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Development threatens Borneo wildlife

Ever-growing towns and cities and palm oil plantations pose threat to elephants' habitats in Malaysia's Sabah state.
Last modified: 19 Sep 2013 20:01

The trouble with pygmy elephants is that they live in remote places.

Places so remote you don't get 3G on your mobile phone. Sometimes, you don't even get a mobile phone signal at all.

I’m being precocious, of course.

The fact that you sometimes can get a mobile phone signal shows just how developed Malaysia's northeastern Sabah state has become.

And it's the encroachment of that development that most threatens the wildlife.

So the real trouble with elephants is that their remote places are no longer remote enough.

This isn't new.

Decades ago logging companies chopped down the forests; then rubber plantations – and the infrastructure they needed - were the problem.

Sheer numbers

Nowadays, it's the sheer number of people who live in Sabah's ever-growing towns and cities that are the threat.

That, and palm oil plantations.

You drive and you drive and you drive and palm oil trees are all you see. Together, some – fully grown – almost look like a forest. Almost, but then not at all.

The lines of trees are too neat. They're too regular. The canopy isn't like a forest's wild assault course for monkeys; it's more like green carpet in the sky.

Then there are the saplings. Just as regular, but small and spindly. More frightening, somehow, because they represent the future.

A future where even more of Borneo's land is turned over to palm oil cultivation.

There are standards, of course; maximum amounts of land that can be covered; areas reserved for pristine forest.

The palm oil industry claims to be taking its responsibilities seriously.

But as you drive along the main road from Sandakan to Sukau, the sheer scale of palm oil cultivation is overwhelming.

Truck after truck

The plantations are in the background – to the sides of the road. On the road itself truck after truck full of palm oil fruits pass.

They're in prickly bunches – bright red and on their way to be processed.

For our team - making a news feature about the irony of the palm oil industry paying for a sanctuary for wild animals when it's arguably the palm oil industry that animals need a sanctuary from – the remoteness has its own issues.

We use the internet to send our reports back to base, but there isn't much internet connectivity in Sukau.

The power gets turned off between four and six in the afternoon, and when there is power, it's not at the level my iPAD likes.

It dies, just as I finish my script and I can't get it to power back on for an hour.

Our report was delayed: a victim of the remoteness.

But the fact we can report from here to begin with is a sign that we're not really that remote at all.