Expert warns of human-wildlife conflict if highway cuts through forest reserves

A baby pygmy elephant which ended up on a busy road in Telupid after being separated from its herd.

KOTA KINABALU: A wildlife expert has warned of adverse effects on both animals and humans if the Pan Borneo Highway is allowed to cut through protected forest areas in Sabah.

Benoit Goossens said several stretches of the highway would cut across Class 1 forest reserves, which consist of grazing fields and migration routes for wildlife such as elephants, sun bears and clouded leopards.

He warned that this would drastically increase human-wildlife conflict and lead to a high number of collisions with animals as well as further fragmentation of forest reserves.

“It’s not only the elephants or wildlife that will die – people will, too. What is the government going to do about it?

“You can’t translocate 100 elephants because they will come back. And we’ll basically see a total fragmentation of all the northern, western, eastern and southern parts of Sabah, which will be isolated from the central part.”

This, he said, goes against Sabah’s action policy documents on wildlife such as the Sunda clouded leopard, Banteng and Proboscis monkeys, orangutan, and pygmy elephants.

“The action plans state that there shouldn’t be any development through those species ranges. It’s clearly going against that,” he told FMT on the sidelines of a workshop on the Pan Borneo Highway here.

Goossens, who is the director of research outfit Danau Girang Field Centre, stressed that he is not against the highway or development. However, he said an alternative is needed to building roads across wildlife habitats.

He acknowledged that it is “a complex issue” but urged the government to look at the situation in other areas undergoing similar development.

“We can anticipate the problems because we have expertise in this,” he said. “We know what’s happening with wildlife, and we see that happening in other countries and even in Peninsular Malaysia.”

Goossens said the Pan Borneo Highway would go through the Proboscis monkey range, located in a mangrove forest reserve in Kota Belud on the west coast, and another in the Tawai forest reserve in Telupid.

Wildlife conservation expert Benoit Goossens.

“Tawai has about 25km of elephant range, so we can anticipate some issues not only after construction, but during the process, because elephants will be in direct contact with workers,” he said.

In the east coast, meanwhile, he said the highway would go through ranges for species like the clouded leopard, pygmy elephants and sun bears.

“But the biggest issue will be the Kalabakan part, where it will go through about 170km of elephant range,” he said. This, according to him, is planned for Phase 3 of the project.

He suggested alternatives such as working with local communities to find better ways for the highways to cross villages.

He added that according to the Sabah Structural Plan 2033, there should be no development in any protected area.

He said his team had engaged with the government and consultants of the Pan Borneo Highway, as well as the local communities.

He said discussions had gone well, and that the consultants and government agencies are aware of the problems and looking for solutions.

However, he voiced concern over two villages in Telupid which he said had wanted the highway to cut across protected forest areas instead of through their settlements.

“I think one of the reasons is, they believe they will be able to acquire some land along the roads and build things like shops.

“I don’t think it’s going to happen because this is a Class 1 forest reserve. And basically, the highway will be a bypass.

“So Telupid is going to become a ghost town – people will go around it and not stop there.”

He added that it would be better for the highway to go through settled or developed areas as it would enhance economic opportunities there.