PETALING JAYA: Ecologists in Malaysia have lauded Sir David Attenborough's (pic) letter to Sabah Chief Minister Datuk Seri Musa Aman urging the state to rethink the controversial Sukau Bridge, in an effort to save what's left of the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary River.
According to The Guardian, Attenborough and BBC wildlife presenter Steve Backshall have joined local conservationists in lobbying for the RM223mil bridge to be scrapped.
"I have had many encounters with the magnificent and unique species with which your state is blessed …
"If this construction is allowed to go ahead, I am left in no doubt that the bridge will have significant negative effects on the region's wildlife, Kinabatangan's thriving tourism industry, and on the image of Sabah as a whole," Attenborough said in his letter to Musa.
Attenborough is loved for his wildlife documentaries and conservation work, but he rarely interferes with a country's domestic policy – which makes his letter all the more important, local conservationists say.
"He is known worldwide and respected. His voice carries weight and is important in critical issues like this," said Dr Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, principal investigator of the Management and Ecology of Malaysian Elephants.
"In Kinabatangan, you have orangutan, elephants, hornbills, and until recently, rhinos. It is surprisingly rich for its level of fragmentation.
"It doesn't make sense to fragment it any further (with the construction of the bridge)," he added.
Attenborough is one of the very few people in the world to have seen Borneo before logging and palm oil plantations took over, said Wong Siew Te, founder of the Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre.
"When Attenborough first visited Kinabatangan River in the 1950s to film the Nature Quest series, Kinabatangan was covered in rich low land rainforest. Over the years, he returned to do more shows and witnessed the forest's destruction.
"It must have been very frustrating for him to see the forest taken over by oil palm plantations. The Sukau Bridge is the last straw," said Wong.
The Federal Government's road and bridge project will see the construction of a 100m bridge across the Kinabatangan River in the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, while a dirt road will also be paved, potentially increasing traffic to the area.
The road aims to create better accessibility between five remote coastal villages and the Sukau township where the nearest hospital is located.
Sukau assemblyman Datuk Saddi Abdul Rahman has said there had been at least 10 deaths amongst villagers as the hospital is two hours away.
"We are concerned about our wildlife but we also cannot ignore the needs of people there," he said in January, adding that the Environmental Impact Assessment study is expected to be approved.
However, conservationists argue that the bridge will further endanger the already threatened wildlife population here and disrupt the migratory routes of the rare Bornean pygmy elephant.
Even State Tourism, Culture and Environment Assistant Minister Datuk Pang Nyuk Ming has asked the state government to re-evaluate the project.
The state cannot ignore the implications of the project and the concerns raised by local and international conservationists, he said in January.
"The bridge is an example of bad development – the type of development a country like Malaysia should avoid at this point," Dr Campos-Arceiz said, adding that the new road would directly affect the pygmy elephants' home range.
"The road can increase human-elephant conflict, with elephants entering the roads and plantations along it," he said.
There are also concerns that the new road will create access for illegal poaching, logging, slash-and-burn agriculture, and more oil palm plantations.
Despite objections from local non-governmental organisations such as the Sime Darby Foundation, preliminary construction work for the bridge has reportedly begun.
Which is why Dr Campos-Arceiz and Wong hope that the Sabah chief minister will listen to Attenborough's letter and take action.
"This letter has been picked up by international media," Wong said, adding that he hoped the spotlight will pressure Sabah into halting the project.
"A lot of good work and effort have been put into conserving the wildlife and local community."This Sukau bridge will hurt everything we've achieved in the past 20 years; all the good will be gone," he added.