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Last updated on April 18, 2014 at 13:27 EDT

Ulu Muda Sparkling `Green’ Jewel Under Threat

October 6, 2008

By Hymeir K.

THE exciting journey into the wilds of Ulu Muda to explore limestone caves that were not known to exist before and to see the rare specie of hornbills turned up another surprise. HYMEIR K., a caver at heart and president of the Malaysian Karst Society, reports with great disappointment coming across a tractor right in the heart of the lush virgin jungle, and the destruction that it had wreaked.

WE returned to the wilds of Ulu Muda some four months ago to further explore a new find. A new limestone hill was discovered where none was thought to exist. No geological map showed the existence of limestone in the area.

Although it is a small hill, this find is significant as this limestone hill like many others, harbour interesting limestone- adapted species of plants and animals. In addition, there are unexplored caves.

We knew the state government has gone ahead with the construction of chalets and other tourism facilities at Kuala Labua, a popular camping site for anglers, birders and other adventurous people.

These are the sort of people who do not mind making the journey that sometimes takes up to five hours. Being 14km away by boat, we thought the development would be small with little impact on the environment.

Most people just would not go this far thus, the market would be small. It takes one hour by a slow local long-tail boat when water level is high.

However, Muda Lake is notorious for its fluctuating lake water levels. Just a few years ago, the lake water was so low, the same trip to Kuala Labua would take a gruelling 5-6 hours on and off the boat.

Off the boat as one has to push, pull or simply walk beside the boat due to the extremely shallow water. These low water levels can last a few years.

But the authorities decided to go ahead with the development anyway.

We were looking forward to this annual trip as the mid year months is when the rare Plain-pouched Hornbills seem to congregate in the Kuala Labua area making fly-by at dawn and dusk. Heading north at dawn and south at dusk.

Ulu Muda is only the second place where this endangered species have been found.

In Malaysia, they were never thought to exist until a Singaporean birder in Belum had a closer look at what many thought were the more common but nearly similar looking Wreath Hornbill.

He noticed something different about them. Armed with a scope and a digital camera, he noticed these Wreathed Hornbills lack the barring on its gular pouch and the corrugations on the side of its massive beak.

He realized then that he was looking at thousands of rare Plain- pouched Hornbills. This find was very significant. A new species for Malaysia.

That was in the mid 1990s. We first noticed these hornbills making overflights over our Kuala Labua campsite in 2003.

Knowing that Belum isn’t too far away, we made sure we noted the markings and sure enough, it was the Plain-pouched Hornbill.

Ulu Muda is now only the second place in Malaysia where this enigmatic species is found. We have been making this annual trip ever since.

Unlike in Belum, the Plain-pouched Hornbills in Ulu Muda tend to fly lower making identifying them easier and there is no need for scopes. A good binoculars will suffice.

We have counted about 200-300 birds at any one dawn or dusk session. Where they come from or where they were going remains a mystery to this day.

On this trip we were hopeful we would see these magnificent birds again. Alas, after turning the bend in the river, we were greeted with the sight of sheer devastation!

Something you would expect to see in a typical Malaysian urban area, heavy machinery and tractors and forest cleared for development. But this is 14 km into the jungle!

The tourism project was obviously full steam ahead. A large tract of forest probably about the size of two football fields were clear cut to bare soil. Only a few trees were left standing.

An old logging trail that was well on the way to becoming part of the Ulu Muda jungle has now been reopened allowing access to this site.

Allowing access deep into Ulu Muda will certainly encourage illegal hunting and the removal of other valuable forest products.

Our regular campsite, Kuala Labua, across the river from the cleared area, what was previously bush is now all muddy with tracks of heavy machinery crisscrossing all over.

Trees were cut and land flattened to accommodate unsuitable tourism facilities. All in the name of ecotourism.

Do they really know what is ecotourism? Obviously, their contractor’s foreign labour does construction the “normal” way.

The only way they know how. Here development should instead consider the natural environment and buildings should blend with the environment, not mar it.

Is it viable for governments to be building tourism facilities deep in the jungle when access is uncertain, access that is dependent on the lake’s water level.

Perhaps that was why the old logging trail was reopened. To provide an alternative during times of low water.

We felt angry and sad at the wanton destruction of this normally quiet and peaceful spot in the forest of Ulu Muda. The clump of tall bamboo where the monkeys would lay in slumber in the evening is now partly in the river.

The large magnificent trees where the hornbills and woodpeckers would normally rest or find food is no more.

To make matters worse, the Kedah mentri besar had recently threatened to log this important catchment area, all for short-term returns at the risk of losing all of nature’s bounty.

Logging the catchment means losing the water that irrigate the vast paddy fields that feeds us, and the water that supplies the common folks and industries in three states.

Fortunately there were good news. It was during this trip that we found the first evidence that the Plain-pouched Hornbills are breeding in Malaysia.

This is a momentous discovery. This makes the Ulu Muda forest even more important to conserve and protect. It is harder and harder to find pristine forest like Ulu Muda, especially one that can provide so much environmental benefits to humanity.

In addition, it provides us with a wonderful place to visit to experience the wilds of Malaysia. Large mammals, birds, aquatic life, reptiles, microorganisms, plants or simply the breath taking scenery.

Are we prepared to see all this disappear? I hope not. Let us all make it known that we would like to see Ulu Muda gazetted as a well managed protected area that benefits humanity and nature.

It’s the least we can do.

(c) 2008 New Straits Times. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.