Malaysia: Wildlife crossing for road through tiger habitats

Safe passage
Natalie Heng The Star 20 Mar 12;

A road that cuts through tiger habitats will be upgraded to include wildlife crossings.

THE TIGER is a flagship species. Protect it, conservationists say, and you protect much of the biodiversity in our forests.

Reconciling development pressures with conservation however, is a challenge that haunts all developing nations, more so for the world’s 13 tiger range countries, which house roughly half of the Earth’s population.

Nonetheless, progress has been taking place in the wake of the 2010 Tiger Summit in St Petersburg, Russia. Malaysia, which like the rest of the tiger range countries adopted a declaration on tiger conservation at the meeting, has gained recognition for its progressive land use planning.

Conservation objectives have been “mainstreamed” into development plans through the Central Forest Spine Master Plan, an initiative under the National Physical Plan (which indicates future directions for land use, development and conservation). Endorsed by the Cabinet last year, the master plan’s latest site of transformation lies somewhere in Kuala Lipis, Pahang, where the burbling Sungai Yu rushes cool and clear beneath the shade of bamboo, kasai and sesenduk trees.

The road it passes under is a colonial relic, and the only barrier to crossing wildlife at this narrowest of points between two of Malaysia’s largest forest complexes, Taman Negara and the Titiwangsa Main Range.

Constructed in the 1930s, the Gua Musang Highway which is also known as Federal Route 8, extends from Bentong, Pahang in the south, right up to Kota Baru, Kelantan in the north.

Rapid expansion of car ownership has led to horrific traffic congestion on this road. Though surrounded by dramatic landscape, the scenic drive down Federal Route 8 is a nightmare during festive seasons. Plans have already commenced to widen it into a four-lane dual carriageway. Together with a part of Federal Route 9, the two routes roughly trace the backbone of Malaysia from Kuala Krai in Kelantan right down to Simpang Pelangai in Pahang and will be known as the Central Spine Road. It is the stretch of road at Sungai Yu, however, which is to become a beacon of smart green infrastructure.

Wildlife crossings

Sungai Yu is at the centre of a 10km stretch of state land known as the Sungai Yu Wildlife Corridor, which links Taman Negara with the Titiwangsa Main Range. Combined, these two refuges make up the fifth largest tiger landscape in the world. The corridor, therefore, is a crucial site not just for the Malayan tiger, a subspecies unique to Malaysia, but the species as a whole.

The river marks a popular crossing point for wildlife and Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan) officers are often called in to usher large mammals such as elephants off the road (where they pose traffic risks) and back into the forests. An average of 90 such incidents occur each year.

In this sense, the highway expansion could be a recipe for disaster: faster and higher volumes of traffic can lead to more accidents and roadkill. Tigers and tapirs are among the other large mammals which make use of the highway, and with less than 500 Malayan tigers left in the wild, every tiger counts.

Under the Central Forest Spine Master Plan, Sungai Yu is one of 15 green corridors between four of Malaysia’s major forest complexes – connections that are crucial for tigers which are solitary animals, occurring at very low densities of one to two tigers per 100sqkm. This behaviour relates in part to the population density of its prey, which includes wild boar, barking deer and sambar deer. There is a minimum amount of habitat required to sustain both prey and tiger populations, therefore, the corridor increases the number of individuals that can be sustained. The larger the population, the more resilient it is against factors such as inbreeding, diseases and environmental catastrophes.

To ensure that the corridor links are not threatened by the expansion of the highway, three wildlife underpasses will be built to allow wildlife to cross underneath the road and avoid being run over by traffic. Research data were used to pin-point important crossing points.

Piling works by the Public Works Department (PWD) for the structures are nearly complete. The road will feature Malaysia’s longest viaduct – a span bridge almost 1km in length – and two shorter ones of 300m and 80m. A number of smaller box and pipe culverts, built to aid water drainage during the wet season, will help secure safe passage for smaller animals during the dry season. These green features cost the Government an extra RM25mil, raising the overall project cost to RM158.7mil.

Highway patrol

Wildlife biologist Dr Kae Kawanishi who was involved in a benchmark study on the tiger population in Taman Negara says Malaysia is leading the way where green infrastructure is concerned. Chief wildlife biologist for the Sungai Yu Tiger Corridor Project which is a partnership between government and non-government agencies, she is involved in the effort to secure, maintain and enhance wildlife corridors through the implementation of three policies – the National Physical Plan, the National Tiger Conservation Action Plan and the Central Forest Spine Master Plan.

Ideally, she would have liked the entire 10km segment of the highway with existing forest connectivity to be elevated, but understands the realities of budgets and limited resources. “Sometimes it is necessary to find a compromise, hence, the best possible sites had to be selected.”

On whether wildlife will continue using those sites after construction is completed, Kawanishi says it will probably take some time for wildlife to re-colonise the area because of the disturbance.

Despite that, PWD Inspector of works Zulkifli Hussein says wildlife is using the crossing point even as construction is going on. He captured an image of what looked like a tiger paw print on his mobile phone a few weeks ago, at a spot beyond some iron piling adjacent to Sungai Yu.

“If you come here between 6.30 and 7pm, it is quite common to see elephants,” he says, also claiming to have seen barking deer and a black leopard on a hill overlooking the construction site.

Regardless, effectiveness of the underpasses can only be determined through post-construction monitoring. For Kawanishi, a crucial element is ensuring that the completed structures feature wildlife patrols.

“Poaching is the greatest threat faced by Malaysia’s endangered species. Habitat-related threats such as forest loss or fragmentation are secondary. The authorities have to seriously deliberate on finding effective ways for the deployment of more trained, permanent enforcement staff at priority tiger habitats, which include national and state parks as well as forest reserves.”

Perhilitan is aware of this, and discussions on a permanent management mechanism at Sungai Yu are underway and will be submitted to the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry before the viaducts are completed.

In the meantime, Pahang Perhilitan will enhance its patrols in the area by deploying officers from its offices in Kuala Lipis and Kuantan. For special operations, staff might also be deployed from Taman Negara. And since either side of the road is forest reserve, patrolling will also be done by the Forestry Department.

Perhilitan says in future, road developments will have to be more wildlife-friendly, with wildlife crossing areas needing enhanced management.

Tiger SOS
Natalie Heng The Star 20 Mar 12;

OVER the last century, tiger numbers have plummeted from 100,000 in the 1900s to 3,200 today. Three out of nine tiger species are already extinct, and the animal’s habitat range stands at 7% of what it used to be. With human population growth still accelerating, and development pressures continuing to encroach on tiger habitats, a revolution is needed in the way we approach tiger conservation.

Smart green infrastructure

The concept refers to designs that either avoid cutting through core wildlife habitats, or those that minimise adverse impacts from infrastructure development.

Malaysia got its first piece of Smart Green Infrastructure in 2008 at Sungai Deka, Terengganu, identified as an important green corridor under the Central Forest Spine Master Plan.

Among the green features of Sungai Deka are:

> The original alignment of the Simpang Pulai-Kuala Berang highway was modified to shift it further away from the northern portion of Taman Negara, to prevent easy access for poachers into the protected area.

> In 2008, three wildlife viaducts were constructed at a cost of RM30mil. Terengganu designated 15,000ha around the viaducts as forest reserves.

> In 2009, over 20km of the highway was furnished with electric fencing to funnel wildlife through the viaducts. The habitat around these structures was enriched with grass pastures and salt licks to attract wildlife.

> Some RM3.5mil has been allocated for various conservation components, including elephant holding facilities before translocation and construction of a temporary ranger post, from which patrolling is done almost daily.

> An 11-man management team under the Terengganu Department of Wildlife And National Parks (Perhilitan) was approved by the Public Service Department for Sungai Deka last year.

Similar wildlife-friendly infrastructure are being carried out at the Gua Musang Highway which bisects the wildlife corridor between the Tanum and Sungai Yu Forest Reserves in Terengganu and planned for the Gerik-Jeli Highway at the wildlife corridor between the Temenggor Forest Reserve and Royal Belum State Park in Perak.

Citizen action

Aside from habitat loss, another daunting issue in tiger conservation is the killing of tigers and their prey by poachers. With limited resources for patrolling, enforcement is a major challenge, which is why the Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers (MYCAT, a coalition of conservation groups) started Citizen Action for Tigers (CAT) in 2010. With CAT, volunteers go on nature walks at poaching hotspots in Sungai Yu on weekends when Perhilitan enforcement staff might be off-duty, to keep an eye on illegal activities.

A form of eco-tourism, this project has had a real impact: volunteer reports to the Wildlife Crime Hotline (019-3564194) on suspicious activities have led to snare removals and poacher arrests by Perhilitan.

This success story led to CAT Trailblazer, a joint project between MYCAT and Perhilitan, where the public go on five-day “bushwhacking” trips with rangers to boost the presence of people at the borders of Taman Negara, thus deterring encroachment.

“Adventurous tourists love it, and the local communities benefit financially from increased tourism,” says MYCAT general manager Dr Kae Kawanishi. She says the functional effectiveness of smart green infrastructure must be supported by enforcement patrols as well as citizen conservation activities. “It is not just the responsibility of the government.”

Kawanishi says such conservation-cum-ecotourism activities will be a vital element of the eventual Tiger Trail tourism around Taman Negara. (For more about CAT, go to or

International co-ordination

Such partnerships between citizens and government are a welcome addition to the fight against illegal wildlife trade which remains a major threat to wildlife, according to Keshav Varma, programme director for Global Tiger Initiative (GTI).

East Asia has seen a surge in demand for illegal wildlife products, and the Mafia has moved in to take advantage of this US$10bil (RM30.2bil) market.

“It (the mafia) is getting more aggressive and more organised. What is emerging is a need for an organisation that can truly counter crimes in illegal wildlife trade. Right now, we are trailing behind,” says Varma.

He says the GTI encourages the formation of an international consortium for combating of wildlife crimes, by bringing together Interpol, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the World Customs Organisation, CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), and the World Bank.

Currently, the consortium is trying to tackle a previous lack of international co-ordination – which is vital because illegal wildlife trade often involves crimes that are transboundary – by building up the institutional architecture to deal with this.

“One part of the agenda is advocacy work, the other is better co-ordination and better flow of information.”

Varma is particularly concerned about Malaysia, and feels there is a need for stricter enforcement.

“Malaysia definitely has an image of being a hub, a hotspot for poaching and illegal trade, and there is a need to clamp down on this.” – By Natalie Heng