Bridging wild habitats in Sabah
ENSURING the future survival of the endangered pygmy elephant, orang utan and rhinoceros in the state of Sabah hinges on these steps: stop further fragmentation and conversion of forests; establish wildlife corridors, such as along riparian reserves to connect forest fragments; and stringent enforcement against poaching.
These are the key strategies highlighted in the five-year action plans to conserve the three species drafted by the Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD) and launched early this month at the two-day Sabah Wildlife Conservation Colloquium in Kota Kinabalu.
“Today, Sabah is considered as being rich in wildlife but in actuality, much has been lost and what we are trying to do today is damage control, which is why we have prepared action plans for keystone species,” says SWD director Dr Laurentius Ambu at the meeting, organised by SWD and the Malaysian Palm Oil Council, and supported by Borneo Conservation Trust, Danau Girang Field Centre and Hutan.
He says Sabah’s wildlife remains under threat despite 15.5% of the state being gazetted as totally protected areas. Surveys estimated that 300 orang utans were lost in the past seven years in the Kinabatangan region alone, leaving the state with 11,000 orang utans today. The population of proboscis monkeys, now at 5,900, is on the decline too, as their habitat has shrunk and is degrading, while poaching remains a major threat.
Poor land use planning in the past has led to a situation where Sabah’s forests are now isolated islands surrounded by urban settlements and agricultural land, and too small to nurture a healthy array of wildlife. Connecting these forest patches is crucial to the future survival of threatened animals as it will allow animal movement within a larger habitat.
One green link identified by SWD is the Sabah Ecological Corridor which will bridge forest patches from Kinabatangan through Batu Putih to Deramakot. Over 70% of elephants, orang utans and rhinos populations in the state can be found in this green corridor, says Ambu.
Surveys by SWD and conservation group Hutan have found that over 60% of the estimated 11,000 orang utans in Sabah are found not in protected reserves and parks but in forest fragments, many of which are located within plantations. Primatologist Dr Isabelle Ancrenaz says even in those protected areas where the primate is found, the habitat is largely unsuitable, being hilly, with steep slopes. Orang utans prefer lowland areas. “It is very clear that protected areas in Sabah will not achieve orang utan conservation on their own. Orang utans outside of protected areas must be protected and properly managed.”
While there is consensus among the 280 colloquium participants that maintenance of forest corridors along plantations is important, there is equal agreement that establishing these corridors is expensive and challenging. For one, securing land for the linkages is difficult since much of it is a private property.
“Creating wildlife corridors will take a lot of commitment from the public, plantation owners, companies and government. But it is the ideal thing as it allows movements of animals. We’re working with different landowners on this,” says Ambu. He adds that a year 2000 estimate on the cost of purchasing land critical for the wildlife corridor in the Kinabatangan area alone puts the sum at RM40mil to RM60mil. “The cost will be higher now with the hike in land prices. We are talking about splitting the cost of buying the land between the federal and state governments.”
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