Malaysia: Breathing space for wildlife

Natalie Heng The Star 11 Dec 12;

Development, logging and agriculture have already eaten away at vast tracts of forest. What is left is fragmented and of limited use to wild animals. This is why it is important to connect the tracts of good-quality forest that we do have.

A NATION resplendent with the grandeur of its wilderness – that is how we want the world to see us. Natural heritage forms an inextricable part of the Malaysian national identity, a fact evident in the tigers flanking the shield in the Malaysian coat of arms, and the rainforest so prominently featured in the Tourism Ministry’s “Malaysia Truly Asia” promotion campaign.

But with a growing population of 29 million exerting pressure for land to be developed into houses, commercial centres, farms and roads, the question of whether or not this image remains an identity backed by substance hinges on how we choose to expand.

Some tracts of forest are more important than others when it comes to strategic conservation, which is what prompted the formulation of the Central Forest Spine Master Plan, a policy under the National Physical Plan. It is to guide town planning efforts, and lists out key areas of forest which need to be protected. Under it, 20 primary and 17 secondary linkages act as forest corridors, creating a crucial link along the backbone of Peninsular Malaysia’s Environmentally Sensitive Area Network.

Development, logging and agriculture have already eaten away at vast tracts of forest, and much of what is left outside of this network is fragmented and of limited use to animals such as tigers, which require large territories to find sufficient food. This is why it is important to link up the tracts of good-quality forest that we do have.

So far, there have been some positive developments in favour of the Central Forest Spine (CFS) Master Plan, the latest being the Terengganu government’s announcement that it will freeze all development projects along an area that falls under Primary Linkage 7, a stretch of forest which connects Malaysia’s largest national park, Taman Negara, to other forests in the state. The decision was announced by state Industry, Trade and Environment Committee chairman Datuk Toh Chin Yaw after researchers presented their findings from months of survey.

The research group Rimba recorded 40 mammal species in the area, 15 of which are listed as “endangered” globally. These include the Asian elephant, the Malayan tiger, the Sunda pangolin, the white-handed gibbon and the Asian tapir.

There is hope that action will be taken for another important wildlife corridor that is similarly rich in fauna. Work by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) at the site known as Primary Linkage 2 points to the need to protect a stretch of state-land forest. Currently vulnerable to development, this area forms an important connection between the Belum and Temengor forests in Perak.

Natural treasures

The Belum-Temengor Forest Complex is key tiger country and the only place where one can spot all 10 species of Malaysian hornbills. It is made up of two large forests – 1,175sqkm of the Royal Belum State Park to the north and 1,477sqkm of the Temengor Forest Reserve to the south, both of which are separated by the Banding Forest Reserve, located towards the lower half of the Belum Forest Reserve, and an unprotected strip of stateland forest.

The latter, which does not currently enjoy any form of legal protection from development projects, forms a significant component of the 278.9sqkm of forest corridor identified as Primary Linkage 2. This stretch of state land runs 2.4km along the East-West Highway (also known as the Gerik-Jeli highway) and constitutes a key crossing point for wildlife moving between Belum and Temenggor.

Studies by WWF in 2010 and 2011 show how critical the area is to wildlife. Their survey of 156sqkm of forests revealed that 11 out of the 12 large mammals known to occur with the Belum-Temengor landscape, occurred within the Primary Linkage 2 corridor.

Among the animals surveyed were the tiger, elephant, gaur, tapir, sambar deer, serow, barking deer, sun bear, wild dog, wild boar and golden cat. The only large mammal not detected was the leopard.

Nine tigers, three of which were breeding females with a combined total of eight offspring, were recorded within the study site, while breeding signs were found for the gaur, sambar deer, elephant and sun bear – all indicating how critical this patch of forest is. Animals – including the tiger, the elephant, the tapir, the wild boar, the golden cat, he binturong, the large Indian civet, the masked palm cat, the yellow-throated marten, the Malayan weasel, the banded leaf monkey, the slow loris and the pangolin – are also known to use forests on both sides of the highway. The researchers recorded much roadkill, indicating that vehicular traffic currently poses a threat towards their movement.

Various conservation strategies are recommended under the CFS Master Plan to protect the Primary Linkage 2 wildlife corridor: conversion to protected status, freezing of land alienation for development and agriculture, establishment of wildlife crossings, and increased enforcement efforts.

Threat from development

Over the years, there have been threats of development on this important piece of land. For example, the CFS Master Plan listed infrastructural developments by Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) and Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM) in Primary Linkage 2.

Subsequent checks with the universities indicate that the UPM development will be on Pulau Banding in Temengor Lake, while UUM has shelved plans to acquire land for development on Pulau Banding.

WWF, in its report Management Recommendations On Ecological Linkages: Findings From A Study On Large Mammal Habitat Use Within The Belum-Temengor Corridor, recommends that other ongoing developments be ceased.

It says forest clearance for the Puncak Baring Highland Agriculture Project has extended beyond boundaries demarcated within the CFS Master Plan, while forest clearance for a rubber plantation for the Banun orang asli resettlement scheme has extended beyond boundaries identified within the Hulu Perak district local plan.

Last year, The Star reported on land clearing for an oil palm plantation on land owned by the Perak State Agricultural Corp, in the area. The activity has stopped but conservationists are worried similar scenarios will continue to arise as long as the state land remains unprotected. Ironically, the entire stretch of the Belum-Temengor Forest Complex, including Primary Linkage 2, is zoned as an Environmentally Sensitive Area Rank 1 – where no development save for low-impact nature tourism is allowed – under the National Physical Plan.

An encouraging development is the Perak Forestry Department’s announcement in May that it will gazette 24,738ha of state land as Permanent Reserved Forest. A portion of this area is within the Primary Linkage 2 wildlife corridor. The precise areas to be gazetted are currently being identified by the relevant departments.

This development will fulfil, in part, one of WWF’s recommendations in the report: that the entirety of Primary Linkage 2 be gazetted as Permanent Reserved Forest under the Forestry Act 1984, with the exception of the Orang Asli Reserves identified within the Hulu Perak District Local Plan. It also made several other recommendations:

> Wildlife sanctuaries – Gazette two blocks of forest spanning 62sq km in the area, found to be used most by wildlife, into wildlife sanctuaries. Permanent Reserved Forests are managed sustainably for environment and socio-economic purposes, and therefore do not necessarily offer a permanent refuge for wildlife.

> Anti-poaching measures – Primary Linkage 2 has been identified as a poaching hotspot. It has over 100 access routes, many of which are old or active logging roads from the Gerik-Jeli Highway. WWF suggests systematic anti-poaching patrols along the highway and forest. It also recommends the closure of old logging roads, and manned patrols along all main access roads.

> Water catchment forest – Some 59.7sq km of stateland which forms part of the Royal Belum State Park water catchment should be classified as Water Catchment Forest under the Forestry Act. The state land sandwiched between the Belum and Temengor forests is not just important for wildlife, but also communities living in the area. It overlaps with the water catchment for Sungai Ruok and Sungai Tiang, the main water supply for an orang asli settlement within the Royal Belum State Forest. Both rivers are also income-generating eco-tourism sites – the Tiang is popular with anglers, while the Ruok features waterfalls and rafflesia sites. Both have been gazetted as Conservation and Resources Protection Zones by the Perak Fisheries Department.

> Facilitate wildlife movement – Another recommendation, the construction of two viaducts along the Gerik-Jeli Highway, is already on course to fruition. Earlier this year, the Government announced an allocation of RM60mil for the construction of an underpass to enable wildlife to cross the highway. The Wildlife and National Parks Department is currently conducting a study via camera-trapping at the area.

WWF stresses, however, that the viaduct would have to be subjected to continuous monitoring and patrolling efforts, as viaducts are often target areas for poachers. To reduce roadkill and increase safety for road users, it suggests some simple measures such as safety signposts, speed limits and speed breakers.

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