KOTA KINABALU – During my childhood, I had a good time living with my parents in the interior of Sabah in a small bamboo-walled house right in the middle of a wonderful virgin forest in Kampung Bayangan, Keningau.
Sadly, the old-growth was cleared for agricultural purposes before I left secondary school in 1965 to join the Malaysian Armed Forces.
I’m already 70 now but I still have fond memories of magical and tranquil moments wandering in that forest and listening to a symphony of natural sounds from the creatures that dwelled there
Yes, it was wonderful, mysterious and even haunting because it sounded like these animals were finding their own bandwidth to vocalise.
It was a very significant part of my life for I actually lived in symbiosis with the diverse flora and fauna that thrived in an undisturbed ecosystem.
Unfortunately, at that particular time, I had no idea that plants and trees play an important role in maintaining life and regulating the climate as they absorb carbon dioxide from the air and release oxygen back into it.
Today, Malaysia is among many other countries worldwide that are concerned about environmental issues but, on the whole, Malaysians are fortunate as our country is home to some of the oldest rainforests in the world that house iconic flora and fauna species such as the rafflesia, orang utan, Asian elephant, Bornean banteng (a wild ox species) and proboscis monkey.
Nevertheless, Malaysia sadly witnessed the extinction of its Sumatran rhinoceros species following the death of the last female rhino named Iman in November 2019 at the Tabin Wildlife Reserve (TWR) in Lahad Datu, Sabah. Iman’s death came six months after the death of Malaysia’s last male Sumatran rhino Tam.
The 121,406-hectare TWR, considered to be the largest wildlife reserve in Malaysia, was declared a wildlife reserve in 1984 primarily on account of the large number of animals inhabiting its forests, some of which are highly endangered.
Large mammals like the Borneo elephant and banteng, also known as tembadau among the locals, are found there.
Being a journalist, I had the opportunity to participate in many resource and wildlife surveys, alongside conscientious scientists and researchers from local universities and government and non-governmental organisations, in Sabah’s premier conservation areas, especially those located in Danum Valley, Maliau Basin and Imbak Canyon.
I learned two important things about trees from the environmentalists, namely forests are sources of water because water reservoirs can only be found in a water catchment area and that forests are worth more standing than logged.
During the surveys, the scientists and researchers carried out activities such as camera trapping, mist-netting and line transects (to illustrate a particular linear pattern along which communities of plants or animals change), as well as identifying areas that are vulnerable to human threats.
Interestingly, these scientific expeditions found that poaching was the biggest threat to wildlife conservation in Sabah.
Other threats were the increasing development pressure, most of which were invasive in nature; illegal logging; and hostility towards conservation areas, especially among the local people and influential groups that would like to use the areas concerned in ways other than for conservation.
Scientific information gathered from the field research was also used for the purpose of communicating with the stakeholders, especially the public, regarding the rationale for an area’s conservation and protection.
The Sabah state government was committed to ensuring that the forests and biodiversity are conserved, which led to the authorities increasing the totally protected areas (TPAs) to 30 percent or 2.2 million hectares of Sabah’s landmass.
The arduous task of managing the TPAs could not have succeeded without the combined effort and active support of all the relevant government departments, agencies, institutions and stakeholders.
Sabah currently has 1.8 million hectares of TPAs, accounting for just over 24 percent of its landmass,with Danum Valley, Maliau Basin and Imbak Canyon considered to be the last major tracts of pristine rainforests left not only in Sabah but also Malaysia and Borneo. The three tracts have a total combined area of 130,239 hectares.
Under the state forest enactment, TPAs are not available for logging or for any other destructive purpose.
Continuous public awareness and environmental education activities are also very crucial to ensure the sustainability of the protected areas. This reminds me of the villagers in Singgaron Baru in Ranau district who fought relentlessly for almost half a century to protect a 180-acre water catchment area near their village.
There is also a strong need to strengthen the enforcement around the buffer zones of the protected areas in order to minimise attempts by poachers to encroach into the core of the conservation areas.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the objective of designating protected areas is, among others, “to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values”.
I believe and hope that Malaysia’s aspiration to become a developed nation will not be at the expense of giving up the need to maintain its biodiversity intactness.
(The views expressed here are the writer’s own.)
Edited by Rema Nambiar