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Canceled: Plans for a bridge in a critical wildlife area in Borneo have been scrapped

  • Plans for the Sukau Bridge, crossing the Kinabatangan River near a wildlife sanctuary in Malaysian Borneo, raised a global outcry.
  • “We are not going ahead with the bridge,” Sabah Forest Department Chief Conservator Sam Mannan announced at an event in London.
  • In explaining his decision, Mannan reportedly cited a recent letter by celebrated naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough, as well as concerns expressed by scientists, NGOs and corporations.

Controversial plans to build a bridge over the Kinabatangan River in Malaysian Borneo’s Sabah state have been canceled, announced Sabah Forest Department Chief Conservator Sam Mannan.

The announcement was made Wednesday evening during a South East Asia Rainforest Research Partnership (SEARRP) event in London.

“We are not going ahead with the bridge,” Mannan said, according to Malaysian news site The Star Online. “In making this decision, Chief Minister of Sabah Datuk Seri Musa Aman has taken into consideration all the concerns and opinions expressed related to the bridge, including those from Yayasan Sime Darby, Nestle, scientists and NGO groups and also the opinion of someone who knows the territory better than anybody else – Sir David Attenborough.”

Last month, celebrated naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough voiced his criticism of the bridge plans in a letter published in the Guardian.

“If this construction is allowed to go ahead, I am left in no doubt that the bridge will have significant negative effects on the region’s wildlife, the Kinabatangan’s thriving tourism industry and on the image of Sabah as a whole,” Attenborough wrote.

Oil palm near the Kinabatangan River in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

The plans called for a 350-meter (1,148 feet) bridge crossing Kinabatangan river in Sabah, and the paving of a connected gravel road.

Its construction was proposed as part of the 2008 Sabah Development Corridor, a plan aimed at transforming the state into a leading economic region and investment destination.

The bridge would replace an existing ferry service, and its proponents argue it would cut travel times for goods and people and connect villages south of the river to hospitals and other services.

Conservationists fear the bridge’s construction would tear apart habitat for endangered elephants, primates and birds in the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, a patchwork of protected areas that runs along the namesake river. The paved road would run directly through part of the sanctuary.

Much of the nearby forest has been lost to oil palm plantations, making remaining wildlife corridors particularly crucial, experts argue.

“The bridge and the road would have a direct impact on wildlife populations, and especially elephants, orangutans and proboscis monkeys,” said Benoit Goossens, the director of the Danau Girang Field Centre in Sabah, in a January statement.

“The new public road that will subsequently follow the bridge will cut off the last remaining uninhabited route for elephants near Sukau, which will have catastrophic consequences for both the animals and the people. Major conflicts will arise, deaths (elephant attacks on people, elephants shot or poisoned) will occur. Moreover, we will increase easy penetration of poachers into protected forests, especially of ivory traders,” Goossens added.

Some have also questioned the economic value of the bridge. Sabah Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Seri Masidi Manjun warned this month that the bridge’s construction could destroy plans to boost ecotourism in Sabah and put at risk the livelihoods of people already working in the tourist industry.

A pair of orphaned orangutan in Sabah, Malaysia. The Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary is home to a sizeable population of the endangered great ape.

Yayasan Sime Darby, the philanthropic wing of the palm oil giant, also threatened to “review” its projects in the area if the bridge went through.

Fears that construction was imminent were raised in January, when the Danau Field Centre spotted work crews clearing forest to make room for machinery storage and an office for the construction contractor.

However, officials said that work would not begin until an environmental impact survey had been completed.

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