The road to ruin -A new road near Taman Negara may well be built at the expense of wildlife and their habitat.
By TAN CHENG LI
IT would shorten the route by a mere 6.6km - probably 10 minutes of driving -but the new alignment of a stretch of road near Gua Musang, Terengganu, will eat into habitats for wildlife and allow development to inch closer to the country's premier park - Taman Negara.
Bulldozers are already hard at work at both ends of the new road, located about 45km from Gua Musang. This stretch is labelled as Phase 1-Segment 5, and is just one parcel of a bigger project by the Public Works Department (PWD) to upgrade Federal Route 8, the major thoroughfare that connects Bentong, Pahang, to Gua Musang, Kelantan.
While the existing road curves around oil palm and rubber estates for 13.7km, the realigned road will cut through these plantations as well as some tracts of forest, to cut the route by about half.
Conservationists have questioned the necessity of this shorter route. They say the new road is within the Taman Negara-Sungai Yu corridor, an important ecological bridge between the Main Range and the national park, and an area known to host elephants, tapirs and sun bears.
WWF-Malaysia chief technical officer Surin Suksuwan explains that the Taman NegaraSungai Yu corridor has almost contiguous forest cover- so its preservation will greatly enlarge the available wilderness.
This link is among several earmarked by the Town and Country Planning Department to connect four major forest complexes spanning the length of the peninsula, to form what is called the Central Forest Spine.
These four wild lands - the Main Range, Taman Negara, south-east Pahang-Chini/Bera wetlands and Endau Rompin-Kluang Wildlife Reserve - are crucial for biodiversity and environmental protection but are now fragmented from one another.
Suksuwan says a report on the Central Forest Spine, the boundaries of which are being finalised now, discourages the widening of roads in areas earmarked for forest corridors.
WWF chief executive officer Datuk Dr Dionysius Sharma fears that the impact will extend beyond the actual site cleared for the road to adjacent forests.
"The upgrading and realignment of the existing road might not only impede wildlife movement between the Main Range and Taman Negara, but also accelerate forest conversion and fragmentation in surrounding areas. This in turn will disrupt ecological functions and lead to the loss of biodiversity."
He says existing forests flanking the road are vulnerable to conversion to other land uses as they are state-owned land with no protected status.
Sharma urges the Pahang state government to gazette these forests as Permanent Reserved Forest under the National Forestry Act 1984, to reduce the risk of forest conversion and maintain the connectivity between the Main Range and Taman Negara,
"It is crucial and urgent that a buffer zone is demarcated for Taman Negara to address a range of mounting concerns such as forest conversion and potential poaching pressures. No development activities should take place in this buffer zone," says Sharma.
As is often the case, new roads spell easier access - in this case, trespassing by poachers into Taman Negara. At their closest point, 2km is all that separates the new stretch of road from the 4,343 sqkm park.
Sharma urges the PWD to share information on the other phases of the road upgrading scheme with key government agencies and nongovernmental groups which might be able to provide useful recommendations on ways to minimise the environmental impact of the scheme.
Should the realignment of certain stretches be unavoidable, he proposes that measures such as elevated roads and tunnels as well as wildlife crossings be incorporated into the design, to prevent forest fragmentation.
The PWD, however, has brushed off the claims of WWF.
Responding to questions from StarTwo, it says the realignment of Phase 1-Segment 5 is to make that stretch, an accident-prone spot, safer. Upgrading the existing road will pose greater risk to the locals as vehicle speeds will be higher. It is also cheaper to construct the new alignment.
The PWD says Segment 5 does not encroach into any forest reserves: 3km will cut through secondary forest that makes up the Jalan Merapuh Malay Reserve and another 3.3km, the Felda Cegah Perah Satu oil palm plantation.
It says the existing road as well as the railway line already transect the forest corridor between the Main Range and Taman Negara, hence "the realignment of certain stretches is not a new impact to wildlife in the area that have already adapted to the presence of the road for many years." It also points out that the area is already fragmented and consists of forest, oil palm and settlements.
To minimise impact to wildlife, the PWD has produced a Wildlife Management Plan which among other things, suggests elephant warning signs, lower speed limits and reporting of wildlife sightings. The PWD also intends to construct underpasses for animal crossings in the road upgrading, in compliance with the requirements of wildlife authorities.
Countering concerns that the new road will worsen poaching of wildlife, the PWD says illegal hunting is already prevalent in the area - traps for porcupine were detected during surveys for the Wildlife Management Plan -due to accessibility. It says poaching can only be solved through deterrent measures such as severe punishment and constant surveillance.