Site icon Conservation news

Reveling in complexity: Remembering a man who ‘truly lived’ conservation (commentary)

  • Born and raised in Buffalo, NY, Michael “Elmo” Drilling had a career in conservation that took him across the world.
  • From the jungles of Indonesia to the swamps Mindanao in the Philippines and beyond, he specialized in agroforestry–a farming technique that increases farmer resiliency and biodiversity while sequestering carbon–by incorporating woody perennials like trees into farms.
  • He died suddenly in January 2021 at the age of 66 doing what he loved best, working outdoors with trees, and his friends and colleagues remember him in this feature for Mongabay.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Earlier this year, the world lost a conservationist who lived and breathed sustainability and conservation, Michael “Elmo” Drilling.

Born and raised in Buffalo, NY, Mr. Drilling worked for the Peace Corps, USAID, and People Resources and Conservation Foundation, and his work took him from the jungles of Kalimantan in Indonesian Borneo, to the swamps of Mindanao in the Philippines, and to Vietnam and beyond. He specialized in agroforestry work, and he liked nothing more than to share his knowledge with local people in rural Southeast Asia.

When I met him first for lunch in 2017 Elmo was in his 60s and his hair was thinning and gray, but he had the strongest handshake I had ever felt, and the most powerful-looking forearms. He had a gentle and charming demeanor and just as the waitress was about to take away my plate of wing bones, Elmo said that he wanted to keep them and bring them home to make broth out of them. Surprised but impressed, she put them in a plastic bag for him. Elmo said he wasted nothing, and no food scraps ever entered his rubbish bin; it all went to composting—a process of recycling organic materials—a subject he brought up every time we met. And so it rang true for me when later Fernando Potess, a long-time colleague and friend of Elmo, quipped: “Elmo doesn’t just talk conservation—he lives it.” In fact, Elmo had set up compost systems at his wife’s family’s home in Java as well as at Fernando’s in Bangkok.

Elmo providing instruction in agroforestry to local farming communities in Vietnam. Photo courtesy of his family.

Patrick Durst, a friend and colleague of 43 years, remarked on Elmo’s “meticulous approaches to conservation and agroforestry development. Elmo recognized the intricacy of healthy ecosystems and, rather than trivialize or ignore that complexity, he reveled in it.” His knowledge of agroforestry was immense and his field notes were painstakingly detailed.  He’s one of the few people who had fully organized his entire collection of tens of thousands of professional photographs.

His special talent, however, was in patiently sharing his vast practical field knowledge and teaching it to others.  Elmo was a consummate “field forester” and was happiest teaching kids the proper way to plant trees, introducing people to the potential of assisted natural regeneration, and helping farmers increase their yields while strengthening the sustainability of their operations.”

A friend and colleague Anders Pederson provides another apt description of this worthy conservationist: “His career was centered on agroforestry and capacity building in developing countries. His devotion was conservation, environment, and rural development; Elmo lived his passion and shared his lifestyle with a laid-back, unhurried attitude and ‘hands-on’ education. His proactive, entertaining, and engaging style made us laugh and smile, and inspired us and stakeholders at all levels. He had a pragmatic and thoughtful approach leaving no one behind, nor letting anyone down.”

Elmo loved adventure and enjoyed traveling; especially his stints in the U.S. Peace Corps. He had a generous heart and was known for his positivity, sense of humor, kindness, and love of the Buffalo Bills football team. He is dearly missed by his family and friends with whom he shared visions, laughter, music, and copious sips of beer. His concern for modest and sustainable use of natural resources came up again and again, urging everyone to reduce our carbon footprints by all means.

In our several meetings in Buffalo, I always had the feeling that I was in the presence of a humble yet legendary conservationist who for some reason, many people in the conservation world didn’t know. His physical condition worsened with each of our meetings, yet his spirit remained unchanged. If he had any inkling that his days were very much numbered, he never let on or dwelled on his ailment; the subject at hand was always the state of the environment in Southeast Asia, then and now, and what could be done to turn things around. There were plans to bring him onboard into PRCF’s conservation initiative in Sumatra’s Hadabuan Hills, where his knowledge of agroforestry and his talent for working with local people would have been a game-changing asset, but he was not feeling strong enough to join us.

Another of Elmo’s colleagues, Mering, provides on poignant flashback from Borneo: “It was in mid-1991. A very hot day at Belaban Ella, a tiny hamlet of the Dayak Limbai Kelait ethnic group. Standing on a slope and grassland area, Elmo (was) part of a small team of the Natural Resources Management Project funded by USAID. While talking with local farmers he would share all practical experiences for improved cultivation of rice and other crops on hilly terrain.”

View Mongabay’s special series on agroforestry here.

Michael “Elmo” Drilling holds an endangered Philippine crocodile (Crocodylus mindorensis). Photo courtesy of his family.

“He was the principal facilitator to provide examples of ‘sloping agricultural land technology’ (SALT) in the region. Elmo had good past experiences with SALT, first developed in Davao, the Philippines. At Belaban Ella, a parcel of degraded forest land was selected as a demonstration plot in contrast to traditional plots of shifting cultivation. The approach was well received by farmers and replicated in other areas within and beyond the hamlet. During ample time in the forest, we talked and slept at a small camp next to a research station adjacent to Bukit Baka-Bukit Raya, a National Park straddling the border of West and Central Kalimantan.”

As Dai Peters recalls, “We lost a good friend and a very unique, original thinker.  Our academic advisor used to say ’Elmo marches to a drumbeat that the rest of us do not hear.’ So true that he died doing what he loved the most and that is a blessing.  We will all miss him dearly.” Fernando Potess added: “I, like many others, will miss his sense of humor, technical knowledge, and overall concern for the environment and people. I always thought that Elmo was not only a conservationist, but that he lived conservation; one of the many things I learned from him.”

We were never able to work together in Asia, but we discussed various ongoing projects at length in the three years I knew him. I last met Elmo in February 2020 at a Vietnamese restaurant in Buffalo, where we enjoyed Pho. Less than a year later, Elmo passed away, at the age of 66, while doing what he loved most: working in the forest.

I never got to visit his “cabin in the woods” on his property, though it wasn’t that far from where I lived. But I could imagine it vividly from his descriptions. He had started a tree farm there, and his ashes will be strewn along his forest trails. I imagine he wouldn’t have it any other way. The conservation community and Southeast Asia’s natural world lost a great ally.

His full obituary can be found online here.

Greg McCann is a biologist and assistant professor at Taiwan’s Chang Gung University. He also works with a People Resources and Conservation Foundation team which is documenting the biological richness of Sumatra, so that it can be better conserved. Hear him on discuss this work on Mongabay’s special podcast series about the huge Indonesian island of Sumatra, here: