The winding tarmac road into Maliau Basin Conservation Area (MBCA) is flanked by the odd unmanned bulldozer. As far as the eye can see, this is the only sign of human life. On each side of the road, emerald rainforest stretches to the horizon. From the undergrowth, the cicadas’ mating siren is urgent and haunting, and overhead, the powerful thumping of hornbills’ wings evokes Pterosaurs in flight. It is easy to see why this place is known as “Sabah’s Lost World”, a real-life Jurassic Park – minus the dinosaurs.
Maliau Basin is one of very few places in the world that has never been inhabited by humans. The basin, around six hours’ drive south of Kota Kinabalu, is a saucer-shaped area covered in thick rainforest in excess of 390 square kilometres, enclosed by a steep escarpment that rises to a formidable 1,600 metres high.
This remote region was only discovered in 1947 when a light aircraft almost crashed into the mist- shrouded rim. The serendipitous encounter didn’t generate much interest at the time, and the area slipped back into cloud-covered obscurity. It was only in 1988, when a full scientific expedition was organised by the state-sanctioned Sabah Foundation and WWF Malaysia, that news of this remote region began to trickle out to the wider world.
Peter Feilberg, executive director of NEPCon, a Danish NGO, has been researching the basin since 1999. The soft-spoken conservationist gets visibly excited when talk turns to the significance of the region. “Even if you go deep inside [the] Amazon, there have been quite a lot of people actually living inside the forest, having small-scale agriculture production, hunting and so on. You don’t see any traces [of human activity] inside Maliau Basin, which makes it really unique on a global scale.”
This huge bowl of pristine forest is surrounded by two buffer zones. Combined, they make up the MBCA. The buffer zones comprise over 1,300km2 of forested land, which had previously been worked on by loggers. However, in 1997, the land was designated by the Sabah state government as Class 1 protected forest and in March 2016, it was officially gazetted as national heritage by the Malaysian government.
The road that brings visitors into the conservation area ends at the final buffer, a sprawling area of sparkling ponds, trees in autumnal shades and wildlife in every direction. As dusk begins to settle, a hornbill pair flits from tree to tree to find a spot to nest, while wild boars trot idly by. Soon darkness blankets us, and our flashlights illuminate muscular, dusty-brown sambar deer emerging with their young to graze.
Beyond the buffer zones, the forest-cloaked basin is accessible only by foot. The noise that accompanies us on our trek is immersive and constant, as if welcoming us to a different realm. High up in
the canopy is a family of gibbons swinging wildly from tree to tree, with raucous whooping laughter accompanying their every move. The now-familiar sound of wings overhead is interspersed with the hurried patter of animal feet on the forest floor. One of the basin’s many waterfalls roars in the distance.
The scene changes as one forest type ebbs into the next. As we move further, the lowland forest with sparse, soaring trees gives way at higher elevation to the dwarf forest, where carnivorous pitcher plants make their home on the sides of dense, stunted trees. Shartner Liew, our Sabahan nature guide who has the lean physique of an endurance athlete, darts through the forest like a child in a toy shop. He examines every tree carefully, in the hope of finding camouflaged insects, and introduces each tree species to us with great reverence. Each tree has a story to tell. The strangler fig tree that sends its buttress roots sprawling across the forest floor tells a tale of dominance. The centuries-old Agathis tree that grows like a pillar of the Pantheon tells the story of time.
However, when we peer more closely, we see another narrative – one of human interference. At eye-level, carved into the bark of some of the trees, are large markings. Some are indecipherable, like hieroglyphs, while others are letters from the alphabet. One tree has S, A, N, T, A, L, E and T carved vertically into its trunk. These messages are the poachers’ coded way of communicating with one another in the rainforest, making up a modern-day treasure map.
“One of the big threats to Maliau Basin is the roaming gangs of poachers that go around the protected areas looking for a tree species called Aquilaria,” Feilberg says. “On a per-kilo basis, it’s the most expensive thing you can buy in this world. Much more expensive than gold.”
Deep in the rainforest, just off the trail, we come across a pale, lanky tree. Its trunk is bare and dotted on it are a smattering of pea-green moss and irregular
white patches. It is an entirely unremarkable tree and we probably wouldn’t have noticed it if not for the dramatic, deep wound inflicted in its trunk, as if by an axe. It dawned on us that we were looking at the Aquilaria tree. One of my fellow trekkers, a young British lawyer, remarks ominously, “This feels like the last frontier of the battle between man and nature.”
The Aquilaria tree has been hunted to near- extinction because of a quirk of natural biochemistry. When the tree is damaged, by insects or humans, it can react to the wound by producing a protective resin. When the resin soaks into the tree’s bark, it produces agarwood or oud, known locally as gaharu, a scented bark that is one of the world’s rarest and most expensive commodities. Through poachers, agarwood is smuggled from Sabah’s Lost World to China, the Middle East, Japan and Europe where it is used for incense, for perfume by top luxury brands, and even as a store of value, like gold.
The months that these poachers spend in the Maliau Basin don’t just cause harm to the Aquilaria trees but also result in considerable damage to the ecosystem. Jadda Suhaimi, the manager of MBCA, tells us that the poachers, known to the locals as gaharu hunters, tend to travel very light and hunt for their food in the rainforest. They are also believed to be helped by people within the local community, who provide them with directions and food supplies. Rahimatsah Amat, chief executive of Sabah Environmental Trust, a local NGO, has been closely involved with enforcement work at Maliau Basin. A renowned Sabahan wildlife ecologist who speaks with the endearing familiarity of a close relative, he explains there has been a shift in recent years in the locals’ relationship with the rainforest.
Before, the locals saw the area as a resource. They would occasionally hunt a wild boar for a festival or catch a fish for dinner. This had minimal impact on the ecosystem as the wildlife regenerated quickly, outpacing the communities’ needs. However, with economic development in recent years, people have started seeing the forest as a commodity. In order to afford modern comforts such as electricity and phones, they turn to poaching.
Rahimatsah believes one way to solve the problem of poaching is to develop tourism in the region. He reasons that developing infrastructure in the buffer zones, in areas where hotspots for illegal entry have been identified, will encourage travellers to visit. “When there are people here on a 24-hour basis, thieves [will] think twice about going,” he says.
Recognising that some may bristle at the idea of a protected area being developed for tourism, he assures us this is actually good news for conservation. As the buffer zones had previously been logged,
the work required to develop them for tourism includes landscaping and the planting of trees. This not only makes the surroundings more attractive, it encourages the return of wildlife to the area.
Part of the conservation work also includes the construction of the Maliau Basin Studies Centre, a complex of timber huts built in the buffer zone to facilitate both research and tourism. Indeed, the presence of the huts doesn’t seem to bother the wildlife. Under the cloak of night, the glittering eyes of a civet cat shines out from under the long wooden walkways and the resident sunbear emerges to scour for its evening snack.
The second and more critical approach, Rahimatsah says, is employing local communities to help protect the rainforest, which not only gives them a way to bridge their income gap but also ensures they have a vested interest in preserving the basin. “Conservation isn’t just about scientists doing work on the ground. It’s about communities as a whole working together. If [local communities] have jobs, incidents of illegal poaching and support for the gaharu hunters will diminish.”
Suhaimi says that in recent years, many members of the nearby tribes have been employed at MBCA in a variety of jobs, including forest rangers, housekeepers and drivers. Clearly, the involvement of local communities does not stop there. When we first arrived at the conservation area, we crossed paths with a group of spirited children on a school trip from a local village. Their chattering stopped abruptly as they excitedly point out a trogon perched on a tree overhead, its blood-orange feathers glinting in the dusky rays of evening sun. Perhaps in time, these children, too, will be part of conservation efforts to preserve this extraordinary place.
After three days of trekking, I emerged from the rainforest at midday, filled with an exhilarating sense of possibility. While it was a thrill to visit a place so unexplored and hidden, the paradox of Maliau Basin is that in order to preserve it for future generations, it cannot remain unknown for long.
This article was originally published in the June 2018 issue of Silkwinds magazine.