Even from the air-conditioned conference room in Putrajaya, Malaysia’s urban planners are aware of the megafauna – the elephants, tigers, monkeys, tapirs and deer – that still ply the jungles of their country. At the forefront of everyone’s minds seems to be finding straightforward solutions to the impacts that new developments can have on such high-profile animals.

As construction on the Central Spine Highway has moved forward, crews have installed viaducts, essentially passageways that – in theory at least – allow animals like elephants and tigers to pass underneath between the forest habitats on either side. But rarely are solutions so simple.

“The viaduct is probably a good approach, but it cannot solve all of the problems,” said Ee Phin Wong, a biologist with the group Management and Ecology of Malaysian Elephants (MEME).

Workers recently added viaducts to the existing Gerik-Jeli highway, a road that cuts across critical elephant habitat near Malaysia’s border with Thailand. Even with these measures in place, she said, “We will still have elephants crossing the road at many sections along the road,” as MEME’s research has shown.

Each landscape is unique, and the behavior of different elephant populations will vary, she said. “But we have to expect that elephants traversing the road will increase the chances of collisions with vehicles and we will need other mitigation measures as well,” she added.

One of Laurance’s former students, Reuben Clements, now an associate professor at Sunway University in Selangor, used camera traps to quantify how many species actually pass through these viaducts. His work revealed that 20 viaducts across Peninsular Malaysia were “effective” crossing structures for only two of six target mammal species, both of which were herbivores. Most importantly, viaducts were poorly used by all carnivores, including tigers.

Laurance added that poachers in particular seem to like this solution, as these structures may be ideal hunting areas if enforcement authorities do not patrol them regularly.

Mason Campbell (left), on a panel with Mohammed Alamgir (right), explains the importance of funding for maintenance of roads. Photo by John C. Cannon

The role of advocacy

Getting past the gut feelings that decision makers might have about certain measures takes access to objective data, said Cynthia Ong, the founder and executive director of the Malaysian NGO Land Environment Animals People (LEAP). That’s one of the reasons LEAP is partnering with Laurance’s team in Malaysian Borneo.

“What this helps us to do is take this to a higher level … and say, ‘Guys, look at this, and if you do this, this will happen,’” Ong said in a meeting with the Sabah Forestry Department in Sandakan. The idea is “to use the science to inform decisions.”

The speed at which infrastructure projects move lends a sense of urgency to the effort, but Ong doesn’t question most planners’ earnest desire to develop the best infrastructure.

“Our experience so far with that level? They really want to do their job,” she said.

Campbell said he had also seen an eagerness to understand and find the best solution. ‘Have you done it before and does it work?’ has been “a constant question,” he said.

One attendee at the Putrajaya meeting pointed out that the high costs of subscriptions to scientific journals were too expensive, limiting the flow of good data to practitioners on the ground. That point goes back to Mason Campbell’s musings about his effectiveness as a scientist.

“If I had a billion dollars to save the rainforest – I shouldn’t admit this as a scientist – but you wouldn’t just hire a hundred scientists,” Campbell said. “They’d produce a thousand awesome journal articles, but then what’s going to happen?”

He argues that in conservation, while passion is important, making an impact requires communication with policymakers.

“It’s cool you love a frog,” he said, “but if you can’t talk to a government official who’s going to make the decision…”

In some corners of the scientific world, however, the idea of mixing with officials and policy advocates runs counter to the model of scientists as objective fact-finders. That’s especially true in ecology, where a passion for conservation leads many scientists into the field.

Since the beginnings of the mainstream environmental movement in the 1960s, ecologists have debated what their role in policy and politics should be.

“Scientists, it is argued, have special knowledge that can be used to protect the public against detrimental policies and practices,” writes sociologist Dorothy Nelkin in a 1977 issue of the journal Social Studies of Science. “It is their ethical responsibility to use their knowledge ‘in the public interest.’”

But, by engaging in that debate, well-meaning ecologists found they exposed themselves and their work to pressures from people with motives beyond scientific discovery.

“Their brief experience with public activity indicated to ecologists that those who need scientific expertise do not necessarily share scientific values,” Nelkin writes. “Corporations or government agencies seek technical services to justify narrowly defined political or economic goals.”

Her research into the issue revealed a potential shift in the practice of science. “[S]ome ecologists fear that a search for quick technological solutions to environmental problems will replace efforts to develop powerful theories with predictive values.”

Nelkin continues, “As scientists become increasingly involved in public policy problems, does this inevitably encourage greater outside direction of scientific work?”

Laurance’s project is focused on the very nexus of that tension.

“This is the challenge between trying to do science and trying to do real-world decision making,” he said. “Decision-makers don’t want equivocation, and they can’t handle it very well. They do want clearer responses.”

At the same time, he recognizes the shortcomings of those in his own profession. Often times, “[The plan for a] project is going to be decided in two weeks. You’re lucky if you can get the scientists to decide in six months if they want to do something about it.”

There aren’t easy answers to the questions that Dorothy Nelkin raised 40 years ago. But Laurance and his team remain committed to making the results of scientific study available as infrastructure booms.

Danum Valley, a protected primary forest in Sabah. Photo by John C. Cannon

Not just about wildlife

In the late 2000s, the Sabah Development Plan included the construction of a short bridge across the Kinabatangan River and a connected paved road. Proponents championed the project as an avenue to economic prosperity and growth for the town of Sukau and its surroundings. Conservation groups and scientists, however, worried that paving the road would have further carved up the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, forcing the animals that lived there into ever-tighter quarters and impinging on a nascent ecotourism industry.

Sabah’s chief minister recently cancelled the bridge and road. But some argue that the angst over the bridge, which included more than a year of at-times heated arguments, could have been avoided.

“The reason we were interested to engage with [Laurance’s] study is that it can be a useful tool for us in our advocacy,” Ong said. “If, five years ago, someone had done a study on the Sukau Bridge and said, OK, this and this and this might happen, it wouldn’t have gotten so far.”

That the bridge might not have delivered on its economic promises highlights an important issue for Laurance.

“The strategy is actually trying to spread the benefits to the broadest sector of society – and I’ll be absolutely blatant about it – to the broadest sector of voters,” Laurance said. “If you want to be politically influential, the way to do it is to try to maximize the benefits for the largest number of people.”

During their visit to Malaysia in March and April, he and his colleagues emphasized repeatedly that they were not hoping the government would pull all of these projects just for the sake of environmental protection. At the same time, they also said that building a road to every village that wants one wouldn’t be feasible, nor would it bring the intended economic surge.

“That has to be very clear,” said Mohammed Alamgir, an environmental scientist on Laurance’s team. “We are not anti-development. We are not saying that you can’t build a road.

“The issue is that where can you build the road for the greatest economic outcome.”

Much of that issue goes back to planning, the team told groups on the peninsula and in Sabah.

“The commonest problem that we see in most countries – especially in wet tropical environments where you get huge rainfall – is that way too much money goes into the investments in the beginning,” Laurance said, “and not nearly enough money goes into maintaining the infrastructure in the long term.”

What happens then is the roads become “stranded assets,” no longer capable of providing the efficient connections between communities and markets that were used to justify the construction in the first place.

One example might be “a highway that’s designed [for drivers] to go 80 or 100 kilometers an hour,” Laurance said, “but you basically go 10 kilometers an hour because, every 100 meters, you get these potholes or you get this slumping.”

Oftentimes, the environmental destruction due to the presence of the road has already taken place. But without proper upkeep, “The money is basically wasted,” he added.

“There are not just environmental risks. There are really serious social, economic and political risks for not putting the infrastructure in the right places.”

The ferry terminal, across the river from Sukau, the site at which a bridge had been planned until it was cancelled in April. Photo by John C. Cannon

He pointed to a fallacy in the argument for many infrastructure projects that time just doesn’t bear out: that people’s lives will improve uniformly as a result of such investments.

“Rarely do these benefits trickle down,” he said. “It almost never happens.”

So as Malaysia’s leaders embark on a crescendo in development to move their country toward prosperity, Laurance and his colleagues hope that their audiences will embrace the concept of “smart development.”

As Laurance anticipated, it won’t be easy. He knows the burden that policymakers and planners face. “Everyone is feeling the same pressure from all sides,” he said.

He hopes that the exchange – both what his team is learning from these planners and what he’s trying to impart to them – will result in a more coordinated approach that would benefit all involved.

“The concepts are not complicated at all,” he said, but he also knows that the reality on the ground – as it played out with respect to the Sukau bridge, for example – is considerably more complex.

“We’ve now reached the base of the mountain, and we’re starting the climb,” he said as the trip was winding down. “It’s looking steep, and there are some big rocks that could coming falling down on our heads.”


  • Barber, C. P., Cochrane, M. A., Souza, C. M., & Laurance, W. F. (2014). Roads, deforestation, and the mitigating effect of protected areas in the Amazon. Biological Conservation, 177, 203-209.
  • Nelkin, D. (1977). Scientists and professional responsibility: the experience of American ecologists. Social Studies of Science, 7(1), 75-79.

Editor’s note: William Laurance is a member of Mongabay’s advisory board.

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Banner image of rhinoceros hornbill by John C. Cannon.

Article published by John Cannon
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