Road upgrade to facilitate wildlife crossings

  • Lifestyle
  • Tuesday, 20 Mar 2012

A road that cuts through tiger habitats will be upgraded to include wildlife crossings.

THE TIGER is a flagship species. Protect it, conservationists say, and you protect much of the biodiversity in our forests.

Reconciling development pressures with conservation however, is a challenge that haunts all developing nations, more so for the world’s 13 tiger range countries, which house roughly half of the Earth’s population.

Nonetheless, progress has been taking place in the wake of the 2010 Tiger Summit in St Petersburg, Russia. Malaysia, which like the rest of the tiger range countries adopted a declaration on tiger conservation at the meeting, has gained recognition for its progressive land use planning.

Conservation objectives have been “mainstreamed” into development plans through the Central Forest Spine Master Plan, an initiative under the National Physical Plan (which indicates future directions for land use, development and conservation). Endorsed by the Cabinet last year, the master plan’s latest site of transformation lies somewhere in Kuala Lipis, Pahang, where the burbling Sungai Yu rushes cool and clear beneath the shade of bamboo, kasai and sesenduk trees.

The road it passes under is a colonial relic, and the only barrier to crossing wildlife at this narrowest of points between two of Malaysia’s largest forest complexes, Taman Negara and the Titiwangsa Main Range.

Constructed in the 1930s, the Gua Musang Highway which is also known as Federal Route 8, extends from Bentong, Pahang in the south, right up to Kota Baru, Kelantan in the north.

Rapid expansion of car ownership has led to horrific traffic congestion on this road. Though surrounded by dramatic landscape, the scenic drive down Federal Route 8 is a nightmare during festive seasons. Plans have already commenced to widen it into a four-lane dual carriageway. Together with a part of Federal Route 9, the two routes roughly trace the backbone of Malaysia from Kuala Krai in Kelantan right down to Simpang Pelangai in Pahang and will be known as the Central Spine Road. It is the stretch of road at Sungai Yu, however, which is to become a beacon of smart green infrastructure.

Wildlife crossings

Sungai Yu is at the centre of a 10km stretch of state land known as the Sungai Yu Wildlife Corridor, which links Taman Negara with the Titiwangsa Main Range. Combined, these two refuges make up the fifth largest tiger landscape in the world. The corridor, therefore, is a crucial site not just for the Malayan tiger, a subspecies unique to Malaysia, but the species as a whole.

The river marks a popular crossing point for wildlife and Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan) officers are often called in to usher large mammals such as elephants off the road (where they pose traffic risks) and back into the forests. An average of 90 such incidents occur each year.

In this sense, the highway expansion could be a recipe for disaster: faster and higher volumes of traffic can lead to more accidents and roadkill. Tigers and tapirs are among the other large mammals which make use of the highway, and with less than 500 Malayan tigers left in the wild, every tiger counts.

Under the Central Forest Spine Master Plan, Sungai Yu is one of 15 green corridors between four of Malaysia’s major forest complexes – connections that are crucial for tigers which are solitary animals, occurring at very low densities of one to two tigers per 100sqkm. This behaviour relates in part to the population density of its prey, which includes wild boar, barking deer and sambar deer. There is a minimum amount of habitat required to sustain both prey and tiger populations, therefore, the corridor increases the number of individuals that can be sustained. The larger the population, the more resilient it is against factors such as inbreeding, diseases and environmental catastrophes.

To ensure that the corridor links are not threatened by the expansion of the highway, three wildlife underpasses will be built to allow wildlife to cross underneath the road and avoid being run over by traffic. Research data were used to pin-point important crossing points.

Piling works by the Public Works Department (PWD) for the structures are nearly complete. The road will feature Malaysia’s longest viaduct – a span bridge almost 1km in length – and two shorter ones of 300m and 80m. A number of smaller box and pipe culverts, built to aid water drainage during the wet season, will help secure safe passage for smaller animals during the dry season. These green features cost the Government an extra RM25mil, raising the overall project cost to RM158.7mil.

Highway patrol

Wildlife biologist Dr Kae Kawanishi who was involved in a benchmark study on the tiger population in Taman Negara says Malaysia is leading the way where green infrastructure is concerned. Chief wildlife biologist for the Sungai Yu Tiger Corridor Project which is a partnership between government and non-government agencies, she is involved in the effort to secure, maintain and enhance wildlife corridors through the implementation of three policies – the National Physical Plan, the National Tiger Conservation Action Plan and the Central Forest Spine Master Plan.

Ideally, she would have liked the entire 10km segment of the highway with existing forest connectivity to be elevated, but understands the realities of budgets and limited resources. “Sometimes it is necessary to find a compromise, hence, the best possible sites had to be selected.”

On whether wildlife will continue using those sites after construction is completed, Kawanishi says it will probably take some time for wildlife to re-colonise the area because of the disturbance.

Despite that, PWD Inspector of works Zulkifli Hussein says wildlife is using the crossing point even as construction is going on. He captured an image of what looked like a tiger paw print on his mobile phone a few weeks ago, at a spot beyond some iron piling adjacent to Sungai Yu.

“If you come here between 6.30 and 7pm, it is quite common to see elephants,” he says, also claiming to have seen barking deer and a black leopard on a hill overlooking the construction site.

Regardless, effectiveness of the underpasses can only be determined through post-construction monitoring. For Kawanishi, a crucial element is ensuring that the completed structures feature wildlife patrols.

“Poaching is the greatest threat faced by Malaysia’s endangered species. Habitat-related threats such as forest loss or fragmentation are secondary. The authorities have to seriously deliberate on finding effective ways for the deployment of more trained, permanent enforcement staff at priority tiger habitats, which include national and state parks as well as forest reserves.”

Perhilitan is aware of this, and discussions on a permanent management mechanism at Sungai Yu are underway and will be submitted to the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry before the viaducts are completed.

In the meantime, Pahang Perhilitan will enhance its patrols in the area by deploying officers from its offices in Kuala Lipis and Kuantan. For special operations, staff might also be deployed from Taman Negara. And since either side of the road is forest reserve, patrolling will also be done by the Forestry Department.

Perhilitan says in future, road developments will have to be more wildlife-friendly, with wildlife crossing areas needing enhanced management.

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