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State project threatens Kinabatangan’s endangered wildlife

In the north-east of Sabah, the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary (LKWS) is home of rich and relatively dense wildlife populations, amongst which the proboscis monkey, eight species of hornbills, the Asian pygmy elephant and the emblematic orangutan. However the stability of the LKWS's forests is fragile and dangerously threatened by land conversion and the high rate of fragmentation, mostly generated by agriculture (i.e. palm oil industry) and illegal logging .

The state government of Sabah intends to undertake a project plan of bridge and paved roads construction, in accordance with the Sabah Development Corridor’s plan (SDC) launched in January 2008, one of the economic corridors initiated under the Ninth Malaysia Plan. The bridge is expected to connect the western river bank to the Sukau village on the East and the road would connect Sukau to Litang and Tomanggong, over 40 kilometers away to the south-east.

The SDC claims this project is to stimulate economic activities and ensure the sustainable management of the state’s resources.

However, environmentalist experts are questioning the benefits of this project. Tourism in the Kinabatangan region and especially from Sukau and surrounding villages bring a massive amount of income to the state of Sabah. International tourism might sharply decline as a result of loss of wild ambience at Sukau generated by the works and the infrastructures.

It is well known worldwide that roads have a strong negative impact on wildlife survival increasing habitat loss, fragmentation, the hunting pressure and the forest fire risk during drought periods. In addition to which, in this type of remote area, this will facilitate the access to poachers and illegal loggers in areas unreachable before.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) will soon declare the Bornean Orangutan ‘Critically Endangered’ due to the continued loss of their habitat and while the Sabah Government is increasing the efforts for protecting Sabah’s forests the project of bridge and road construction would place at an increasing risk of extinction the approximately 800 orangutans and 300 elephants estimated to occur in the Lower Kinabatangan floodplain area, to name only two species.

The construction of the road is even contradictory with the current Sabah Elephant & Orangutan Action Plans, both produced by the Tourism, Culture and Environment Ministry in 2011 that specifically state that the state will “Prevent any process that would further fragment the habitat of the elephant [and orangutan] population (highways, major bridges)”.

“The Kinabatangan region is already very fragmented and protected species such as the Bornean orangutan and pygmy elephant’s populations are decreasing; their survival in the area will only be a bigger challenge if such a project turned out to be approved” said Upreshpal Singh, director of NGO Friends Of The Orangutans.

An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) study is required under both state and national law prior to works for a project of such a scale. The EIA would define the potential environmental impacts generated by the project and decide of the approval or non approval of the designated project.

“We urge the Sabah government to cancel this project as it will cause dramatic environmental, social and economic consequences. Orangutans are endangered, they don’t need their habitat to be even more fragmented” concluded Upreshpal.