Road To A Jumbo Disaster



[The Star, 23 October 2023]


I HAVE dedicated almost 17 years to the conservation of biodiversity in Sabah. During this time, I’ve been privileged to contribute to safeguarding the wild Bornean elephant, the smallest among Asian elephants. It’s worth emphasising that Bornean elephants are not dwarf elephants.


There are only about 1,500 such wild elephants remaining, and these are found only on the east coast of Sabah.


A significant population of Bornean elephants resides within the continuous tropical rainforests, and fortunately, these forests are primarily safeguarded and preserved through the Heart of Borneo (HOB) initiative.


For me, Sabah is always at the forefront of environment protection and conservation, nationally and internationally.


Like the other world’s rainforest, HOB, spanning Indonesia, Brunei, and Malaysia, is constantly under pressure for exploitation and socio-economic development.


The contentious proposal to carve the Pan Borneo Highway (PBH) through a pristine, fully protected forest reserve within HOB has entrenched environmentalists, policymakers, and local communities in an unyielding discourse.


Many have tirelessly voiced their grave concerns regarding the potential ecological repercussions on this unspoiled natural sanctuary.


The Pan Borneo Highway, a grand infrastructure endeavour, aspires to fortify regional transportation links.


The initiative is said to profoundly reshape the state’s transportation landscape and establish an extensive network of highways and connecting roads, seamlessly linking Sabah to its neighbours, Sarawak and Brunei.


However, the chosen path through the protected forest reserve continues to raise alarms regarding its environmental impact.


Conservationists’ stance


At the recent Heart of Borneo Conference in Kota Kinabalu, my colleague from the Community Elephant Ranger Team (CERT), Jascika Jaunny, and I co-presented a thought-provoking presentation titled “Humans, Habitats, Highways: Preserving the Heart of Borneo”.


We, representing the Coalition Human Habitats Highways (Coalition 3H), cast a spotlight on the pivotal role of the Tawai Forest Reserve. We emphasised that the integrity of the Tawai Forest Reserve is vital if we want to enhance the potential for ecotourism activities in Telupid (a district in central Sabah).


The Tawai Forest Reserve has a rich diversity of plant and animal species within the forest, including several endangered species such as the Bornean elephant, orang utan, sun bear, and recently rediscovered Bornean peacock-pheasant, which was once thought to be extinct in Sabah.


We predict that the highway’s construction threatens habitat destruction, increased pollution, and the fragmentation of wildlife habitats, amplifying issues like poaching, wildlife roadkill, and human-wildlife conflicts.


The 3H Coalition has proposed alternatives that we believe will safeguard the integrity of the Tawai Forest Reserve, prevent forest fires, reduce the risk of forest encroachment, and protect the forest watershed, which is the Telupid town’s primary water source.


Route 3 and 4 on the map would replace busy ferry crossings, and benefit communities isolated north of the river.


Yes, these alternatives are indeed more expensive than the current alignment. However, opening up of Tawai Forest Reserve will open up a Pandora’s box of unplanned environmental issues in the future.


Our recommendations are rooted in robust scientific data and meticulous field observations, aiming to create a win-win scenario for the local population and wildlife.


We have tried different platforms, documentaries, press releases, reports, and workshops to shed some light on this issue.


The Coalition 3H is optimistic that the Sabah government and its agencies will carefully reconsider the development of 40km of Pan Borneo Highway stretches in the Tawai Forest Reserve and reroute the highway to a region more amenable to human and wildlife coexistence.


Sabah has always been a champion in preserving its biodiversity and environment. In this critical juncture, we must join hands and pool resources to ensure that future generations do not pay for our ill-advised decisions today.


(Dr Nurzhafarina Othman is a Senior Lecturer at Universiti Malaysia Sabah and founder of Pertubuhan Pemuliharaan Biodiversiti Sabah (Seratu Aatai). She became a member of 3H Coalition since 2018)


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