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Fate of Sabah wildlife hangs in the balance

 | February 13, 2012

The Borneon elephant is very sensitive to habitat disturbances and logging activities are forcing these animals to travel further to adjacent forests for food and water.

KOTA KINABALU: The victor of a tug-of-war between business interests and conservation groups for territory and resources in Sabah will determine the fate of the state’s dwindling rainforest and the unique species that dwell in it.

Economic development and biodiversity conservation in the state has reached a face-off, researchers and conservationists in both Sabah and the United Kingdom have managed to prove.

The study carried out by the Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD), Cardiff University and Danau Girang Field Centre (DGFC), Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) and WWF-Malaysia has proven the correlation between the home range and movement of the Bornean elephants and habitat fragmentation.

The study published recently in the scientific journal Public Library of Science One (PLoS 1) was made possible through funding from WWF of USA, Netherlands and Germany as well as from the US Fish and Wildlife Service Asian Elephant Conservation Fund.

WWF Malaysia and Sabah Wildlife Department initiated the first satellite tracking programme in 2005 to investigate the movements of wild Bornean elephants in Sabah, said Raymond Alfred of the Borneo Conservation Trust (BCT).

“Four adult females from Kalabakan, Taliwas, Ulu Segama-Malua and Gunung Rara Forest Reserves and one from the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary were fitted with satellite collars and the size of their home ranges was determined using the location data gathered from the satellites.

“Home range size was smaller in non-fragmented forest than in fragmented forest because once habitat was cleared or converted, the availability of food plants and water sources were reduced, forcing the elephants to travel to adjacent forest areas”, added Alfred who led the study.

Long-term conservation needed

SWD director Dr Laurentius Ambu meanwile said the study clearly showed that wildlife in the state would have to adapt to landscape changes and that elephants are very sensitive to habitat disturbance.

Ambu, co-author of the paper, cited Gunung Rara Forest Reserve (central Sabah) as an example where logging activities were carried out during the tracking period and elephants moved greater distances than in forests that were not being logged.

“We believe that the decision to stop logging activities in Ulu Segama-Malua Forest Reserves will have a positive impact on the elephant population there”, he added.

Dr Benoit Goossens, Director of DGFC and a Senior Research Associate at Cardiff University, and also a co-author on the paper, said following this study, they are going highlight two recommendations to ensure the long-term conservation of the Bornean elephant.

“Firstly, all remaining lowland dipterocarp forests which support elephants should be retained under natural forest management and must not be converted to plantations.

“Secondly, forest disturbance needs to be minimised wherever wild elephants occur. In timber production forests, this can be achieved by limiting the extent and frequency of logging operations in any given management compartment.”

“In the Kinabatangan, since 2008, SWD, HUTAN and DGFC have collared nine elephants to identify the best approach to reconnect forest fragments in this highly fragmented area but with a high number of elephants.

“This is carried out with the support of Houston Zoo, Columbus Zoo, Elephant Family, Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund and US Fish and Wildlife Service,” concluded Goossens.

According to Alfred, following those recommendations, BCT is now working in partnership with KTS Plantation Sdn Bhd in monitoring the elephant population and developing best management practices for the species.

He reckoned that forest disturbance needs to be minimized wherever wild elephants occur in the forest area in Segaliud Lokan Forest Reserve.

“The elephants in Lower Kinabatangan were separated from Segaliud Lokan FR for 25 years, due to habitat fragmentation and BCT is in the process of getting the key oil palm plantation companies to support the initiative to set aside a corridor to connect the fragmented forest.

“At the recent Sabah Wildlife Conservation Colloquium, the Plantation Industries and Commodities minister Bernard Dompok said that he wanted the federal government to help Sabah in the wildlife corridor initiative to link up pockets of forest land for wildlife survival and supported the idea of the Government acquiring land for the purpose”, added Alfred.


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