Forest of Contradictions

Eco-tourism is touted as offering the best hope for saving Sabah's rich habitats. So far, though, it's done little to halt the pressure on wildlife. But even if it did, is it really sustainable over the long term?


Issue cover-dated September 14, 2000

IF ECO-TOURISM is going to work anywhere, it should be here in Sabah. In this Malaysian state, on the northern tip of the island of Borneo, visitors can get closer to a greater variety of wildlife than almost anywhere else in Asia.

Tourists can stroll on moonlit beaches almost every night of the year and watch sea turtles lay their eggs, visit young orang-utans being trained to return to the wild, or walk through vast caves where clouds of bats fly over their heads and 10-centimetre-long centipedes crawl at their feet. Perhaps most stunning of all is the dazzling array of wildlife along the tributaries of the Kinabatangan River. Here, troupes of proboscis monkeys crash through trees, hooting soulfully through their bulbous noses; kingfishers dart over the river, flashing cream, aquamarine and lime; two-metre crocodiles slip ominously into the river; and on the river bank, elephantine grey shapes move like clouds behind the screen of trees.

Perfect ground, or so it seems, in which to fulfil the promise of eco-tourism. The theory is straightforward: Areas rich in wildlife or environmental interest can use those resources to lure in high-paying tourists. A successful tourism industry then helps safeguard the environment. After all, there's no point in a community chopping down trees or killing animals if that's what's bringing in the dollars. For the same reasons, such a tourism industry is itself unlikely to want to harm the environment.

And yet for Sabah, it's clear that eco-tourism is so far not delivering. And it's not for want of trying. Tourism officials bill the state as a wildlife paradise, and have proclaimed it this year as "The New Millennium Adventure Destination." That sort of promotion has certainly paid off. For instance, in the area around the town of Sandakan, half an hour by air from the state capital Kota Kinabalu, between 1,500 and 2,000 tourists visit each month to stay in simple riverside lodges--a classic eco-tourism success.

But if eco-tourists are rolling in, the state's trees and resources are vanishing even faster. Between logging and development for agriculture, the state's chief wildlife preserves are being reduced to ever smaller pockets. And that pressure on wildlife areas will only exacerbate what critics of eco-tourism see as its chief flaw: The more successful it is in bringing tourists into an area, the more it threatens the very environment it purports to preserve. For Sabah, both the current benefits and future promise of eco-tourism look hollow.

Most of the pressure on the state's forests and coastal regions can be traced to a single source: money. Put simply, the returns from eco-tourism have so far been too low--and too slow in coming--to dissuade officials and private companies from seeking faster and easier cash elsewhere. In recent years, Sabah has undertaken massive clearing of its rainforest to make way for large-scale cultivation, most often of oil-palm plantations.

And there's more to come. The state is in talks with Chinese interests about establishing a huge plantation to supply pulp to China. Plans call for the clear-cutting of somewhere around 250,000 hectares, an area about five times the size of Singapore, most probably in the region surrounding one of the state's core areas of protected forest, the Danum Valley.


Amid all this, even senior state officials admit--albeit often in private--that the impact on Sabah's wildlife has been devastating. The state's efforts, especially regarding the benefits brought by eco-tourism, says Chong Kah Kiat, minister for tourism, environment and development, are focused mostly on "conserving whatever is left after all the encroachment of the past years--especially the very drastic agricultural development."

Paradoxically, in the area that is the epicentre for wildlife viewing in the state, the lower reaches of the Kinabatangan River on Sabah's northeast coast, the frenzied pace of agricultural development has actually produced a rise in the number of animals visitors can expect to spot during even the briefest visit. "Sightings of elephant and wild orang-utans have increased tremendously," notes Albert Teo, who runs Borneo Eco Tours, one of the largest tour companies operating in the area. "But that is mainly because of the encroachment of development from the outside pressing them into a smaller and smaller area."

Teo fervently believes, and a range of others, from non-governmental organizations to government officials, agree, that there's still time to realize the benefits of eco-tourism. The best hope of doing that lies in a 27,000-hectare wildlife sanctuary created last November by the Sabah government--amid much hype--in the Kinabatangan area as a "Gift to the Earth."

"I firmly believe it's going to be a test bed for eco-tourism," says Teo. "If we succeed, then eco-tourism will be seen as a way to preserve biodiversity as well as contributing to the socio-economic development of the local communities." The alternative, he notes, is stark. "The government can't do it alone. The private sector will have to ensure that it succeeds or other land elsewhere will fall prey to logging plantations and so on."

But if the Kinabatangan area's past is anything to go by, the future doesn't look bright. Even the state's 27,000-hectare sanctuary looks less a bold attempt to preserve virgin forest than an acknowledgment that the area was of little use for agriculture. Most of the land that could be taken for agriculture has been taken, says Geoffrey Davison, who heads the Sabah branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature, "and the majority of remaining land is demonstrably better suited for wildlife than agriculture."

Chong dismisses such arguments as defeatist. "The very fact it's taken so long to get it gazetted tells us that there are still people who want the land" for agricultural development. He adds that the current and future benefits brought by eco-tourism, though still small as a proportion of the state's overall tourism income, were key to creating the sanctuary.

For Davison, however, there are other barriers to the uptake and success of eco-tourism. Its benefits, he says, "are long term and the growth rates are slow. Some of the spin-offs are difficult to identify sometimes, too." And, specifically in Kinabatangan, he adds, "we're all working within a constraining situation, the constraints being the pattern of land use, and fragmentation of the sanctuary so that it is not a single ribbon but different parts which are disconnected."

The fact that the chunks of the sanctuary are separated by wide swaths of oil palm has grave implications for the area's wildlife, especially for the larger mammals such as elephants and orang-utans, which require huge ranges.

Patrick Andau, who heads the state Wildlife Department, says he believes the current arrangement is viable for limited numbers of large mammals such as elephants. But he emphasizes that the Kinabatangan sanctuary isn't there just for the big mammals. The sanctuary "holds ten species of primates and a range of cats including the clouded leopard," he points out.

The problem, of course, is that it is precisely the large mammals that many tourists come to see. One solution presented by Andau is translocation, to preserve smaller populations. Elephants, for example, might be moved to other areas of the state better able to support them if the population exceeds the sanctuary's carrying capacity. In what many would view as a clear result of the increasing fragmentation of Sabah's wildlife reserves, Andau notes his department is already undertaking such steps.

Another solution to the fragmentation in Kinabatangan has been attempts to provide corridors connecting some of the divided sectors of the sanctuary. But as Teo of Borneo Eco Tours puts it, "unfortunately, elephants can't read road signs." And, as even Environment Minister Chong acknowledges, to unify the sanctuary would require alienating large areas of land already held by private companies and paying compensation for repossession.


But even if Sabah did do more in real terms to encourage eco-tourism, would it really offer a sustainable future for wildlife in the long term? At the core of the eco-tourism argument lies a Catch-22 contradiction: The more successful an eco-tourism destination becomes, the greater the threat to the very attraction drawing visitors in the first place.

That is a problem the Kinabatangan sanctuary is already facing, says Teo of Borneo Eco Tours. "I have been very concerned for several years about the future of eco-tourism in the area," he says gravely. "The time is rapidly approaching when we exceed its carrying capacity." Other operators agree: One company manager says privately that because of continued clearing for agriculture and increasing overcrowding he has already discounted the Kinabatangan and set his sights on other possible eco-tourism areas in the state, notably the Tabin forest reserve.

Teo, for his part, says he is committed to the Kinabatangan and is attempting to persuade operators to adopt a common code of conduct that would limit the number of passengers in boats on the river, enforce the use of electric motors in the smaller tributaries and so on. But he says he isn't optimistic about his chances of success. "In the end, the area's success will also be its downfall. That's why limits have to be set by the government."

One solution he and other operators have proposed is that the government allocate areas along the river to particular tour operators. "If I'm given an exclusive area I will set limits on the number of people I bring in and I'll put money into it."

To its advocates, the undoubted limitations of eco-tourism, many of which are exemplified in the problems besetting the Kinabatangan, aren't the issue. Focus instead on its unquestioned benefits, they argue. "We are very supportive of tourism," says Davison of the WWF. "It's not totally benign but it's definitely for the better." The bottom line is simple, Davison says: "If there was no tourism, then this wildlife sanctuary would not exist."