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Giant panda – an ‘elephant’ in the room

 | June 15, 2012

Many factors stand in the way of the survival of a menagerie of Bornean wildlife species, but Putrajaya has RM20 million to burn on two giant pandas from China.

KOTA KINABALU: Malaysians will soon be able to see the endangered giant panda up close and personal. Putrajaya will be home to two of the instantly recognisable cuddly black and white bears for 10 years.

They will live, quite literally, in the lap of luxury and comfort with round-the-clock room service. And if all goes well, the pandas will witness Malaysia join the ranks of “developed” nations in 2020 and then returned to China.

Ironically, here in Sabah, conservationists are fighting an uphill battle to protect and bring the Borneo rhinoceros back from the edge of extinction.

Less than 30 specimens are left alive on the planet. A handful has been caught in a last-ditch effort to breed them.

The rest have never been seen and the prognosis is not good.

They are not the only animals in Sabah on the list of endangered species like the giant panda which is endemic in China and is estimated to number only 1,600.

Lack of funding, inadequate laws, indiscriminate deforestation and economic interests are slowly but surely strangling the menagerie of Bornean species, some, like the rhinoceros, found only in Sabah.

Among the well-known is the unique Bornean “pygmy” elephant and the orangutan.

At least one conservationist here is bemused by the hoopla generated by the giant panda deal announced by the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry this week.

Raymond Alfred, an expert who has been working in wildlife conservation in Borneo for 12 years said: “In my opinion, the plan to host two baby pandas in Malaysia needs further consideration.

“The government needs to consider the plan properly, since it is very costly and risky, while at the same time the conservation of our rhinoceros, orangutan and elephant needs more attention.”

Any ‘long-term planning’?

Alfred told FMT that he had doubts over whether any “proper long-term planning” had been done to justify the cost of upkeeping the two baby giant pandas.

Many suspect the deal has nothing to do with conservation and all to do with political posturing,

It is normally understood that giant pandas on loan to a foreign country comes with a fee, depending on the agreement between the two countries.

According to reports, the “deal” would require Malaysia to take care of the pandas for 10 years for a reported cost of RM20 million.

The RM20 million costs reported by the media soon after Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in Nanning, China, last April is expected to cover the cost of construction of an air-conditioned sanctuary for the pandas, importing bamboos from China for their meals as well to train local handlers.

Alfred said that if the ultimate aim of the panda programme in Malaysia is to raise awareness and funding for the endangered Borneo rhino, elephant and orangutan, then it was worth the expense.

“But a lot of issues have to be considered… such as the suitability of the Malaysian weather, availability of food for the pandas and, most importantly, how we [Malaysia] can play a role in supporting the conservation of these pandas,” he said.

He fears that wildlife conservation policies in Malaysia are wide off the mark and warned that continued delays in protecting the country’s dwindling virgin rainforests would doom the unique species found in it to extinction.

Studies have already shown a correlation between the population of several species and the breaking-up of habitat into increasingly smaller oasis for wildlife.

“Our rhinos which are only available in Sabah need more attention from the government. Key orangutan habitat became isolated 30 years ago and their population is already declining due to limited suitable forest habitat and habitat degradation,” he said.

There has also been an alarming increase in human and elephant conflict every year in both in peninsula and Sabah due to lack of understanding of their habitat requirement and their behaviour.

Local NGOs struggling to save wildlife

But Alfred pointed out that people never seem to recognise what they have until they lost it.

The failure to see the forest for the trees was amply demonstrated in the Malaysian ministry’s statement which described the “deal” as being “.. in accordance with Aichi Targets 2010 under the Convention on Biological Diversity which promotes conservation efforts in preventing species extinction. Through this cooperation, too, Malaysia can conduct conservation research on the giant panda”.

The statement added that the “close relationship between the two countries had enabled Malaysia to attract more foreign investment from China to boost the country’s economy further”.

Said Alfred: “We will never appreciate these three species [rhinoceros, orangutan and elephant] which are iconic for Malaysia and have become endangered wildlife until we got the last one in Malaysia. By the time we open our eyes, even if we spend RM20 million or RM30 million, we will not get them back!”

Meanwhile, environmentalists and wildlife conservationists here are desperately trying to re-establish ecological corridors for wildlife to move freely from pocket to pocket of forests, which are increasingly hedged in by massive oil palm plantations that have destroyed the ecosystem that wildlife needs to survive.

They also want the government to “revise policy and implement enforcement” to prevent forest fragmentation and degradation, which is happening at an increasing rate.

Most observers note that Sabah’s wildlife conservation efforts by the government merely boil down to agreements and deals, but little action to curb land grabs and illegal logging.

Alfred urged the government to “fully support the rhino breeding programme and prove that Malaysia can take care of its near extinct species”.

“They [the government] should develop a conservation programme where the local community can get benefit and appreciate the value of high biodiversity.”

He said he would have “no objection to the plan to spend RM20 million just to host the two baby pandas for 10 years if we Malaysians have done enough” to protect and conserve endangered species in their own backyard.


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