Preserving forest, dropping Sukau bridge are best way to protect Kinabatangan wildlife


A female elephant with her satellite collar crossing a small river in the Kinabatangan. Fourteen individual elephants that were collared across the Kinabatangan provided high-resolution GPS data for this study. (Courtesy: Rudi Delvaux)

KOTA KINABALU: The best way to protect wildlife like the endangered Pygmy elephant is by preserving the remaining forests and dropping the Sukau bridge project, say environmentalists.

Dr Nicola Abram from the non-governmental organisation Forever Sabah said protecting all remaining forests and dropping plans for a public road through the Kinabatangan elephant range was important to safeguard the highly threatened wildlife.

She said a new study published in the journal Scientific Reports (https://rdcu.be/cSu8Y) stresses out that effectively managing areas outside of protected areas was also necessary for the long-term survival of the Kinabatangan elephant population.

In the study, the authors used GPS-collar data from 14 elephants and developed land use and land cover information to assess how the animals use the oil palm dominated landscape in the Kinabatangan floodplain.

“With this data, we identified the distribution and hot spots of 11 females and three males living in the Lower Kinabatangan from 2010 to 2020.

Map showing the pooled extents for hot spots (in yellow cross hatch) and entire range (in black cross hatch) within identified oil palm estates within the Lower Kinabatangan. Map also shows the existing Sukau road (in grey) and the planned road/highway that will cut the Kinabatangan elephant population into two that will be disastrous for these elephants.Map showing the pooled extents for hot spots (in yellow cross hatch) and entire range (in black cross hatch) within identified oil palm estates within the Lower Kinabatangan. Map also shows the existing Sukau road (in grey) and the planned road/highway that will cut the Kinabatangan elephant population into two that will be disastrous for these elephants.

“We also estimated the proportion of time spent within differing land use categories within the elephant’s hot spots and compared this with their known ranges,” she said.

Abram said other data looked at were time spent by elephants in different oil palm estates to identify where better management strategies were needed to improve habitat permeability and reduce human-elephant conflicts.

She said identifying the location of hot spots or areas most frequented by the elephants was essential in designing appropriate management practices in collaboration with land users and identifying the best location for elephant corridors.

Universiti Malaysia Sabah senior lecturer and founder of Seratu Aatai, Dr Nurzhafarina Othman said forest preservation was something that many NGOs, Sabah Wildlife Department and the Sabah Forestry Department had been working on for several years.

She said in Lower Kinabatangan, 49 km sq of unprotected forest on state land and various land titles were at risk of being converted.

Map showing the pooled extents for all 14 elephant individuals for their collective hot spot areas (in pink cross hatch) inside of their collective entire range (in black stripped area) within the Lower Kinabatangan in eastern Sabah. Unprotected forest patches can be seen in green.  Map showing the pooled extents for all 14 elephant individuals for their collective hot spot areas (in pink cross hatch) inside of their collective entire range (in black stripped area) within the Lower Kinabatangan in eastern Sabah. Unprotected forest patches can be seen in green.

“Protecting these forests is an essential and efficient way to secure key elephant habitat since all collared individuals were using these forest fragments in their entire range.

“On average, 24% of their time was spent in unprotected forests in hotspots. In fact, five females spent substantial periods of their time (33% to 61%) in these threatened areas," she said.

“It is therefore critical for the survival of the elephant population in the Kinabatangan that these unprotected forests are preserved and acquire protection status as soon as possible,” added Nurzhafarina.

DGFC director Professor Benoit Goossens from Cardiff University said another significant issue faced by these elephants was the threat from the controversial Sukau bridge and roads or highway that were set out in the Sabah Structure Plan.

He said a new road was under construction on the northern bank of the village of Sukau currently, and this had already cleared areas of unprotected forest.

“This public road could link to a potential new bridge that would cross over the Kinabatangan River, cutting through unprotected forest and a protected area (Lot 3 of the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary), before going through palm oil estates.

Elephants in an oil palm plantation in the Kinabatangan. On average, the elephants that were collared spent 33% of their time in oil palm estates, with six individuals spending the majority of their time in oil palm estates overall.  Elephants in an oil palm plantation in the Kinabatangan. On average, the elephants that were collared spent 33% of their time in oil palm estates, with six individuals spending the majority of their time in oil palm estates overall.

“For Kinabatangan, creating a public highway will cut the elephant population range into two parts. All collared elephants use this area, as it is a key bottleneck and the only alternative option to pass around Sukau village.

“Our analyses suggest that if the road or highway (and the bridge) goes ahead it will have a significant impact on the elephants’ behaviours,” he said.

Prof Goossens warned of consequences for these animals and their family groups if activities that disturb their ranging patterns and segment the entire elephant range continue.

“The existing road in Batu Putih has already proven to be an impassable barrier for this population.

“It is our hope that this study illustrates the importance of protecting all forested habitats, effectively managing areas outside of protected areas and completely abandoning the plan for a new cross-Kinabatangan bridge as stated in the recent Cabinet-approved Bornean Elephant Action Plan 2020-2029,” he said.

The collaring of the elephants in the Kinabatangan was mainly supported by Houston Zoo, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Elephant Family, Mohamed Zayed Species Conservation Fund, Ocean Park Conservation Foundation Hong Kong, US Fish and Wildlife Service Asian Elephant Conservation Fund and the Asian Elephant Foundation.

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