The Pan Borneo Highway brings wildlife threats to nat’l park doorstep

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  • The southern terminus of the Pan Borneo Highway in Malaysia extends to the edge of Tanjung Datu National Park in Sarawak.
  • The highway’s proponents say the road is already bringing more tourists who are eager to see the park’s wildlife to the adjacent communities, helping to boost the local economy.
  • But one of the world’s rarest primates, the Bornean banded langur, resides in the park, raising concerns in the conservation community that increased access could bring poachers into the park.

This is the second article in our six-part series “Traveling the Pan Borneo Highway.” Read Part One.

TELOK SERABANG, Malaysia — At the westernmost tip of Borneo sits a dense pocket of mountainous forest, the likes of which have grown rarer in the Malaysian state of Sarawak. Logging and oil palm interests have jigsawed the state’s once-unbroken green canopy into a patchwork of brown earth and slivers of forest clinging to survival. Yet, perhaps improbably, rich, old-growth forests survive here, and within them an explosion of wildlife on this promontory shared with neighboring Indonesia.

Tiny Tanjung Datu National Park and the adjacent Semunsam Wildlife Sanctuary are home to critically endangered painted terrapins (Batagur borneoensis), green and hawksbill sea turtles, and six species of primate, including the critically endangered Bornean banded langur (Presbytis chrysomelas), found in only a few other places on the island.

Female, top, and male Bornean banded langurs. Image by H. Schlegel via Wikimedia Commons (Public domain).

The recent arrival of the Pan Borneo Highway in 2019 has meant seismic changes for all life in this corner of Borneo. It has brought more tourists to the area, according to my guide, Minhad Fauzan. Meanwhile, the residents of his village, Telok Serabang, and neighboring Telok Melano, where the official “Kilometer 0.00” of Sarawak’s Pan Borneo Highway sits, have capitalized. Homestays and small kedai kopi cafes offering noodles and rice along with iced coffee have popped up all around.

But Minhad also worries about what the increased access to this formerly remote corner of Borneo will mean. A self-described conservationist, he and others living near the national park have repurposed their fishing boats, shuttling visitors to see nesting sea turtles on Tanjung Datu’s pristine beaches, to trek into the forests of the national park for a chance glimpse of a langur or a gibbon, and to snorkel with the swarms of “Nemos” (anemonefish) that swarm just offshore.

A blue-eyed angle-headed lizard (Gonocephalus liogaster) in Sarawak’s Tanjung Datu National Park. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

The worry among conservationists is that the highway’s arrival could also mean more hunting and poaching, as many communities in the area have long relied on meat from the forest and turtle eggs for a kick of protein in their diets. Minhad, too, grew up eating turtle eggs, often adding them to his coffee in an area conspicuously devoid of milk-bearing livestock.

Before the roughly 30-kilometer (19-mile) stretch of road connected Telok Melano with the workaday town of Sematan, getting to Melano or Serabang typically required an hour-long motorboat trip (or daylong paddle) through the sometimes-choppy South China Sea. The alternative was a sweltering hike through the swampy forest — by Minhad’s estimation both a deterrent and a boon for poachers. That remoteness meant that hunters and poachers going after small game like deer, monkeys and gibbons could stalk the dense forest with little worry of being discovered by rangers. Similarly, egg collectors could track the region’s turtles and terrapins unperturbed.

A sign marks the southern terminus of the Pan Borneo Highway in the village of Telok Melano. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

But Minhad says he’s optimistic the road will make it easier for forestry personnel to patrol the area and look out for poachers. His views — and his diet — have changed. He now sees himself as a protector of the sea turtles and their terrapin cousins that visit the area’s beaches to lay their eggs.

As a former elected headman of Serabang, Minhad is a leader in the community, and he says he’s embarked on a campaign to “win the hearts and minds of the people.” He argues that wildlife, through the tourism dollars the animals draw, is more valuable alive than dead.

Convincing people is a challenge, because “these are my friends,” he says, and egg collecting is a hard habit to break. He concedes that sometimes the best he can do is convince them to take just some, rather than all, of the eggs they find.

Residents of the villages near Tanjung Datu National Park have built homestays to accommodate the rising number of tourists since the road was built in early 2019. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

Scientists and conservationists from outside seem mostly concerned with the future of the Bornean banded langur. Already one of the world’s rarest primates, the critically endangered monkey now occupies less than 5 percent of the boggy peatlands and lowland forests it once inhabited, according to the IUCN. Now, the highway has wedged its way into their territory, potentially separating a cadre of family groups living where the wildlife sanctuary and the national park intersect.

Minhad watches for langurs on his daily training runs into the hills around Serabang, and he thinks that they can cross the new rubber plantation that’s just popped up on one of the hillsides between the park and the wildlife sanctuary. Canopy-dwelling primates in the area, like the langurs, gibbons and proboscis monkeys, haven’t yet descended from the treetops to cross the road, at least to his knowledge, but they like the young rubber shoots that sprout on the tops of growing rubber trees.

Oil palm planted within the boundary of the Samunsam Wildlife Sanctuary. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

Whether agriculture will stop cropping up on the approach to the national park boundary isn’t clear. A mature rubber crop might provide a surrogate home for high-climbing monkeys. But in the early stages of growth, fledgling oil palm or rubber plantations are mostly exposed earth with wispy saplings pushing up through the soil. Along the road from Sematan, there’s a sign demarcating the edge of the wildlife sanctuary, a legally protected area meant to be set aside just for wildlife.

And yet the rows of oil palms that flank the road before the sign continue well beyond it — planted by “accident,” Minhad said. The scale of the plantation suggests otherwise, as the planted rows cover a significant sweep of the view to the horizon.

Further along the road toward the national park, just beyond the would-be oil palm plantation, a façade of forest returns. But behind it, charred stumps and vegetation still smolder, the result of a fire probably set by hopeful hunters. Within a few days, Minhad explains, the green sprouts that burst through the soil will be irresistible for samba and mouse deer, luring them out into the open where they’re easy prey.

The highway bridge over the Samunsam River. Planners agreed to extend the bridge’s length to allow the passage underneath of wildlife between the forest and the mouth of the river, which opens into the South China Sea. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

From a construction standpoint, the Ministry of Works holds this stretch of highway up as an example of the compromises that are possible. The road is only two lanes across, not four, so it follows a narrower path through the delicate mangroves. And the bridge over the Samunsam River was extended to allow for the passage of wildlife underneath. It’s a small concession that may allow animals like painted terrapins to travel from their freshwater homes to the beaches at the river’s mouth to lay their eggs, thereby linking the inland and coastal environment.

In this microcosm of the impacts of a road balanced with the needs of conservation, the short-term benefits for Serabang and Melano’s residents are hard to refute: shorter travels times, better access to goods and health care, and an economic boost in the form of more visitors. But the highway has also undeniably brought with it changes to the landscape.

Minhad knows that the easier access that he and his neighbors enjoy is likely to be exploited by more than just wildlife rangers. And the hunters it brings could come after more than just the relatively numerous deer. Of still greater concern are rumors that the highway, which currently dead-ends into a traffic circle near the edge of Tanjung Datu, could be extended further into the park. However, Mongabay confirmed with Malaysia’s Ministry of Works that the federal government currently has no plans to push on further.

The forests of Tanjung Datu National Park viewed from the sea. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

For now, Minhad said he would continue his work protecting the animals he can and talking to the people who might threaten them. The irony that the road, meant to bring tourism, might also help eradicate its foundations isn’t lost on him.

As he tells would-be hunters and poachers, “You kill this animal, we lose our product.”

A map created with Datawrapper shows the approach of the Pan Borneo Highway to Tanjung Datu National Park. Image by Willie Shubert/Mongabay.

Banner image of a stretch of the Pan Borneo Highway in southern Sarawak by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

John Cannon is a staff writer at Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon

Citations:

Asian Turtle Trade Working Group. (2000). Batagur borneoensis (errata version published in 2016). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2000.RLTS.T163458A5608163.en

Nijman, V., Hon, J. & Richardson, M. (2008). Presbytis chrysomelas. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. doi:https://doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2008.RLTS.T39803A10268236.en

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This story first appeared on Mongabay

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