Kuala Lumpur to Kota Bharu

Starting on the northeastern edge of Kuala Lumpur, trains will travel beneath the tree-covered slopes of the Titiwangsa Range, an important water catchment for Kuala Lumpur and its surrounding suburbs, via an 18-kilometer tunnel blasted through the largely granite rocks that make up the mountains.

They will emerge in the lowlands into a landscape of forested hills, many of which have been cleared for plantations of rubber and palm oil, crossing the chocolatey waters of the Pahang River and tracts of secondary jungle, some of which still harbor important populations of endangered wildlife.

As the line heads north, a little inland from the South China Sea, the terrain becomes flatter. There, the trains will travel across low-lying agricultural land, plantations, mangroves, peat swamp forests and wetlands on their way to Kelantan.

The route avoids cutting through the jungle-covered heart of Malaysia where a single-track diesel railway has joined Kelantan with the south since the early 1930s. It also means considerably less upheaval than previous proposals that would have crossed 25 protected forests and required the logging of more than 2,000 hectares and the “severe fragmentation of habitats,” according to the project’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).

In order to lessen the impact on environmentally-sensitive areas and reduce habitat fragmentation, the contractors will build 19 additional tunnels and lift the railway off the ground on 70 kilometers of elevated tracks, a move which will also reduce the risk from flooding.

WWF-Malaysia, which says it highlighted to the developer — through face-to-face meetings and letters — its concerns about the effect of construction on the environment, says MRL appears receptive to its suggestions.

“It is crucial to take a landscape and ecosystem approach in the planning of such projects, as some areas that are environmentally sensitive or of high conservation value may fall outside of forest reserves,” said Norizan Mohd Mazlan, Head of WWF-Malaysia’s Peninsular Malaysia Conservation Programme. “Using (that) approach, fragmentation of forests due to linear projects and other land use changes can be minimized.”

Rainforest along the Tembeling River, the main tributary of the Pahang River. Photo by Rhett Butler for Mongabay.

Even so, areas of ecological significance will still be affected.

In Bukit Bauk, a protected tract of forest stretches from the eastern edges of Taman Negara (Malaysia’s first and largest national park) towards the South China Sea. Despite pressure from expanding towns and villages, agriculture and the expressway that cuts it in half, smaller mammals including tapirs continue to make their home there, and Bukit Bauk has been identified as part of the Central Forest Spine.

Designated CFS1-SL4, the forested area is one of 13 “secondary” linkages that are seen as crucial to the concept’s long-term success. According to the Terengganu office of Perhilitan, Malaysia’s Wildlife Department, Bukit Bauk is a “critical area.” The EIA calls it a “biodiversity hotspot.”

But even with the revisions to the route, and the construction of a 900-meter tunnel beneath Bukit Bauk itself, the ECRL development will require the clearing of more than 150 hectares of forest in the reserve — mostly to make way for a spur line that will enable iron ore to be transported from the mines to the port in Kuantan. The government estimates about 70 percent of traffic on the railway will actually be cargo.

Further north at Setiu, the site of a 23,000-hectare wetland that is also home to Malaysia’s largest breeding population of painted terrapins, the railway threatens to divide another of the secondary linkages. That tract, known as CFS1- SL5, is seen as another vital connection between Taman Negara’s jungles and the South China Sea coast.

Further south and inland, CFS2-SL1, which links the forests surrounding the freshwater lake, Tasik Chini, to Taman Negara, will also be affected. So too, Kemasul, a forest which lies south of the town of Temerloh and has become a hotspot for conflicts between people and wildlife, mostly elephants, as the area has been logged and converted to plantations.

Roads vs. rail

There has been little research on how railways affect the ecology of the places they pass through, although railways are significantly less polluting than roads. Track corridors tend to be narrower than a four- or six-lane highway, with traffic more condensed.

“Rail is still very underdeveloped in Malaysia,” said conservationist Surin Suksuwan. “We are heavily dependent on road-base transport. Railways will definitely have less impact on the environment. Its footprint is a lot less.”

Most academic work on the issue has focused on landscapes in Europe and North America, which are home to species like bears and moose.

But wherever they are in the world, railway tracks, while narrower than a road, still act as a barrier to animals trying to follow well-established paths, and change the environment of the places where they are built because trees and undergrowth have to be removed in order to make a corridor for the tracks. In the case of the ECRL, the EIA suggests that while the corridor will be wide enough for two tracks, only one line will be laid. The government has yet to respond to opposition requests for clarification.

“The construction of a railway converts a relatively narrow strip of land into a rocky or concrete surface with two or more steel rails,” note Benjamin Dorsey, Mattias Olsson and Lisa J. Rew in the 2015 Handbook of Road Ecology. “This change could be considered minor in environments where the ground is naturally rocky or barren, but in forests and other well-vegetated landscapes, the gap created by the railway can be a conduit for poachers, weeds and invasive species as well as a barrier to the movement of wildlife. It is important to consider ecosystems and not just individual species.”

Elephants making use of a viaduct at the Kenyir Wildlife Corridor in Terengganu state. Photo courtesy of G. Reuben Clements.

According to the EIA, the ECRL route was revised a number of times to reduce the environmental impact, while the decision to build more tunnels will ensure less fragmentation of animals’ habitat. Discussion notes attached to the EIA reveal discussions with government agencies including Perhilitan expressing concern about the risks to wildlife from the project.

Perhilitan officers noted incidents involving wildlife had the potential to “go viral” and that many animals had ended up as road-kill on Malaysia’s roads, particularly those connecting west and east through more forested central areas.

It advised mitigation plans for small mammals, and the relocation of Malayan tapirs in affected areas. It also warned that a proposed one-meter-high concrete wall and fence might not be enough to keep elephants off the line. Instead, the Wildlife Department suggested the train tracks themselves should be elevated, allowing animals to pass underneath.

Long-term monitoring of wildlife, risks of human-wildlife conflict and enforcement to curb hunting and poaching should all be part of a comprehensive Wildlife Management Plan to be implemented during construction and once the railway’s operational, according to WWF-Malaysia.

“MRL is committed to mainstreaming environmental protection into the project and towards self-regulation to ensure that the quality of the environment is protected during the construction and operation of the ECRL,” the EIA concluded. MRL has also promised that sufficient funds have been allocated to ensure all pollution prevention and mitigating measures can be implemented. MRL, an agency of Malaysia’s Ministry of Finance Inc., declined a request from Mongabay to comment further on its environmental commitments.

Mitigation measures

Malaysia started building eco-viaducts about a decade ago to encourage animals such as elephants and tigers to reduce the risk of wildlife being hit by vehicles.

After a pregnant tiger was killed crossing the East Coast Highway in Terengganu (the state is thought to be home to between 30 and 50 tigers) last year, the government promised to build more viaducts along that road. But endangered species continue to be run over on roads that run through, or close to, the country’s remaining jungles. In June, a two-year-old elephant was discovered in a pool of blood on the side of the Grik highway, while a black panther was run over near Sungai Yu, an area renowned for its tigers and which already has a viaduct. The panther was found just eight kilometers from the crossing.

Gopalasamy Reuben Clements is one of the few researchers to have investigated whether wildlife viaducts actually work in Malaysia.

His research focused on a 70-kilometer stretch of road through the Kenyir Wildlife Corridor on the northeastern edge of Taman Negara. The Associate Professor at Sunway University and co-founder of Malaysian ecologist research group Rimba, found that while there were 42 mammal species living in the surrounding jungles only 14 used the viaducts. Carnivores, including tigers, tended to avoid them because there weren’t enough bushes to provide cover for them, so maintaining the forest and vegetation on both sides of the road, or railway, is imperative.

“If deforestation continues on one side then the whole viaduct becomes almost functionally useless because there’s no point in the animals crossing,” he explained over the phone. “Viaducts will also become death traps if they are not regularly policed because our research has shown that they are popular access points and camping grounds for poachers.”

An abandoned campsite at a wildlife viaduct in Kuala Berang. Photo courtesy of G. Reuben Clements.

Others share that concern, and they’re also worried about the risk of future development in the areas opened up by the railway.

The Malaysian Nature Society, the country’s oldest conservation group, stresses the concern is not only the effect of the temporary construction roads on soil and nearby rivers, but also the way in which roads and railways often lead to the expansion of settlements and a rush for natural resources. Executive Director IS Shanmugaraj points to the development that followed the colonial-era railways.

“On the Jungle Line, it was all jungle to begin with,” he said. “Then settlements began to develop and small towns appeared. Look at Gua Musang (a town in southern Kelantan that sits on the Jungle Line). It was once just a logging depot and then the railway came.”

The NGO believes the construction of the ECRL offers an opportunity for the affected states to do things properly – by protecting land with conservation value within the project zone and ensuring that it is not opened up for further development once the railway is completed.

“The project is a federal government project, but the land belongs to the states,” Shanmugaraj said. “And the impact is on the states too, including the wildlife and the vegetation.”

Banner image: Malayan tigers by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

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Article published by Isabel Esterman
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