Wildlife in Kinabatangan Floodplain under threat from heavy metal pollution

KOTA KINABALU: Heavy metal pollution from unknown sources in areas around plantations is posing a threat to Sabah’s wildlife, a study finds.

The scientific study conducted over eight years on small carnivores found 13 different metals including the more worrying lead, mercury, chromium and cadmium.

The research was carried out since 2013 under the Kinabatangan Small Carnivore Programme that evaluated the health of small carnivores in the area.

It was published in the latest issue of the journal Environmental Research.

The study pushes for more in-depth investigations to identify the sources of the heavy metals as a crucial step in protecting wildlife and human welfare.

Dr Meaghan Evans, the project leader and first author of the research paper, said the metals found in wild Malayan civets and common palm civets could be dangerous not just to animals but also humans.

“The biological effects following exposure to different heavy metals range from relatively small issues such as skin irritation to markedly more serious repercussions such as infertility and even death,” she said.

The civets were used as indicator species to help the researchers identify the extent of metal contamination within the Kinabatangan Floodplain, she added.

“We found certain metal levels in civet hair that were associated with proximity to tributaries and access to lakes,” Evans said.

“We also fitted GPS collars on male civets to document each animal’s use of forests and/or plantations. This allowed us to directly test the potential influence of agriculture on the metal levels we observed.

“Civets that spent time in oil palm plantations had significantly elevated concentrations of aluminium, lead and cadmium in their hair samples compared to animals that stayed in protected forests,” Evans added.

“Athough this data does not definitely identify the plantations as explicit sources, incidental or deliberate), of metals our research certainly supports future evaluations of agricultural practices,” she added.

Sabah Wildlife Department assistant director Mohd Soffian Abu Bakar said the study was groundbreaking as it also coincided with the post-mortem report on three Borneo pygmy elephants that died from cadmium poisoning last month.

“Although neither of these studies directly identified the original sources of these metals, both provide irrefutable evidence of animal exposure to inorganic pollutants,” Mohd Soffian said.

Danau Girang Field Centre director Dr Benoit Goossens said further studies will be conducted to identify the sources of these metals and how animals are exposed to them.

The work of the research programme was funded with grants from Houston Zoo, Phoenix Zoo, Ocean Park Conservation Foundation Hong Kong and Yayasan Sime Darby.