Proponents of the project contend that a bridge and associated paved road to Sukau would have helped the town grow and improve the standard of living for its residents.Environmental groups argue that the region’s unrealized potential for high-end nature tourism could bring similar economic benefits without disturbing local populations of elephants, orangutans and other struggling wildlife.The mid-April cancellation of the bridge was heralded as a success for rainforest conservation, but bigger questions loom about the future of local communities, the sanctuary and its wildlife. SUKAU, Malaysia – At first blush, the muddy waters of the Kinabatangan River in northern Borneo seem to laze through a hodge-podge of sleepy fishing and farming villages. The river winds past oil palm plantations pushing right up to the river’s edge, crumbling (and striking) limestone cliffs, and abutting explosions of vegetation extending from carpets of hyacinth (Hyacinthus spp.) – introduced by a British colonist who liked the way they looked, according to local lore – to the twisting lianas and the tops of the tall trees standing guard on the river bank. But like most rainforests, the stillness along Malaysia’s second-longest river belies what is in fact a dynamic and ever-changing place. The Kinabatangan and the narrow wildlife sanctuary named for it, pinned to its banks by thousands of hectares of oil palm on all sides, have recently pulled the state of Sabah into the spotlight, as the opposition from local and international conservation groups to a planned bridge in the town of Sukau across the river has grown. The bridge was cancelled in mid-April, according to a speech by Sabah’s chief conservator of forests, Sam Mannan. But Saddi Abdul Rahman, Sukau’s representative to the Sabah State Legislative Assembly, hasn’t given up on the project yet, and said in a message to Mongabay that he will wait until he has official confirmation from the state’s chief minister. The inset map shows the movements of Kasih, a Bornean pygmy elephant, throughout the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary over several years. Inset map courtesy of Benoit Goossens/Danau Girang Field Centre. Base map courtesy of Google Earth. Finding a road to development The Sukau bridge was a piece of the 2008 Sabah Development Corridor, a statewide plan set in motion to boost Sabah’s economy. Saddi has argued in the press that the 350-meter (1,148-foot) bridge and associated paving of an existing dirt-and-gravel road would connect communities east and south of the Kinabatangan River with the town of Sukau on the river’s western bank, providing them with access to markets and services like healthcare. Currently, the infrequent Morisem Ferry links the two sides of the river. Saddi and others have said the bridge and paved road are necessary for the economic development of Sukau. Community members have reportedly voiced their desire to turn their town into a hub that connects far-flung areas in northern Borneo with the larger towns of Lahad Datu and Sandakan. But conservation groups and scientists working in the area have waged a long battle against the bridge, arguing that it would lead to the destruction of the habitats now protected in the wildlife sanctuary. They warned that the ecotourism possibilities just beginning to take root in the area – and an associated economic boom – could wash away if the project had been allowed to move forward. The move to nix the plans drew immediate praise from the bridge’s opponents when Mannan shared the news at an event for the South East Asia Rainforest Research Partnership on April 18. “When Datuk Sam Mannan made the announcement that the bridge plan had been cancelled at the Royal Society of London, an international audience of conservationists, scientists, business people, entertainers, and philanthropists erupted in applause,” said Greg Asner, a global ecologist at the Carnegie Airborne Observatory, whose team has been working on mapping the carbon stocks and biodiversity of Sabah. “It was a great, and rare, moment for rainforest conservation,” Asner said in an email to Mongabay.