KOTA KINABALU, March 3 — Two British personalities have joined local conservationists in protesting a Kinabatangan bridge project that could threaten endangered animals like the pygmy elephants and orang utans.
According to a report in the UK’s Guardian online portal, famed British naturalist Sir David Attenborough and BBC TV presenter Steve Backshall have put their weight behind a campaign objecting to the bridge.
The article said that Attenborough, known globally for his wildlife documentaries and conservation work, rarely intervenes in domestic planning issues, but he has written to Sabah Chief Minister Datuk Seri Musa Aman to argue for the “already embattled wildlife populations”, saying the bridge would create a new barrier for migrating Bornean elephants.
“I have had many encounters with the magnificent and unique species with which your state is blessed. If this construction is allowed to go ahead, I am left in no doubt that the bridge will have significant negative effects on the region’s wildlife, the Kinabatangan’s thriving tourism industry and on the image of Sabah as a whole,” the Guardian quoted Attenborough saying in a letter.
“I strongly believe that Borneo is one of the most unique and biodiverse places on this planet, and that the world’s remaining wild spaces provide more than ecological services and opportunities for economic development; they also provide deep spiritual nourishment for ourselves and future generations of Sabahans and visitors alike,” said Attenborough.
The federal-funded RM223 million bridge would span 350 metres across the Kinabatangan river, connecting the village of Sukau with around 2,000 people, to Litang and Tomanggong in an effort to stimulate economic activities.
According to the Guardian, the area also houses critically-endangered orang utans, proboscis monkeys, clouded leopards, gibbons, sun bears, pangolins and other jungle species.
To mitigate effects on the wildlife, there are plans for a 1 kilometre-long viaduct nearby, which would raise traffic above the forest and is believed to allow free passage beneath for elephants and other species, but conservationists claim that wildlife do not use other viaducts built in the country.
The project would also require paving a dirt road, bringing more traffic to the area.
The local community is said to be lobbying for the bridge, arguing it will cut down travel time and allow much faster access to the nearest hospital.
The project has drawn heavy criticism from non-governmental organisations and environmentalists, claiming it will interrupt the already sensitive ecology in the region and that it is in the middle of high elephant traffic.
Backshall, an award-winning BBC TV presenter, said that he has been travelling to the Kinabatangan for 25 years and was alarmed at the rapid development, particularly the expansion of oil palm plantations into the forests.
“My concerns about the bridge in the Kinabatangan are that it would provide easier access into forests that will then be more accessible for logging, poaching, slash-and-burn agriculture and palm oil plantations,” he was quoted saying.
“These fragile forests are on a knife-edge – any tiny negative influence could have brutal effects. The gallery forest that flanks the river is critical as a wildlife corridor between existing forest reserves, and it’s frightening how close to the river the plantations are now getting,” he said.
He said that the area needed to remain untouched if they were to allow free movement of the iconic Bornean species like orang utans and pygmy elephants.
Recently, one of Sabah’s biggest private funders for its conservation efforts, Sime Darby Foundation, also voiced their objection to the bridge and threatened to pull out its funding if the plans continue.
Although there are reports that preliminary construction work has begun, local state assemblyman Datuk Saddi Abdul Rahman said they are waiting for an environmental impact assessment report.
State Tourism, Environment and Culture Minister Datuk Masidi Manjun also said that the Cabinet was having “intense” discussion over the matter and would soon come up with a a “policy direction.”