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NGOs call for alternative routes for Bornean road to avoid wildlife habitat

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.

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.

  • Coalition Humans Habitats Highways has urged authorities in the Malaysian state of Sabah to adopt alternative routes to a 13-kilometer (8-mile) stretch of the Pan Borneo Highway.
  • That particular stretch cuts through a protected forest reserve and overlaps extensively with heavily used elephant migration paths.
  • Experts say constructing the highway as currently planned would increase wildlife-vehicle collisions, including deadly accidents involving elephants, as well as human-elephant conflict.
  • It would also derail progress made by local community efforts encouraging humans and elephants to coexist in harmony.

Malaysian scientists and activists have called on road planners in the Bornean state of Sabah to reconsider a 13-kilometer (8-mile) stretch of the Pan Borneo Highway that will cut through a protected forest reserve with a dense concentration of elephants when built.

The current planned route runs through the Tawai Forest Reserve, a Class I protection forest in central Sabah that’s home to orangutans, clouded leopards, Bornean pygmy elephants and other endangered species. It also passes through 30 km (19 mi) of elephant range while overlapping extensively with heavily used elephant migration paths within the reserve.

In its June 16 statement, Coalition Humans Habitats Highways (Coalition 3H) urged the Sabah government to adopt one of its two proposed alternative routes or risk impacting endangered wildlife populations in the area. It also called on authorities to champion “the formation of a Joint Committee” that would consolidate field data and help road planners make informed decisions on the best route for the four-lane highway.

A massive infrastructure project that aims to link the Bornean states of Sabah and Sarawak to provinces in Indonesia, the Pan Borneo Highway involves the expansion or construction of more than 2,000 km (1,200 mi) of road through eastern Malaysia. Proponents say the highway will boost economic development in the region, but sections of its planned route, including the Tawai reserve stretch, have raised concern among scientists and activists.

The Tawai stretch was not been part of the state government’s initial plans. Instead of constructing a new road through the reserve, the authorities had originally proposed upgrading an existing road running from the town of Ranau through central Sabah. Following objections from villagers living along the road, who would have been displaced by the expansion, local officials and communities settled on the Tawai route, with the latter thinking it would provide access to a forest that was previously off-limits and potentially allow them to settle in the reserve.

Construction for the Pan Borneo Highway in Sabah. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

Experts say building the highway through the reserve and opening it up to potential settlement would be disastrous for both humans and wildlife. They foresee an uptick in wildlife-vehicle collisions, including deadly accidents involving elephants, and increased human-elephant conflict in a region that’s already seen a growing number of encounters between people and pachyderms in recent years.

“Elephants will try to cross the road and risk collisions with cars,” Enroe Soudi, project coordinator for the NGO Forever Sabah, which is part of Coalition 3H, told Mongabay. “Or they may move to other areas, like oil palm plantations, and cause new problems.”

“Telupid is part of the elephants’ home range,” said Farina Othman, elephant ecologist and founder of the NGO Seratu Aatai, which is also part of Coalition 3H. “If they’re not able to come here, they will try to create new home ranges in areas they’ve never been before. But wherever they go, there will be more plantations, roads and human settlements. There is basically no place left for the elephant.”

Some 1,500 Bornean pygmy elephants (Elephas maximus borneensis) remain in the wild today, most of them in central Sabah. As their forests and ranges become fragmented with encroaching settlements, plantations and roads, confrontations between elephants and humans have increased, with elephants paying the price. Among other fatal encounters, they have been hit by vehicles, poisoned by palm plantation workers, and shot by opportunistic poachers. Constructing the Pan Borneo Highway as planned would directly increase the incidence of such deadly run-ins, Othman said.

Map of four possible routes and elephant tracks. Image courtesy of Coalition 3H.

In its April 2021 report, Coalition 3H proposed two alternatives (Routes 3 and 4) to the planned road (Route 1). Instead of passing through the reserve, both suggested routes skirt the forest, cutting through existing oil palm estates and avoiding areas heavily used by elephants.

Initial estimates show Routes 3 and 4 could be more expensive to build, as they cut through hillier terrain and involve building bridges over the Labuk River. But these bridges would replace busy ferry crossings and benefit palm oil companies and communities isolated north of the river, Coalition 3H spokesperson Cynthia Ong said in the statement.

By bypassing the reserve, the two alternatives also “help avoid forest fires, forest encroachment and other environmental risks,” and “ensure the protection of the forest watershed, which is the main source of potable water for Telupid town,” Ong added.

Soudi, who has run the Kopisuladan Di Aki program under Forever Sabah since 2018, said the higher cost of the alternative routes would be a worthwhile investment to protect the region’s forests, wildlife and people. The initiative, which means “Human-Elephant Harmony” in the locals’ native language, involves gathering youths from affected villages and teaching them the basics of elephant conflict management and monitoring.

Trainees who have completed the course join the Community Elephant Ranger Team (CERT), an on-ground response group that deals with elephants when they wander into villages. The team also frequently shares its efforts and learnings with local authorities. “They have become a bridge between elephants, villagers and the government, especially the Sabah Wildlife Department,” Soudi said.

A herd of Bornean elephants in Sabah. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

Currently, CERT has plans to grow more elephant food plants, such as mango and jackfruit trees, at a former sawmill site and along the old logging road within the Tawai reserve. “The idea is elephants go into the villages because they want food. If we enrich their food in the forest, they won’t need to go to the villages anymore,” Soudi said.

Constructing the Pan Borneo Highway as planned would put an end to CERT’s restoration efforts. In recent months, the team has been studying elephant feeding, behavior and movement patterns, and collecting data to derive solutions to human-elephant conflicts. “Instead of seeing the elephant as the problem, we try to see the problem through an elephant’s eyes so that the elephant can show us the solution,” Soudi said.

Coalition 3H cited the collaboration between Kopisuladan Di Aki and the Sabah government in its statement as an example of how NGOs and road planners can work together on the Pan Borneo Highway. “Together with other stakeholders, Coalition 3H can contribute our ground knowledge effectively to the State Government” through the formation of a joint committee, Ong said.

Banner image of elephant in Sabah. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

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