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The Pan Borneo Highway on a collision course with elephants

  • Out of the controversy surrounding the Pan Borneo Highway and its potential impacts on the environment has arisen a movement to bring conservationists, scientists and planners together to develop a plan “to maximize benefits and reduce risks” to the environment from the road’s construction.
  • The chief minister of the Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo has called for the highway to avoid cutting through forests.
  • But a planned stretch would slice through a protected forest reserve with a dense concentration of elephants.
  • A coalition of scientific and civil society organizations has offered an alternative route that its members say would still provide the desired connection while lowering the risk of potentially deadly human-wildlife conflict.

This is the fifth article in our six-part series “Traveling the Pan Borneo Highway.” Read Part One, Part Two, Part Three and Part Four.

KOTA KINABALU, Malaysia — In March 2019, the conservation community in Sabah applauded a statement by the Malaysian state’s chief minister, Seri Muhammad Shafie Apdal, regarding the advice he gave to the contractors responsible for the construction of the Pan Borneo Highway.

“I told them not to flatten hills and chop trees, but just expand existing roads that we have,” Shafie said at an annual meeting centered on the conservation of forests in central Borneo called the Heart of Borneo Conference, according to The Star newspaper. “I hope they take it seriously,” he added.

In response, Cynthia Ong, chief facilitator of the Sabah-based NGO Forever Sabah, said, “[T]his guidance from the Chief Minister on protecting Sabah’s natural heritage can provide an opening for a ground-breaking collaboration,” according to The Borneo Post newspaper.

Pan Borneo Highway construction in the Malaysian state of Sabah. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

The Pan Borneo Highway is designed to link Sabah with Sarawak and boost the economies of the two Malaysian states on the island. But the construction plans for more than 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) of the road in Malaysian Borneo — in some cases, by expanding existing roads and in others, by carving a new pathway — have drawn their share of controversy. In some areas, scientists and conservationists have expressed concern that the highway would alter or even displace communities. And where it would slice through sensitive habitat, they say that it would threaten populations of wildlife species, many of which are already struggling to survive in a landscape altered by human settlements, plantations and resource extraction.

Amid the concerns, however, a movement bringing scientists and activists together with the highway’s planners has developed “to find the best ways to maximize benefits and reduce risks of the Pan Borneo Highway,” Ong said in the statement published by The Borneo Post. Civil society groups like Forever Sabah, as well as research and scientific organizations such as the Danau Girang Field Centre, based on the Kinabatangan River, and WWF Malaysia, have formed Coalition 3H, short for “Humans, Habitats, Highways,” to spearhead the effort.

Of particular concern to conservationists is a 172-kilometer (107-mile) length of road running from the town of Ranau through central Sabah. Currently, the plan is to cut a new four-lane span through 13 kilometers (8 miles) the Tawai Forest Reserve in central Sabah. This block of forest is a “Class I” reserve — what the state calls a “protection forest” where logging isn’t allowed.

Sabah’s remaining elephants are hemmed in by oil palm plantations, and scientists worry that stretches of the Pan Borneo Highway could further fragment the population. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

Allowing the highway to pass through the reserve would surely invite precisely the sorts of impacts that its protection aims to avoid, Benoît Goossens, a biologist and the director of the Danau Girang Field Centre, told Mongabay. Goossens referenced decades of research showing that logging, clearance for agriculture and hunting all spike after a road comes in. A 2014 study by tropical ecologist William Laurance of James Cook University in Cairns, Australia, found 95 percent of deforestation in the Amazon happened within 5.5 kilometers (3.4 miles) of roads or 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) of rivers. (Editor’s note: William Laurance is a member of Mongabay’s advisory board.)

In Sabah, data from Danau Girang and Forever Sabah that tracks Borneo’s elephant population provides further evidence of the perils of building the highway through the Tawai Forest Reserve. On the groups’ maps, white dots mark the GPS-tagged location of an elephant at a specific point in time. Swarms of these white points seem to track the proposed alignment of the highway — not surprising because both the elephants and road planners tend to favor the flattest stretches of forest with the least resistance.

But that shared preference could spell trouble. Building through territory that elephants frequent strikes Goossens as foolhardy in an area that’s already struggling with human-elephant conflict. In 2018, an elephant walked through a school in this part of Sabah, not far from where the highway, as it’s currently planned, would pass.

The span of the highway through central Sabah would connect the region’s oil palm plantations. A coalition of conservation and research organizations are advocating for a path that goes through the plantations instead of wildlife-rich forests. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

The relative abundance of elephants in the area “will cause massive issues with construction,” Goossens said. The sudden appearance of workers’ camps in the animals’ territory could frustrate them, and he said he would expect dangerous confrontations between the animals and highway crews to rise.

Goossens said he’s also concerned that after the highway is built, the incidence of horrific traffic accidents, for both motorists and elephants, could increase, as they have in other parts of Southeast Asia. Like the plans for much of Sabah, crews will widen the highway from two lanes to four, creating a “dual carriageway” with a safety divider in the middle separating the lanes traveling in opposite directions. These dividers make roadways safer by preventing head-on collisions, but they also render the highway nearly impassable for many species of wildlife.

To find an alternative that allows the construction of the highway through this area but reduces the risk to both animals and people, “The coalition proposed a wildlife-friendly road,” Cheryl Cheah Phaik Imm, elephant conservation officer with WWF Malaysia, said in an interview.

A herd of elephants along the Kinabatangan River in Sabah. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

Coalition 3H advocates a more northerly route that does not pass through the protected forest reserve and would avoid the area most heavily used by elephants. This adjusted path for the highway also wouldn’t invite human disturbance into the forest habitat of the reserve, which is home to clouded leopards, orangutans and sun bears, along with the elephants and other wildlife.

Goossens said that engineers from Sabah’s works department seemed receptive to the idea of shifting the route, given the evidence of potential trouble. Other changes suggested by the coalition, however, such as the removal of the divider or shrinking the number of lanes down to two (one each direction), aren’t as practicable, the engineers said. The divider is a safety necessity, and transitioning back and forth between two and four lanes would cause traffic problems.

Still, the realignment, along the northern route or other alternatives offered by the coalition, could be one of the “win-wins” — for both economic development and conservation — that the coalition’s member organizations and the government are looking for, said Sheelasheena Damian, a policy analyst with WWF Malaysia.

A map shows the planned route (in red) of the Pan Borneo Highway and the alternative route (in yellow) proposed by Coalition 3H, along with the location of the Tawai Forest Reserve. The white dots represent the locations of elephants fitted with satellite collars. Image by Nicola Abram and Coalition 3H (Humans, Habitats, Highways) using elephant satellite collar data from Danau Girang Field Center and CERT (Forever Sabah).

Now, the coalition is waiting to see what the state government will do and if the chief minister’s promise to protect forests will hold.

Malaysia’s works minister, Baru Bian, said his office, which may take over construction of the Pan Borneo Highway by the end of September, will follow the state government’s guidance.

“If there is any suggestion by the state government to realign the roadway,” Baru said in an interview, “definitely we will abide by their suggestion.”

Continue to Part Six.

Banner image of Bornean elephants by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

John Cannon is a staff writer at Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon


Barber, C. P., Cochrane, M. A., Souza Jr, C. M., & Laurance, W. F. (2014). Roads, deforestation, and the mitigating effect of protected areas in the Amazon. Biological Conservation, 177, 203-209. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2014.07.004

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