By John Grafilo
Thick grey clouds envelop the plane as the pilot’s voice breaks through on the speaker announcing the imminent landing of the passenger aircraft in Tawau town in eastern Malaysia.
After a few minutes of descent the cloud clears, revealing the state of Sabah’s lush green mountains, valleys and plains thick with vegetation. But there are also milky brown rivers that snake and cut through the verdant scenery.
As the plane continues its descent, another flaw in the panorama is revealed: the thick green vegetation is not a forest, but acres and acres of palm oil trees. The oil is Sabah’s main agricultural crop, growing on an estimated 1.43 million hectares of land or 20 per cent of the state’s total land area.
Conservationists say the massive conversion of low-lying land into palm-oil plantations as well as unabated logging in the mountains, where land is also being turned over to agriculture, may lead to the extinction of some of Borneo’s animals and plants.
The Bornean wilderness is considered one of the oldest tropical forests in the world.
Data from the state’s forestry department shows Sabah’s forest cover at about 3.59 million hectares.
But only 910,914 hectares of that is considered virgin forest. A total of 2.68 million hectares has been classified as commercial forest, meaning it has been allocated for logging.
John Payne, an expert on the Bornean rhinoceros and executive director of conservation group Borneo Rhino Alliance, said the destruction of the North Borneo forests started way back in the 1880s when British colonisers started felling trees for timber.
“Unfortunately, we lost much of the forests and the animals and plants living in it,” he said
Among the most endangered animal living in the Sabah forests is the rhinoceros, the smallest kind of rhino that has ever existed.
Payne estimated about 15 Bornean rhinoceros were roaming the Sabah forests “But it could be less,” he said, adding that for the past two years, despite intensive tracking, his team had found signs of only two of these mammals in the forests.
Malaysia has three specimens in captivity. One is at an advanced age in a zoo in Sabah’s capital of Kota Kinabalu. A mating pair is at a sanctuary managed and operated by Payne’s group in the hope of breeding the animals in captivity, but the female has borne no young.
Another group of animals in trouble as the Bornean forests dwindle are rare pygmy elephants that are only found in Borneo.
In November 2013, the Sabah state government set up a sanctuary for these pachyderms in badly degraded forests along the Kinabatangan river which is an important part of the habitat of these elephants.
Earlier this year, 19 pygmy elephants were found dead in the same area, apparently as a result of poisoning.
The World Wildlife Fund says the orang-utan, Asia’s only great ape and found only on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, is also becoming a vulnerable species due to loss of its habitat.
The global conservation group said that the population of the so-called “man of the forests” in Sabah dropped to an estimated 11,000 in 2004 from 20,000 in the mid 1980s.
“This decline in their numbers in the last twenty years was caused by planned conversion of forests to plantations in the eastern lowlands,” WWF said in a report.
Siew Te Wong, chief executive officer of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center, said the cuddly bears are another species considered threatened as the Bornean forests shrink.
“The sun bear is a forest-dependent species,” he said. “The amount of forest available reflects the amount of habitat they have and over the last 50 years if you look at the whole forested area across South-East Asia, the forested area is declining. “So when the forest is gone, the bear will be as well.”
Sabah forestry director Sam Mannan said the government is determined to increase the proportion of forest cover to the total land area.
He said since the start of the year, his office has stopped issuing short-term logging licences in a bid to reduce the pace of timber harvesting from natural forests.
“Our long-term plan is to create 2 million hectares of protected areas, or 30 per cent of Sabah’s landmass,” he said.