Malaysia: Finding treasures of 'lost world'

New Straits Times 1 Jul 13;

MALIAU BASIN FIELD SURVEY: Besides finding evidence of poaching activities, 137 researchers also made some exciting discoveries

DESPITE efforts by the authorities, the Maliau Basin Conservation Area (MBCA), dubbed as Sabah's "Lost World", is still facing environmental and wildlife disturbance as poachers and gaharu (sandalwood) collectors intrude into the protected area.

This was the shocking discovery during a 10-day intensive resource and wildlife inventory survey in the pristine rainforest by local researchers recently.

Members of the team not only found fresh evidence of encroachment, such as bullet casings, camping sites, hunting and fishing paraphernalia and graffiti on tree trunks, but also had close encounters with a band of suspected poachers or gaharu collectors.

Three suspected poachers made their presence known by peeping into one of the 132 camera traps set up in several areas by the survey team to capture wildlife presence in the Class 1 protected forest.

"After we destroyed the suspected poachers' camping site, we were surprised when they suddenly appeared. Fearing for our safety, we had to run away," said Sharon Koh from World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF Malaysia), who participated in the field study.

A check with the Maliau Basin Studies Centre, an administrative centre for MBCA, revealed that the poaching and gaharu collectors' activities were mainly confined to the MBCA buffer zone area, which played a critical role in the protection of the MBCA.

The buffer zone is where most threats to the 58,840ha MBCA are addressed in a tactical sense, including blocking the intrusion of hunters, loggers and gaharu collectors from entering the areas.

Yayasan Sabah rangers, with cooperation from other government agencies, especially the Sabah Wildlife Department, have been regularly patrolling the buffer zone as well as MBCA's core areas to check for intruders, while rangers' posts were also set up in several places, including Sungai Kuamut and Lake Linumunsut.

The intensive field survey, however, produced an impressive listing of mammals and birds, including rare and endangered species, living in the untouched wilderness, characterised by diverse assemblage of forest types with complex river systems and dozens of beautiful waterfalls.

The local researchers, comprising 137 participants, were from Yayasan Sabah, University Malaysia Sabah, Sabah Wildlife Department, Sabah Parks, WWF Malaysia, Sabah Institute for Development Studies and Kinabatangan Orang Utan Conservation Programme (Hutan- KOCP), forest rehabilitation project Inikea and Sabah Environmental Trust.

The flora and fauna inventory survey, which started on June 14, covered almost the entire conservation area, except the 15,000ha heritage zone set aside for future generations to explore in the next 50 years (no sooner than 2050).

The intensive study confirmed that the protected area, which is slightly larger than Penang island, is home to some of Sabah's most rare and endangered species, including pygmy elephants, orang utan and proboscis monkeys.

Researchers also recorded the presence of other mammals through direct sighting or captured by camera traps. These included the clouded leopards, Malayan sun bear, barking deer, mousedeer, banded palm civet, bay cat, short-tail mongoose, Borneon gibbon, porcupines, pangolins and langur.

The exciting list of birds recorded included Bulwer's pheasant, giant pitta, bathawk, red-bearded bee-eater, Borneo ground cuckoo, white-fronted falconet, crested fireback, Borneon bristlehead, scarlet-rumped trogon and Borneon bristlehead.

Bird expert Alim Biun, from Sabah Parks, confirmed that all eight living species of Borneo hornbills, including the helmeted hornbill, were also found in the 588.4 sq km conservation area.

Augustine Tuuga, deputy director of Sabah Wildlife Department, said the survey, headed by the department, was a huge success despite the many poaching activities.

"These poachers are a real threat to the wildlife population, not only at Maliau Basin, but to all the state's conservation areas like Danum Valley and Imbak Canyon. These are not only a national heritage, but of world interest and we must protect it at all cost."

Sabah Foundation group manager for conservation and environmental conservation, Dr Waidi Sainun, said the survey would provide a baseline input about flora and fauna studies, and human impact on the area, including rivers and morphology.

"The findings will be documented to help charter the inter-Agency Maliau Basin Management Committee's management plan, while the inventory survey will be a regular affair at five-year intervals.

"This (survey) is intended to be a regular affair as we want to monitor the situation of the conservation area (including Imbak Canyon and Danum Valley conservation areas) every five years.

"Through this effort, we will be able to know the increase or decrease in the wildlife population within the conservation area."

Waidi, who also participated in the survey, said the field study was supported by Inikea, a collaboration between Innopprise of Sabah Foundation and Ikea, a Swedish organisation involved in environmental projects.

He said intensive field surveys on Maliau Basin started in 2000, as part of the preparation of the Maliau Basin Conservation Area Management Plan. And in 2001, the first major expedition reached Lake Linumunsut in the northern part of the basin. Bernama