wildlife conservation Dr Bennett’s wide ranging work in environmental conservation and her extensive research on endangered wildlife in Malaysia embodies the Spirit of Merdeka.