Malaysia’s Petronas and Sabah state foundation to boost conservation in forest reserve rich in biodiversity
Deep in the heart of Borneo – that cache of ancient rainforests with its varied yet mostly reclusive wildlife, wondrous caves, majestic rivers and waterfalls, – a cavalcade of rugged four-wheel-drive sports utility vehicles rumbles along on dusty red clay roads towards the Tampoi Research Station, one out of four research stations servicing the Imbak Canyon Conservation Area in Sabah, on Malaysia’s east side.
Spread over 30,000 hectares, Imbak Canyon is blessed with a vast and diverse endemic and previously undiscovered wildlife species. Some 81 species of mammals have been recorded so far, with sightings of Borneo's famous orang-utan, pygmy elephants, Banteng wild cattle, the Proboscis monkey, the clouded leopard and leopard cats. Bird species number around 245 different kinds, with all eight species of the Bornean hornbill present in the area, while 22 species of freshwater fish have been found in its rivers and streams.
Scientists and researchers have also identified at least 600 plant species, including about 100 classified as ethno-medicinal plants, 32 that are endemic to Borneo and six endemic to Sabah, and 196 species of orchids. Imbak Canyon is a Class 1 Forest Reserve, which means that any kind of land conversion or timber exploitation is strictly prohibited within its perimeters.
Recognising the importance of preserving pristine rainforests such as Imbak Canyon, Petroliam Nasional Berhad (Petronas), Malaysia's largest oil and gas company, has been collaborating with Yayasan Sabah, the foundation responsible for designating Imbak Canyon a conservation area, to promote and preserve the biodiversity of the area.
As part of its corporate social responsibility agenda pertaining to sustainability in areas of its operations in Sabah, Petronas approved a funding of USD1.4 million in 2009 to support rehabilitation and restoration efforts in Imbak Canyon over three years. In 2013, due to the need for a better equipped and more efficient facility for researchers and visitors, Petronas approved an additional funding of USD17.9 million for the construction of a 27-hectare Imbak Canyon Studies Centre (ICSC), currently ongoing at a site close to the Tampoi station.
The ICSC will complement the research facilities of Danum Valley and Maliau Basin, two other Class 1 Forest Reserves in the heart of Sabah, which are filled to capacity. Both are more established reserves and have been attracting researchers and scientists for years. The ICSC will eventually be a full complex, housing a Day Visitors’ Zone, researchers’ accommodations, staff quarters, research labs, library, classrooms, a conference hall, and other facilities.
With the new ICSC Complex expected to attract more scientists and researchers to the conservation area, it is also hoped that it will pave the way for more Malaysians to become researchers in the fields of nature conservation, ethno-botany, wildlife welfare and other related vocations. Tampoi Station’s manager and researcher Dr Hamzah Tangki pointed out the irony that Malaysia has yet to produce an expert in the study of orang-utans even though the endangered primates can only be found in this part of the world.
Once facilities at the ICSC become available, Yayasan Sabah and Petronas hope to not only host professional experts carrying out research and studies, but also students and eco-tourists interested in conservation activities. Future plans include scientific expeditions to be led by the Academy of Sciences Malaysia and workshops funded by Petronas. Fully utilised, the new ICSC Complex will be a valuable jumping point to assist the Academy of Sciences in producing more research experts, including local professionals in the various related fields.
Aside from the building of the research centre, plans are also underway to make Imbak Canyon more tourist-friendly. The upcoming Imbak Waterfall Complex will make the remote yet popular waterfall more accessible and safer for visitors, who are expected to number around 200 to 300 at any one time. Instead of impinging on the natural beauty of the waterfall, it is hoped that a proper tourist complex will help regulate visitor activities and avoid untoward incidents. It will also serve as an information centre as well as the starting point for jungle trekking activities in the planned Imbak Rainforest Park offered by the state’s forest rangers.
Concurrently, developments in Imbak Canyon will benefit the local indigenous communities. There are about 48 indigenous villages nearby, whose inhabitants depend on the spoils of the forest for their livelihood. Petronas has conducted community outreach programmes aimed at educating locals about the importance of conservation while helping indigenous communities generate sustainable incomes by training them to develop homestays to host eco-tourists and create local crafts for commercial sales, as well as training youths to be porters and guides.
Recognising the wealth of knowledge possessed by villagers in the use of medicinal plants and herbs, usually handed down verbally from generations to generations, it is important that the information is preserved. A chat with a local medicine man or a knowledgeable forest ranger would reveal the many uses of local plants, including in helping alleviate ailments including malaria, diabetes, headaches, and kidney problems.
Today, such information is collected for future reference through an Ethno-Forestry Study and Documentation programme as part of the Petronas-Yayasan Sabah Imbak Canyon Collaboration Partnership Agreement. It is hoped that the joint conservation effort will create further opportunities to increase knowledge and expertise in environmental conservation, especially with the completion of the Imbak Canyon Studies Centre by the end of 2016.