- Sabah’s 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.
- 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.
- Critics say the road expansion will fragment valuable habitat, increase human-wildlife conflict, and go against elephant protection regulations.
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.”
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.
Payne has lived in the Malaysian state of Sabah for more than 35 years. In his work with WWF-Malaysia in the 1990s, he collaborated with the state’s government to create the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary to protect what he reckoned were the highest concentrations of elephants and orangutans in Malaysia.
“My own view is that there’s no need for the bridge or this road,” he said. The oil palm plantations east of the river are already very profitable, he said, so it’s unlikely that a paved road would provide a big economic boost. Sabah produces 12 percent of the world’s palm oil.
Data from the forest monitoring platform Global Forest Watch show that oil palm plantations push right up against the border of the wildlife sanctuary. Satellite images also show the profound changes in forest cover associated with plantation development in the area and demonstrate that even the sanctuary’s interior isn’t immune from the loss of trees.
Payne believes that orangutans and elephants won’t hesitate to cross the would-be road if necessary, as they already live in fragmented and degraded habitats. But others aren’t so sure.
Mongabay’s anonymous source said that a bridge and highway upstream of Sukau have limited the movement of elephants for more than a decade.
Around 300 Bornean elephants, a smaller subspecies of the Asian elephant, inhabit the Lower Kinabatangan Managed Elephant Range, which overlaps with the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary but is slightly larger at 40,000 hectares. A 2012 study of elephant habitat in Sabah published in the journal PLOS One reports that Borneo is home to around 2,000 elephants.
“In the Kinabatangan region, human settlements and agricultural development for oil palm drive an intense fragmentation process,” the authors wrote.
They also found that seasonal flooding can push densities of elephants up to nearly five per kilometer, which is “among the highest estimated for forest-dwelling elephants in Asia or Africa,” they said.
The addition of a paved road through the sanctuary, Payne said, makes a catastrophic encounter between elephants and people only a “matter of time.”
“Sometimes, you have 200 elephants crossing the road,” he added, “and people are just not used to it.”
One way to deal with that issue would be to construct an elevated “flyover” highway that would allow animals to pass beneath in areas they frequently cross.
In fact, the type of development planned for the Kinabatangan region appears to contradict Sabah’s Elephant Action Plan, which was produced by the Sabah Wildlife Department, a part of the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Environment. One of the plan’s priority actions is the prevention of “any process that would further fragment the habitat of the elephant population” including highways and major bridges for the Lower Kinabatangan Managed Elephant Range.
Fires are also an issue when it comes to road construction, Payne said. “Whenever there’s an El Niño drought, a lot of forest burns, and of course that’s along roads in particular.
“People are not really used to fire,” he added. “These droughts only come rarely, so in dry spells fires are really easily spread and destructive in rainforest.”
Payne said the concerns raised highlight the need for action on the part of the government and civil society. “People with a concern really need to step up and communicate sooner rather than later, and government would do well to listen if the concerns are valid,” he said. “In this case, a social and environmental impact assessment with public consultation would be a good way forward.”
Mongabay requested an interview with a representative of the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Environment, but received no response in time for publication. However, Minister Masidi Manjun voiced his support for wildlife protects in comments he made to the newspaper Free Malaysia Today in 2013.
“Forest and agricultural management practices should…be in concurrence with conserving Sabah’s wildlife and not the other way round,” Manjun said.
Hansen, M. C., P. V. Potapov, R. Moore, M. Hancher, S. A. Turubanova, A. Tyukavina, D. Thau, S. V. Stehman, S. J. Goetz, T. R. Loveland, A. Kommareddy, A. Egorov, L. Chini, C. O. Justice, and J. R. G. Townshend. 2013. “Hansen/UMD/Google/USGS/NASA Tree Cover Loss and Gain Area.” University of Maryland, Google, USGS, and NASA. Accessed through Global Forest Watch on 14 January 2016. www.globalforestwatch.org.
- IUCN and UNEP-WCMC, The World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA) [On-line], accessed on 14 January 2016, Cambridge, UK: UNEP-WCMC. Available at: www.protectedplanet.net.
- Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) Member Companies, Aidenvironment
Editor’s note: An earlier version included a map of tree cover loss within Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary using outdated boundary information. That map has been removed.