Thursday, January 14, 2016

Malaysia plans road expansion through dwindling elephant, orangutan habitat

Tucked in the northeast corner of the island of Borneo, the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary is home to some of the densest populations of megafauna in Malaysia. The tenuous patchwork of protected habitat along its namesake river is also surrounded by immensely profitable oil palm plantations on what was rainforest decades ago. Now, the federal government of Malaysia plans to build a bridge near the sanctuary and pave a road through part of it this year, raising the objections of NGOs and scientists who work in the region.

A source familiar with development in the area but who asked to remain anonymous told Mongabay that the construction of the road will “block movements of animals, including the elephants, and will bring in unregulated development of the surrounding land.”

A growing raft of research has shown that road construction in tropical forests globally can lead to deforestation, illegal hunting and a host of other problems.

The 26,000-hectare Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary supports a fledgling ecotourism industry centered on the town of Sukau in the state of Sabah. There, visitors stay with families and travel by boat through the surrounding floodplains to see Borneo’s unique subspecies of pygmy elephants (Elephas maximus borneensis), as well as 11 species of primates including orangutans, gibbons, and proboscis monkeys.

But a 2008 federal plan for what’s known as the Sabah Development Corridor to stimulate growth and economic activity in the state includes building a bridge between Sukau on the west bank of the Kinabatangan River and an existing gravel road, slated to be paved as part of the project, on the east bank that cuts through oil palm plantations and the wildlife sanctuary.

Currently, the Morisem Ferry runs between Sukau and the existing gravel road, which was built by an oil palm company.

“Of course roads are necessary” to connect communities, Isabelle Lackman told the Borneo Post in November. Lackman is a primatologist and founder of the NGO HUTAN focused on the study of the roughly 800 Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) left in the Kinabatangan. But she also echoed the concerns of others in the community that the highway and bridge could undo attempts to make wildlife habitats contiguous in Kinabatangan.

Though details on the project are scarce, the road would connect Sukau with the communities of Litang and Tomanggong, a town that sits about 42 kilometers to the southeast, according to measurements on Google Earth.

John Payne questions why the project was even considered in the first place, as he doesn’t see the benefits it will provide.

Payne is currently the executive director of the Borneo Rhino Alliance, an NGO known as BORA trying to halt the extinction of the critically endangered Sumatran rhino. In 2015, Masidi Manjun, Sabah’s Minister of Tourism, Culture and Environment, acknowledged that Borneo’s forests probably no longer hold any Bornean rhinos (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis harrissoni), a subspecies of the Sumatran rhino. The wild population had dwindled to just 10 individuals by 2013.