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Oil palm vs wildlife: Sabah has no answers

 | December 9, 2013

The cozy relationship between the Sabah Wildlife Department and the multi-million ringgit palm oil industry appears to have turned the state authorities into apologists

KOTA KINABALU: Twin assault by planters and poachers is decimating Sabah’s wildlife at a faster rate than foreseen, claim activists in the state. Habitat destruction and illegal hunting contribute to dwindling sightings of Sabah’s endemic species in all of the state’s rainforests.

The rapid conversion of many fragile yet wildlife sustaining areas into oil palm plantations after decades of logging has pushed wildlife conservation in the state into a trendy activity.

Such has been the destruction that several international wildlife and environment protection groups have set up local branches to start conservation programmes that state has been slow to implement.

This has placed the spotlight squarely on the Sabah government and its role on wildlife conservation enforcement. The outcome of investigations into the fatal poisoning of 14 pygmy elephant earlier this year near the Gunung Rara forest reserve is a case in point.

Jane (not her real name) a young local environment activist who requested anonymity said: It seems even this horrific incident has failed to slow down the conversion of the forest to palm oil plantation. There has been no word about what happened let alone prosecution of any culprits.

“It’s like they (state authorities) have swept those elephants under the carpet. What does that say about their duties and responsibilities? It is giving the impression that someone big is behind this and is being protected. All these conferences they (state government officials) come out and speak about wildlife conservation are just media events to show they are concerned,” said Jane. She has a point.

Conflicting stand

The outspoken Sabah Environment Protection Association or Sepa, was not invited to attend the East and Southeast Asian Wild Animal Rescue Network (WARN) Conference as a participant. There top state officials spoke about the lack of enforcement and the open sale of bear parts in the city.

Until now, the state government investigation task force, set up after the 14 elephants were found dead near a forested area bordering an oil palm plantation, have failed to identify the culprits. A RM120,000 cash offer for information on the poisoning remains unclaimed.

However, in tandem with this, a Borneo Elephant Sanctuary (BES) is being developed in the Kinabatangan to meet the needs of endangered elephants. It is designed specifically for rescued elephants that have been injured due to human and elephant conflict as well as to home orphaned baby elephants.

Beleaguered state Minister of Tourism, Environment and Culture, Masidi Manjun, who has been unable to explain the lack of any outcome in the poisoning case welcomed the respite.

He said: “My ministry has recognised the value of the Bornean Elephant Sanctuary as one of the strategies to support the Elephant Action Plan 2012-2016 in Sabah.”

But wildlife activists noted that the director of Forestry, Sam Manan, attempted to brush away the death of the 14 elephants.

“You cannot ignore the economic component. One dead elephant does not mean the end of the world. We must move on but we must make sure it doesn’t happen again.

“Whether we like it or not, oil palm is here to stay. A pathologically negative reaction against oil palm will only do more harm than good, like an ostrich burying its head in the sand,” he said.

Oil palm, he added, was actually financing much of the conservation efforts in Sabah today.

Poor enforcement

Animal activist, Sean Whyte, from Natural Alert in a letter to FMT said the Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD) have been less than pathetic when it comes to enforcement.

The record speaks for itself. There has not been a single arrest or prosecuting by the department against those who break wildlife laws.

Other activists have asked how did those celebrated Sepilok and Rasa Ria orphan orangutans become orphans in the first place?

The cozy relationship between SWD and the multi-million ringgit palm oil industry appears to have made the state authorities apologists for any incidents arising out of the inevitable clash between wildlife and human encroachment into their habitat, they said.

Now the trend seems to be to display wildlife that have been displaced and captured at 5-star resorts.

Jane, the reluctant activist, questions why resorts are allowed to keep endangered animals who allow guests to interact with them and expose them to disease.

She points to how a celebrated orphaned orang utan called Tenten was sent to a holiday resort rather than being kept at Sepilok.

If placed at the rehabilitation centre, she said, at least it would have some hope of eventually being released back into the wild.

Friends of Orangutans have been trying since February to obtain answers why Tenten was sent to Rasa Ria Resort rather than Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre but to no avail.

Public complaints

Tenten, then a three-month-old female orangutan was rescued in the interior area of Keningau after her mother was killed by poachers.

She was then handed over to Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in October 2010 and then given to the Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria Resort Nature Reserve.

This has caused concern among the animal activist that high end resorts are cashing in on Sabah’s endangered wildlife to lure more tourists to their establishments.

The lack of regulation by state government authorities has raised concerns that Sabah’s wildlife has now become a must-have commodity at tourist resorts and will lead to a vicious circle of exploitation.

More and more wild animal rescued by people in cleared area are kept in confinement as most of them unable to go back to wild due to lack remaining habitats for them and the risk to be poached, they say.

They point to how the state government decided to open a zoo even though the idea was rejected by the wildlife department staff at the time.

Since the opening of zoo in Lok Kawi near here, complaints have swelled about the condition and wellbeing of the animals housed there.

A flood of complaints that an orangutan on the show for visitors was being fed junk food forced.

SWD senior veterinarian officers, Dr Sen Nathan said it was a one-off incident and the keeper concerned has been reprimanded. The orangutan shows have since been stopped.

Activists note that the abuse surfaced after an incident in 2007 when an orangutan drowned in the water barrier between their enclosure and the public viewing area.

Visitors note that the zoo obviously lacks funds and point to how the minimal and harassed staff are hard pressed to prevent the visitors from disturbing the animals inside their enclosure.

Some recent visitors noted how pygmy elephants at the zoo were being treated by their trainers during the elephant rides.

“Tourist find it disturbing that they are knocking the animals on the head as a way to guide them,” said a visitor.


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