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Scrap the Sukau bridge?
Published on: Monday, January 25, 2016
By: Kan Yaw Chong
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LOOK at the fantastic swathe of elephants munching by the bank of Lower Kinabatangan.This is the magic sight every wildlife river cruise tourist can die for to see!

But notice particularly how a mother elephant prompt her cute little baby to cross the IOI gravel dirt road in Sukau, richly flanked by robust greens on both sides!

This is such a nice little earthly wilderness road which elephants can still cross with total ease, freedom and confidence but a bridge and sealed road will end all that.

See also the nice riparian forests either side of the crude palm barge terminal end of the IOI road, from the river. So far, so good.

The small dirt road still gives elephants uninterrupted movement between upstream Kg Pasir Putih to downstream Abai.

“This free passage to good forest patches and abundant food is crucial to prevent the extinction of the 320-355 strong herd of Lower Kinabatangan,” says Dr Raymond Alfred, Chief Executive Secretary of Borneo Conservation Trust, who earned his PhD from years of field studies on Sabah’s pygmy elephants.

But a Sukau bridge followed by pouring a wide swathe of bitumen surface and concrete drains over the IOI dirt road will forever shut this crossroad and disconnect the elephant migration route for good.

Two dead ends will hail jumbos’ extinction: Expert

“If the bridge were built, it will become a second dead end that traps the herd in a smaller area and hails its eventual extinction,” Dr Raymond asserted.

“The first dead end occurred 30 years ago when they pulled a super steel bridge across the river at Kg Pasir Putih on Federal Route 13, followed by an extremely heavy traffic and houses springing up by the bridge,” he noted.

So no elephants from Lower Kinabatangan had been seen crossing this dead end since.

“Because of the Lahad Datu-Sandakan Highway, the elephant population in Kinabatangan has been separated from the 1,000-strong Central Forest population for 30 years.”

So, what will the second bridge and highway at Sukau do to the elephants?

“It will shrink its range further, trap and pack the Kinabatangan herd in small and poor forest fragments between Sukau and Pasir Putih within Lots 4,5,6,7 of the Wildlife Sanctuary.

“Even though Lot 5, for instance, is 3,000 hectares, only 15pc of it is useful to the jumbos because most of it is peat swamp forests,” Dr Raymond noted.

Reasons for road to extinction

“This situation will sentence them to extinction, he believes.

“This is because Lots 4-7 simply don’t have a habitat viability or carrying capacity to support their long-term survival,” he pointed out.

“Even now, density of the Kinabatangan herd has over-stepped the 2.15 individuals/sq km mark – over-shot the equilibrium range of 0.5 -1.5/sq km, meaning it’s already over-crowded, what more trap them in a much reduced territory.

They’ll go berserk – breaking out to plantations and villages,” Dr Raymond said.

Interestingly, when he studied the issue of “behavioural ecology” based on data feedbacks from radio collared elephants, he found “the herd of elephants in Lower Kinabatangan moves three times faster than those in the continuous Central forests”.

The reason? Elephant food in fragmented forests like Kinabatangan deplete faster and this forces the animals to move further to find the next meal and they show a greater mobility per day.

Clear proof of failing habitat capacity in Kinabatangan

“Overall, this is a hard proof of the lack of habitat carrying capacity in Lower Kinabatangan.

The construction of the Sukau bridge will further worsen the habitat carrying capacity of elephants in Kinabatangan,” Dr Raymond said.

But notice this most essential agrument against the Sukau bridge, once they have checked in to Lots 1, 2 and Abai downstream after crossing the narrow IOI dirt road located at Lot 3, they’ll stay there two long months sometimes.

Their movement slows down. Why?

Better forests – 4,000 hectares of good forests, with 140 plant and tree species they can feed on, which also provides a perfect sun shield during the hot day, and 40pc of rich grasslands in Abai where they go out for morning “breakfast” and evening “dinner” before retreating back to forests to sleep at night!

Reconsider the bridge, on basis of scientific evidence

Dr Raymond’s point? Reconsider the bridge, never turn the IOI gravel dirt road into a permanent super highway like the Lahad Datu-Sandakan highway.

Allocate the money to a better choice.

What if the bridge project proponents insist on going ahead with it?

That will forever and irreversibly break up an already very fragmented 26,102ha Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary.

It means they defy and nullify 30 years of huge local and global efforts that had been poured into protecting the lower Kinabatangan flood plains, rated one of the richest ecosystems on earth.

Defy not 30 years of massive conservation efforts

Briefly on its background: it started in 1987 when John Payne, then WWF-Malaysia Sabah Director, who noticed Lower Kinabatangan was the only remaining forested flood plains in Asia, and proposed a 34,000ha wildlife sanctuary.

But why not 60,000 hectares instead earmarked for nature tourism, centred on Sukau, because of its rich Proboscis monkey, elephant presence, wild Orangutan etc, former Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Tourism and Environmental Development, Datuk Wilfred Lingham proposed.

This is what Stephen Liew of Wildlife Expeditions, told me.

On a trip upriver in 1988, he saw a big herd of elephants near Sukau, which triggered an elephant watch tourism business idea.

As far as this writer knows, he was the first to set up a wildlife watch outfit, on a rented kampung house at the mouth of the Menanggol River.

In 1990, Sabah Tourism Promotion Board started to promote destination Sukau and in one trip, took this writer there for overnight trip, with then General Manager Irene Charuruks leading the pack.

All the full colour travel articles that followed put Sukau on the map and eventually became a world renowned wildlife destination.

But Lingham’s ambitious 60,000ha sanctuary never happened.

Even Payne’s more modest 34,000ha remained a dream, until 1999, when then Chief Minister Datuk Osu Sukam declared it a “Gift to the Earth”.

And it wasn’t until 2005 that Chief Minister Datuk Seri Musa Aman announced the gazettement of the 26,102ha Wildlife Sanctuary, smaller than what both Lingham and Payne had recommended.

Delay and lots of fragmentations

Because of years of delay, between 1987 and 1999, a lot of fragmentation had occurred and WWF-Malaysia became actively involved in rehabilitation through Partners for Wetlands and an initiative called Kinabatangan Corridor of Life (KCoL).

When WWF’s mandate expired, they passed the KCoL baton to Nestle International while Sime Darby Foundation joined Nestle Malaysia later to push for restoration of riparian forest connectivity.

Culture, Tourism and Environment Minister Datuk Masidi Manjun personally officiated the joint finance pact to fund Project RiLeaf, in November 2013.

Healing the earth is everybody’s responsibility: Sime Darby Group Chief

Underscoring the pact to repair riparian connectivity, Group President of Sime Darby, Tan Sri Mohd Bakke Salleh said healing the earth especially Kinabatangan, being rated as one of the richest ecosystems in the world, is everybody’s responsibility.

Since then, the Sabah Forestry Department especially Director Datuk Sam Mannan had joined Project RiLeaf to drive the connectivity cause in a strong way. The Sabah Land Office also provided the technical survey help, not to mention Kopel, Danau Girang Field Centre, Felda Ventures Holding Sdn Bhd, Borneo Conservation Trust, and of course, other NGOs like Hutan had done their parts for years.

A key thrust of all their work is reconnection of wildlife corridors between major forest patches to enable endangered wildlife to recolonise lost habitats and by reopening free gene flows to prevent extinction through inbreeding.

So while everybody had been working very hard to restore connectivity, here comes a bridge idea in Sukau that will disconnect and disect the 26,10ha Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary forever and potentially cut off the migration route of the elephants or the Orangutans go extinct for good.

Does it make sense?


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