KOTA KINABALU, Sept 8 ― After three decades spent fighting for Sabah’s wildlife, Augustine Tuuga believes he is equipped to tackle the task of protecting the state’s animals against the perennial threats to Sabah’s forests.
The new Sabah Wildlife Director has the unenviable duty of managing the depleting wildlife population, animal poaching due to international demand, human-animal conflict and the lack of local support among many other issues.
“I’ve been through a lot after almost three decades in this line. I have certain things in mind what to do, but I’m well aware of the challenges and ready to tackle them,” he said.
The 52-year-old has identified three main issues he would like to prioritise and make an impact on during his tenure as wildlife director: education, conflict management and illegal hunting.
Battling an old unseen enemy
Tuuga said that after the wildlife relocation undertaken in the 1990s, illegal poaching was the most serious challenge he has encountered.
It has been reported that a massive 75 per cent of wildlife poaching goes undetected or not caught in Sabah.
But Tuuga is now backed by the recently amended Sabah Wildlife Enactment that allows for harsher punishments against poachers.
“While this means we are hoping to be able to prosecute more cases and offenders, we are hoping it will scare off would-be poachers and offenders. The ultimate aim is not to fill prison with wildlife offenders but make people more law abiding,” he said.
The issue of illegal hunting or poaching is not new as poachers have long targeted Sabah’s lush forests for sought-after creatures such as pangolins, sun bears, rhinos, and wild cats.
Tuuga said the issue was less prevalents as poachers appeared to prefer hunting in the peninsula, but noted that the problem was worsening in Sabah.
The biggest reason often cited for the rise of incident is the lack of enforcement and manpower ― the department has some 200 staff, not all of which do wildlife patrolling ― to cover Sabah’s seven million hectares of land.
“The recommended international standard is one ranger to 10,000 hectares of area, so we are at a severe shortage. If we had 700 staff, we will be in a good position. At this point, if we had 100, I will be okay with that.
“Comparatively, West Malaysia has about 700 staff to look after 13 million hectares, so their ratio is better but they also face issues with traffickers,” he said.
Wildlife traffickers make use of local hunters to tip them off and sometimes hunt for valuable endangered species, which makes it harder for enforcers to track the perpetrators down.
Under the new Sabah Wildlife Enactment, those in possession of protected species may be fine a minimum RM50,000 and imprisoned at least a year; this was previously a RM50,000 maximum fine and five years’ maximum imprisonment.
“Hopefully with the new laws, we will also scare off local hunters, and this will cripple the traffickers operations,” he said.
To combat local hunters, more awareness was also needed to educate villagers and local communities of the benefits of conservation.
Managing wildlife conflict
The other issue Tuuga faces is the controversial RM220 million Sukau bridge over the Kinabatangan river to connect remote villagers to the nearest town, which conservationists argue would affect the ecologically sensitive area.
Tuuga said that the conservation versus development debate was a perennial problem, but the bridge would probably cause more conflict with Sabah’s wildlife that is already hard pressed from its shrinking habitat.
“The forests are already fragmented and any kind of development would cause more disruption.
“The best thing to do is to look for a win-win situation – development with little to no damage. I think an elevated highway or bridge would be a good solution, but this is also very costly to the government.
“Obviously people will get angry when you try to stop their development, so we should look for an alternative. Developed countries build elevated bridges to not cause any disturbance to their wildlife. Maybe this is something we should look into,” he said.
He also said that all stakeholders must work together to solve the increase of human-wildlife conflict plaguing the state.
Tuuga said the department struggled to keep up with demand for wildlife rescue and relocation from villages and plantations where elephants and other animals, disorientated from losing their habitat, find themselves in human zones and ruining crops.
“The people don’t know what to do, and they also get frustrated from the damages incurred and this can turn harmful for both sides.
“Plantation smallholders, villagers, conservationists, ngos and the authorities should be on the same page, and this is something I want to work towards. It is likely impossible to have zero conflict but we want to at least minimise the damage,” he said.
“All developing and third world countries face a lack of conservation awareness and we need to get into the mindset of good practices for the environment. If the conservation mentality is in place, no enforcement is even needed.
“That should be our ultimate goal,” he said.