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The idea man behind Heart of Borneo
Published on: Sunday, October 29, 2017

PERSONAL interest in connectivity is the hidden first cause of the Heart of Borneo (HoB) initiative. We have nailed that first active interest down to Dato' Dr Mikaail Kavanagh, former CEO of WWF-Malaysia, because he was recognised as such as a keynote speaker at the latest HoB conference.

"I have always been interested in connectivity," he told Daily Express.

So now we know this intensifying connectivity drive in Sabah originated from Kavanagh who thinks it's indispensable for the permanent future of wildlife.

"The idea is, say you have a 500ha national park and another 500ha national park and you put them together to make 1,000ha, you save much more genetical and biological diversity than if they were spread out into two.

"This is because you don't have the depth of mixing the pool and genes of a bigger area," explained Kavanagh who started young as a primatologist working in remote Sarawak.

Size matters: Kavanagh

Borneo has the luck that Kavanagh landed his first job in Sarawak.

That was 1981 when WWF-Malaysia made him a junior conservation officer in Lanjak Entimau, for obvious reason – orangutan population, about 1,400 of them.

Well-rated as a man of ideas, his efforts quickly turned Lanjak-Entimau in southeast Sarawak into one of the State's largest wildlife sanctuaries, in 1983.

Even so, at mere 1,870sq km, Lanjak Entimau was obviously not big enough for Kavanagh because, he says: Size matters.

Most important of all – connectivity is imperative.

As he has said, where animal movements are blocked, opening up just a few smart connections can suddenly turn isolated forests into a hugely bigger whole and free flow of genes and healthy cargoes of wildlife is enhanced.

Small wonder the HoB now covers such an ambitious expanse of 122,000sq km which people, like Kavanagh, believe is a basic condition to secure Borneo's rich biodiversity for perpetuity.

How it started

It all began at a meeting of WWF Pacific Region CEOs in Phuket, Thailand.

Kavanagh remembers drawing a map of Borneo showing the protected areas along the boundaries between Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei.

"What I suggested was why don't we have an initiative to join up either sides along the borders of all these areas, talk to the governments of the three countries… everybody got very excited and that's how the idea took off," recalled Kavanagh who was given the job of looking for the money.

He started to coordinate and Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei started working together

"I must admit I was just thinking of a parks and sanctuary landscape setup but an Indonesian colleague raised the need to bring in the human landscape – people who depend on the whole landscape such as water catchment, forest produce and climate regulator," he said.

More meetings, more discussions, the bigger significance of what they initially called Borneo Forest Initiative, sank in, which attracted some interest.

"When it changed into the name Heart of Borneo, everybody was suddenly interested because HoB has the kind of charisma which kind of fit the whole idea.

"People got excited. We spent seven years on dealing with governments," Kavanagh noted.

The Brazil connection

"We went to Brazil and talked about what Sabah was doing at a Conference of the Party (COP) on Biological Diversity in the 2000s and the whole thing took off," Kavanagh reminisced.

Kavanagh couldn't remember the exact year but it could be Feb 12, 2007 when Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam and Indonesia signed a declaration in support of WWF's HoB initiative during the COP8 meeting in Brazil.

In 2007, a very important meeting among 170 NG0s, academicians etc in Brunei thrashed out HoB's reasons-to-be

Adlin – the man who rallied everybody in

Kavanagh credited princely Tengku Datuk Dr Zainal Adlin, then Chairman of WWF-Malaysia, as the guy who rallied everyone to support the formation of the Heart of Borneo, including the Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah.

"When Sultan Bolkiah was having a private luncheon at Nexus Resort Karambunai during a visit to Sabah, I just asked His Majesty: What if we were to combine all the national parks in Borneo together as a contiguous whole – a network?"

"He said: 'I think it is a good idea'," Adlin remembered.

"That was good enough for us. He did not say 'yes' or 'no', he could say approve but we could feel a general blessing for us to write to him what it's all about," Adlin remembered.

So what's the big deal about the Heart of Borneo?

"Of course, this is 220,000sq km of national parks!" Adlin said.

"This is one of the biggest, if not one of the biggest conservation, programmes on the planet.

It's incredible what's been done," Kavanagh said.

A keynote speaker on the founding mission and vision at the latest HoB Conference on Oct 24-25, Kavanagh said he was "blown away" by the efficiency as well as the depth and width of the HoB initiative the first idea of which started from him. - Kan yaw Chong



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