An­i­mal cross­ing

A re­search project looks at whether wildlife cross­ings work.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By NATALIE HENG star2­green@thes­tar.com.my

Where roads cut into wild ar­eas, spe­cial an­i­mal cross­ings are built to pre­vent road­kill. But do these mea­sures work?

THE for­est re­serves around Tasik Kenyir in Terengganu teem with wildlife. Aside from the 230 bird species which the area is known to har­bour, re­search group Rimba in re­cent sur­veys has recorded at least 19 mam­mal species in the area.

Their cam­era traps have cap­tured stun­ning im­ages of var­i­ous rare and en­dan­gered species. In one pic­ture, a fe­male Asian ele­phant and her calf, their eyes shin­ing in the flash of the cam­era, are seen mak­ing their way through leaf lit­ter. In other im­ages, tigers, sun bears, clouded leop­ards, tapirs and serows make up more of the jun­gle mi­lieu.

For most of these an­i­mals, a large ex­panse of habi­tat is cru­cial for pop­u­la­tions to re­main vi­able in the long term. But their habi­tats are be­ing cut up by ad­vanc­ing de­vel­op­ment. In ad­di­tion to be­ing a bar­rier for an­i­mals to reach re­sources such as food, shel­ter and mates, iso­lated and frag­mented habi­tats pose a threat to the healthy mix­ing of pop­u­la­tions. A ge­net­i­cally di­verse pool of in­di­vid­u­als is needed to avoid the neg­a­tive ef­fects of in­breed­ing and re­duced ge­netic di­ver­sity.

Un­for­tu­nately habi­tat frag­men­ta­tion is a prob­lem in Malaysia, al­beit one that has, to an ex­tent, been ad­dressed by the Cen­tral For­est Spine (CFS). Part of the National Phys­i­cal Plan, the CFS is a mas­ter­plan which de­lin­eates a net­work of for­est com­plexes con­nected by eco­log­i­cal link­ages (cor­ri­dors of forested land) to cre­ate a con­tigu­ous for­est run­ning the length of Penin­su­lar Malaysia.

The forests around Tasik Kenyir, in­clud­ing the Hulu Teme­l­ong, Pe­t­uang and Tem­bat for­est re­serves (in which Rimba re­searchers are sur­vey­ing a 140sqkm stretch), make up one such link­age. Known as Pri­mary Link­age 7, this green cor­ri­dor links Ta­man Ne­gara to forests in the north. The area is one of three pri­or­ity ar­eas in the National Tiger Ac­tion Plan, a blue­print doc­u­ment on the con­ser­va­tion of the big cat.

The re­serves are bi­sected by the Kuala Berang high­way, which forms a dan­ger­ous bar­rier for mi­grat­ing wildlife. In­tru­sions such as this into the sanc­tity of our wilder­ness are by no means unique and are a reg­u­lar oc­cur­rence world­wide.

Safe cross­ings

The trend of build­ing wildlife cross­ing struc­tures be­gan in the 1950s and is to­day a com­mon strat­egy de­ployed in many coun­tries. Some of the most recog­nis­able struc­tures were built in the 1970s in Banff National Park in Al­berta, Canada, where 24 veg­e­tated over­passes pro­vide safe pas­sage over the Trans-Canada High­way for bears, moose, wolves and many other species.

Cross­ings don’t have to pass over ob­sta­cles, how­ever. In the Nether­lands, over 600 tun­nels have been in­stalled un­der ma­jor and mi­nor roads to aid in move­ments of the en­dan­gered Euro­pean badger.

In Malaysia, the Kuala Berang high­way fea­tures 10 viaducts which of­fer traf­fic-free cross­ing points for wildlife. Viaducts are el­e­vated road struc­tures, typ­i­cally pass­ing over a val­ley or lower ground, and sup­ported by arches or col­umns. Three of these viaducts were built specif­i­cally as wildlife cross­ing points, and have been termed “eco-viaducts”. Un­like the veg­e­tated over­passes in Al­berta, safe pas­sage for wildlife in our viaducts lies with pass­ing un­der the struc­ture.

The con­struc­tion of eco-viaducts in Malaysia has been cham­pi­oned by en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists as a promis­ing mea­sure but there have as yet been no stud­ies to con­firm their ef­fec­tive­ness in the trop­i­cal con­text. The task of ver­i­fy­ing their use­ful­ness is a huge un­der­tak­ing and re­quires many months of sur­vey and data col­lec­tion through thick for­est, fol­lowed by months of data anal­y­sis.

None­the­less, hav­ing sci­ence to ver­ify the ef­fec­tive­ness of well-in­ten­tioned pol­icy is im­por­tant to en­sure the best so­lu­tions for pro­tect­ing Malaysia’s valu­able stocks of bio­di­ver­sity. That is pre­cisely the think­ing be­hind Rimba, a coali­tion of lo­cal and for­eign sci­en­tists, which has em­barked on a project to mon­i­tor the use of wildlife cross­ings along the Kuala Berang high­way.

Coun­try-spe­cific so­lu­tions

The com­bi­na­tion of wildlife cross­ings and road­side fenc­ing has been found to be help­ful for some species. Rimba’s Kenyir Wildlife Cor­ri­dor Project lead re­searcher Gopalasamy Reuben Cle­ments, 32, says that in Malaysia, the Wildlife and National Parks Depart­ment (Per­hili­tan) had pre­vi­ously tried to fun­nel an­i­mals un­der­neath viaducts through the con­struc­tion of elec­tric fences.

But what works for wildlife cross­ings in other coun­tries might not be ap­pro­pri­ate for Malaysia. One con­sid­er­a­tion is a dif­fer­ence in lo­cal fauna. Ele­phants, for ex­am­ple, are known to have fixed mi­gra­tion routes; they broke through the fenc­ing.

An­other im­por­tant fac­tor is ram­pant il­le­gal trade in wildlife. The coun­try’s ex­cel­lent in­fra­struc­ture and road net­works, many of which by­pass for­est re­serves, not only open up ac­cess to wildlife poach­ers but of­fer con­ve­nient routes for a speedy on­ward jour­ney.

“So far, NGOs have been rec­om­mend­ing the build­ing of viaducts but the poach­ing el­e­ment hasn’t been looked at,” Cle­ments points out. The con­ser­va­tion bi­ol­o­gist hopes his study will de­ter­mine whether an­i­mals at such wildlife cross­ings might in fact, be more vul­ner­a­ble to poach­ers.

The Kenyir Wildlife Cor­ri­dor Project is part of his PhD re­search with James Cook Univer­sity in Queens­land, Aus­tralia. A Sin­ga­porean and Mas­ter’s grad­u­ate from the National Univer­sity of Sin­ga­pore, Cle­ments is also a re­search as­so­ci­ate with Univer­siti Malaya and pre­vi­ously worked at World Wide Fund For Na­ture Malaysia on tiger and rhi­noc­eros con­ser­va­tion projects.

In to­tal, Cle­ments and his team have in­stalled 80 cam­era traps – 40 within for­est re­serves on ei­ther side of the high­way, and the rest, in and around the viaducts. They

have cov­ered 140sqkm of jun­gle, trekking some 8km a day and rough­ing it out in the jun­gle, to look for signs of wildlife and ro­tate cam­eras around the study grid to get a more rep­re­sen­ta­tive data.

Cov­er­ing the en­tire area took them three months, and they still have two more rounds of sam­pling to go be­fore it’s time to an­a­lyse the data. Nev­er­the­less, the team has al­ready been able to glean some in­sights.

For ex­am­ple, they no­ticed one par­tic­u­lar tiger, recog­nis­able by its stripes, was cap­tured by cam­eras lo­cated both north and south of the high­way, but not at ones placed near or un­der any of the viaducts.

“That shows it didn’t use the viaduct. So for large mam­mals, these viaducts may not be so use­ful. But as you can see, you have tapirs and other an­i­mals to con­sider, too. And we don’t know whether the tiger will use the viaduct in the pe­riod be­tween now and the end of the study, so it’s just pre­lim­i­nary.”

Part of the project’s mis­sion is to iden­tify po­ten­tial ac­cess routes for en­croach­ment. This they found – near, un­der and along the viaduct ac­cess road. They also found old camps in shel­tered ar­eas un­der­neath the viaducts, and cam­eras have cap­tured im­ages of peo­ple car­ry­ing fish­ing rods. Such ev­i­dence of hu­man pres­ence is not seen at three of the newer viaducts. Cle­ments hy­poth­e­sises that these are prob­a­bly too re­mote.

The study should re­veal if wildlife are ac­tu­ally util­is­ing the struc­tures and if so, which ones. But what do we do if the ecoviaducts prove to be less ef­fec­tive than hoped? That, ac­cord­ing to Cle­ments, does not mean the struc­tures lose their use­ful­ness. It might call for a tweak in strate­gies – such as more wildlife pa­trols – to in­crease their ef­fec­tive­ness.

By see­ing how other fac­tors de­ter­mine the ef­fec­tive­ness of eco-viaducts, fu­ture cross­ings can be planned ac­cord­ingly. Po­ten­tial fac­tors, says Cle­ments, could be the dis­tance be­tween the viaducts and hu­man set­tle­ments, the qual­ity of forests on the other side of the road bar­rier, and phys­i­cal fea­tures such as re­duced veg­e­ta­tion un­der the viaduct or re­duced food re­sources due to the pres­ence of large ad­ja­cent water bod­ies.

Adop­tion pro­gramme

The Rimba project is a mam­moth un­der­tak­ing re­quir­ing ex­pen­sive tech­nol­ogy (the cam­eras, pass­word-pro­tected and pos­sess­ing in­built lens, cost RM1,500 each) and man­power (to con­duct sur­veys and han­dle the cam­eras). Cle­ments has 80 cam­era traps in ac­tion right now but needs 150. With more cam­eras, his team can do more ac­cu­rate pop­u­la­tion es­ti­mates.

So far, funds have come from grant dis­burs­ing or­gan­i­sa­tions, in­clud­ing the two uni­ver­si­ties Cle­ments is at­tached with, and pri­vate donors. These are enough to pay for the 80 cam­eras and five field as­sis­tants.

Rimba also needs funds for 10 satel­lite col­lars for a project on the man­age­ment and ecol­ogy of Malaysian ele­phants, to be led by Ahimsa Cam­pos-Ar­ceiz, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor with the Univer­sity of Not­ting­ham (Malaysia cam­pus). At RM13,000 each, the col­lars will show the move­ment pat­terns of each an­i­mal, thus pro­vid­ing in­sight into how they cross roads and use viaducts.

Com­pa­nies, or­gan­i­sa­tions, so­ci­eties, schools and in­di­vid­u­als can sup­port the work of Rimba by adopt­ing a cam­era, satel­lite col­lar or ranger.

Cam­era trap (RM1,500) – You will get a cer­tifi­cate, the op­por­tu­nity to per­son­ally place your cam­era trap in the for­est, and get e-mail up­dates of cap­tured im­ages ev­ery three months.

Satel­lite col­lar (RM13,000) – You will get up­dates of the col­lared an­i­mal ev­ery three months, a half-yearly progress re­port and a three day-two night stay at Rimba Field House.

Ranger (RM18,000) – You will get a cer­tifi­cate, an op­por­tu­nity to place three cam­era traps in the for­est, re­ceive e-mail up­dates on these traps ev­ery three months as well as a half-yearly progress re­port, and a three daytwo night stay at Rimba Field House plus an op­por­tu­nity to ac­com­pany the ranger on field sur­veys.

Cle­ments be­lieves that cre­at­ing a bridge be­tween re­searchers and the pub­lic as well as pro­vid­ing peo­ple with op­por­tu­ni­ties to get in­volved in con­ser­va­tion projects can make a dif­fer­ence. Re­search is im­por­tant – it helps in­di­rectly by knowl­edge cre­ation, and de­ters il­le­gal poach­ers by the mere pres­ence of re­searchers in the for­est. On that note, it is a cause worth sup­port­ing.

For more on Rimba: myrimba.org or face­book.com/pages/Rimba/154235447971255 or e-mail reuben@myrimba.org.

Look be­fore you cross: This leop­ard, about to cross the Kuala Berang high­way in Terengganu, could eas­ily end up as road­kill. — Pic cour­tesy of Rimba

Come this way: An ‘eco-bridge’ at Sun­gai Kem­bur along the Sim­pang Pu­laiKuala berang road en­ables an­i­mals to cross be­tween forests frag­mented by the high­way. (Pic right) When roads cut through wild ar­eas, an­i­mals can end up as road­kill.

Gopalasamy reuben cle­ments, co-founder of rimba and lead re­searcher of the Kenyir Wildlife cor­ri­dor Project, fix­ing a cam­era trap to a tree in a for­est re­serve near Tasik Kenyir. He and his team have fixed some 80 cam­era traps in the forests around the Kuala berang high­way in Terengganu to mon­i­tor wildlife there.

Caught on cam­era:

(From left) Serow, sun bears, clouded leop­ard, tapirs and dholes (wild dogs). — Pics by rimba

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