A victory for the environment
Published on: Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Kota Kinabalu: The series of hard news and special reports pertaining to the proposed construction of the Sukau bridge in the middle of the rainforest that led to it being cancelled was not done with the aim of winning the Prime Minister's Hibiscus Award for Environmental Journalism in mind, according to winner Kan Yaw Chong. The Special Writer who specialises on the environment and wildlife for Daily Express – which became the first East Malaysian newspaper to win the most prestigious environmental journalism award in Malaysia last Friday – even risked his life in the process.

This was because he decided to go to the exact site where the bridge was supposed to be built and spent several hours walking the entire length of the area and observing the kind of wildlife and vegetation there.

It is a known pygmy elephant habitat who have previously charged and killed "intruders" that included unsuspecting locals and even tourists.

"I was lucky to manage to spend enough time to have a first hand look at the site without being attacked by the elephants although there was evidence of them from their faecal matter and footprints," he said.

"Had they attacked me my career as a journalist would have ended there and then with perhaps the image of the charging bulls recorded on my camera," he said.

One other thing he noticed was the many Orang Utan nests high up in the trees which would have to be felled if the bridge had to be built. Orang Utans are solitary animals and it is rare to find so many nests in a given area.

Kan said if any, the award served as a formal recognition from KL for the successful rescue of a tourism vision that the Sabah Government set in the late 1980s and early 90s, i.e. to turn the lower Kinabatangan into a world class river wildlife ecotourism destination.

What the then State Government proposed to do to accomplish the vision first spawned by Junaidi Payne – WWF's first Director in Sabah – was to gazette 60,000 hectares of Asia's only remaining forested alluvial flood plain which was filled with wildlife. The aim was to attract the world to pay top dollars just to look at the region's iconic wildlife at close quarters, namely the elephants, orangutans, proboscis monkeys, birds, a mighty river with gargantuan crocodiles, among others.

Of course nothing near that ambitious 60,000ha wildlife sanctuary happened, partly because a change in government meant different people put in charge who had different ideas.

"Nevertheless, that was the original vision, the plan which Datuk Wilfred Lingham, then Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Tourism and Environmental Development told me.

" And that was how Sukau first entered my journalistic career way back in 1990 – 28 years go, when Irene Charuruks, then General Manager of Sabah Tourism Promotion Corporation, Board members Mina Hong, Chua Soon Bui and Noredah Othman, now deputy General Manager, wildlife tourism guru Stephen Liew, brought me to Sukau to kick-start a travel writing promotion campaign to popularise it, guided by now famed wildlife photographer, Cede Prudente," he recalled.

"From Day One, I decided to use the power of the pen to campaign on behalf of wildlife and help the State accomplish that vision for Lower Kinabatangan and Sukau."

To cut the story short – Sukau did become a world famous wildlife tourism destination 10 to 15 years later, supported actively by WWF-Malaysia to drive a balance between an aggressive oil palm sector, local folks and wildlife dubbed Kinabatangan-Corridor of Life.

Kan said he foresaw that turning inward to oil palm or concrete and bitumen would trigger the onset of a severe balance disorder from which rescue may be impossible.

Over the years, it became clear that inward turning to cash crops far exceeded the original outward-focussed visionary dream of gazetting the 60,000-hectare riverine forests set apart to care for wildlife.

Delay after delay whittled the proposal down to a compromised 26,000 hectares when it was eventually gazetted in 2005 under the Wildlife Conservation Enactment 1997.

Oil palms planted right to the river banks where they were not supposed to be by law, became increasingly a prominent part of the landscape.

"So what happened on the ground didn't square with the original State Vision and Mission to accomplish a world class ecotourism destination.

"The gradual erosion of Sabah's eco reputation became felt as tourists moaned about the loss of wilderness to excessive commercial palms.

Then came the earth-shaking news about a Sukau Bridge that would cost up to RM700 million upon completion being lobbied at the expense of wildlife.

"I asked known local elephant researcher Dr Raymond Alfred what he thought of the Sukau Bridge.

He said it would pose a 'second dead end' to the herd of 350 elephants, after the Batu Putih bridge, trapping them in a much smaller and poorer feeding ground.

"That inspired one of my early special reports entitled 'Bridge Over Trouble Waters'."

"It surprised me a great deal when Rahimatsah Amat accepted an interview which resulted in a front page Daily Express lead voicing his objection on grounds that all State Wildlife Action Plans discouraged major infrastructures being built within the wildlife sanctuary of Lower Kinabatangan.

"Strangest of all, nobody seemed sure exactly WHERE they were going to put the bridge, until I called a Sukau-based worker who said: 'The IOI jetty and dirt road across Lot 3 of the Wildlife Sanctuary'."

Kan said he then asked Alexander Yee, then President of KiTA and said: "Nestle and Sime Darby are holding a joint ceremony to present Group Certification to about 100 oil palm smallholders at Myne Resort, Bilit, on March 6 (2016), can you provide a boat after lunch to send me to the IOI jetty?"

Yee agreed and that one small event led to something big. "As I walked down the quiet 2km dirt road where I didn't encounter a single soul or vehicle , I was astonished to see orangutan nests everywhere on top of the trees along both sides of the dirt road and elephant foot prints!

"It convinced me that a 1,000ft bridge followed by a busy highway cutting across all that would be a death sentence to wildlife and raised my concern with Forestry Director Datuk Sam Mannan.

Then an unmistakable signal that the bridge was definitely going ahead became clear when Daily Express received a picture of a forested site which had been cleared to build the contractor's office!

When Daily Express published that picture on the front page and posed questions, Forestry stepped in and slapped a stop-work order.

NGOs picked up some public courage when Dr Marc Ancreaz spoke and Dr Benoit Gossens released scientific data on the elephant movements with the highest density in Sukau. Soon after, alarmed tour operators like Alex Yee, Datuk KL Tan the current Matta President and ecotourism guru Albert Teo also voiced objections.

Probably the most powerful voice of local dissent came from former deputy Prime Minister Tun Musa Hitam, now Chairman of Sime Darby Foundation, who said he felt "uncomfortable" about the Sukau Bridge during a visit to the Foundation's funded forest restoration project in Ulu Segama.

Tour operators in Sandakan – Johnny Lim, Amy Chin, Cede Prudente and Caesar now dared to go public in definite terms that a massive hardware across Sukau will terminate the wildness experience of Lower Kinabatangan once and for all!

All these the Daily Express duty reported but still nothing changed. "Then one day, Express Editor James Sarda handed me a report that appeared in the UK Guardian and said 'Kan, you better process this.

It may lead to something.'

The Guardian report carried comments of Sir David Attenborough – the world's Number One conservationist and legendary wildlife documentary producer who praised the Lower Kinabatangan as one of the richest wildlife destinations on earth that he had visited and how the bridge would spell its sure doom.

"I processed the report which was published and that, according to Mannan, was the straw that broke the camel's back," said Kan, adding that the credit is owed to a lot of people who played their role.

"It was really team work at its best."

Kan adds: "Going further, there was no way Sabahans would have known about Sir Attenborough's authoritative world voice when it counted in the hour of need, if not for Sabah Publishing House founded by the late Tan Sri Yeh Pao Tzu that publishes the Daily Express.

"So the Prime Minister's Hibiscus Award is also a tribute to his journalistic vision and his wife, the late Puan Sri Yeh who sought me out in 1996 and recruited me and of course son Datuk Clement Yeh who now runs the show.

"Up to the very last moment, many, many people had resigned to the fact that the Sukau Bridge was going ahead.

"This is why I was frankly astonished when the State Government announced the bridge was scrapped.

"In the end, this prestigious award is actually a tribute to the State and Federal Governments who did listen to the voice of reason and vision," added Kan.

The possibility is open that the bridge and highway money can move to alternative choices to better the right to a decent life for poor rural folks in other ways while wildlife and economics get the same right at the same time.

How to accomplish that outcome is to employ strategic environmental planning that advocates leaving sensitive areas alone, taking projects elsewhere and developing what one wants.

Nestle promoted the operating philosophy of Creating Shared Value (CSV) through Sukau-based Project RiLeaf when it took over the Kinabatangan-Corridor of Life from WWF-Malaysia in 2011 and later joined by Sime Darby Foundation, by advocating the 3P concept – a balanced Triple Win practice that should benefit People, Planet and Profit simultaneously.


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