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How a highway that cuts through tiger habitat doesn't have to be a dead end for wildlife

Posted by: Bobbi Miller, Field Conservation, Woodland Park Zoo and Kae Kawanishi, PhD, MYCAT

Saving tigers is a complicated business. It’s not enough for researchers and conservationists just to know where the tigers are. Saving them requires knowing how many there are, where and how they travel, what their prey base is, how to sustain them and what the imminent threats are to their survival. From this vast database of knowledge comes one obvious fact: the tigers need to have a place to live and a way to safely move from place to place.

Enter Woodland Park Zoo Wildlife Survival Fund partner Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers (MYCAT) and their recent Rewilding of the Sungai Yu Reforestation project. The project is a component of the Sungai Yu Tiger Corridor Conservation Program, which is striving to return wildlife and forests to the Sungai Yu tiger corridor in Peninsular Malaysia.

During her doctoral work, Kae Kawanishi, MYCAT General Manager and Head of Conservation, identified two critically threatened wildlife corridors connecting Taman Negara National Park to adjacent large forests; one north of the park by Lake Kenyir, and the other west of the park, the Sungai Yu corridor. Kawanishi’s research showed that endangered species, including tigers, were being poached out of Sungai Yu, and the connectivity was being threatened by the proposed Central Spine Road upgrade. That highway, once a two-lane road, was set to be upgraded to a four-lane highway with guard rails and dividers, making it virtually impossible for wildlife to cross safely and successfully.

The area planned for revegetation as part of the Sungai Yu Reforestation Project. Photo courtesy MYCAT.

MYCAT, in conjunction with the Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia (DWNP), was concerned about the upgrade of the highway, especially in light of Sungai Yu’s identification as the highest priority linkage in keeping large forest complexes connected for the Malayan tiger. Working together, and as a result of MYCAT’s research and advocacy, the Malaysian Government invested $27 million to elevate the top three stretches of the new highway at critical wildlife crossing points, giving tigers and other wildlife the ability and freedom to move back and forth along this critical ecological corridor.

But just creating the underpasses was not enough. The highway project, completed in 2014, stripped away much of the forest and degraded what was left inside the corridor. Despite the elevated points in the highway, this lack of suitable vegetation meant there was a danger of losing the final link connecting the fourth largest tiger landscape in the world.

It wasn’t just the highway work impacting the habitat; much of the on-going forest clearing for rubber plantations and orchards is illegal. Add to that the poaching of commercially valuable species such as tigers, sambar deer, gaurs and pangolin, and you have a true environmental crisis.

A nursery was set up by indigenous people living in the corridor. Photo credit Rob Waller/MYCAT.

To address the deforestation issue, MYCAT launched the 5-year Sungai Yu Reforestation Project. The purpose is to restore native vegetation in order to provide safe passage for wildlife to cross the corridor under the highway. The project was launched at a reforestation event, officiated by Princess Aishah of Pahang, and drew approximately 200 people from all walks of life: government agencies, the private sector, road engineers, villagers, school children and volunteers. Over 95 percent of the saplings planted that day have survived, providing not only a start to a healthy habitat corridor for tigers and other wildlife, but ensuring sustainable resources for ecological services to many generations of Malaysians to come.

Students from a local school adopted and planted 20 saplings on Global Tiger Day. Photo credit Rob Waller/MYCAT. 

To learn more about MYCAT, their Citizen CAT walks and the Sungai Yu Reforestation Project, follow the program.

The saplings planted on Global Tiger Day. Photo credit Rob Waller/MYCAT.