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Tuesday April 18, 2006

Endangered biological hotspot


ONE minute we were cruising up a pristine stream flanked by untouched forest full of soaring trees. The next, as we rounded a bend, log debris blocked our path. And the crystal clear water had turned murky.  

“Last time, this river was very beautiful,” says our boatman. “The water was very clear and tourists like to come here to swim and have picnics.”  

Well, that is now all but impossible. Logging has left an indelible mark on this stream and many others that feed the Temenggor Lake in the upper reaches of Perak. Loggers have ignored sustainable forestry practices. They have cut trails into riverbanks, flouting the requirement for a buffer zone.  

Scientists have for years urged for preservation of Temenggor forest and the adjoining Belum forest. The Perak Government finally heeded the call in 2003 but to the dismay of conservationists, it declared only Upper Belum (forest north of the East-West Highway) as the Royal Belum State Park. Forest south of the highway, consisting of Lower Belum and the 149,000ha Temenggor, remains as “production forest reserve” destined for logging.  

And so, tree-felling in Temenggor has sped up in recent years. Newspapers have also highlighted cases of illegal logging.  

These logs (left) were once soaring trees which stood tall in the forest of Temenggor. – Picture by Tan Cheng Li
The Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) warns that much is at stake if Temenggor is axed for together with Belum, the area has some of the largest blocks of untouched forest in the peninsula, which makes it a biological hotspot. The conservation group should know, having documented the area’s wildlife in scientific expeditions in 1993 and 1998. 

For starters, Belum-Temenggor harbours the Rafflesia azlanii, named in honour of Sultan Azlan Shah of Perak and scientifically described only in 2003. Then there are the hornbills, all 10 of Malaysia’s species. There is also the rare phenomenon of hornbills flocking in huge numbers. Belum-Temenggor also shelters 14 globally threatened mammals and an array of unique plants and animals.  

It is also a major water catchment for Perak but silt awashed from logged forests threatens the viability of the Temenggor Dam as a source of water and hydropower. 

Much is at risk. Which is why MNS wants the Perak Government to stop logging in Temenggor, turn it into a protected area as part of Royal Belum, gazette the area as a state park, and draw up a conservation management plan for it.  

The MNS call echoes that of the National Physical Plan which identified Belum-Temenggor as a Rank 1 “Environmentally Sensitive Area” (ESA). This ranking disallows development, agriculture or logging. The plan also listed Belum-Temenggor as part of the ”Central Forest Spine”, the forested corridor that is the backbone of all ESAs in the peninsula.  

Century-old forest that make up Temenggor is being logged for timber. – Pictures by Sanjit/MNS
Some questioned the need to conserve Temenggor since Perak has set aside Belum for a state park but Sebastian argues that the 117,500ha Royal Belum by itself is insufficient for survival of large mammals such as the Asian elephant, Sumatran rhinoceros, Malayan tiger and tapirs.  

He says extending Royal Belum to cover Temenggor will create a forest that is large enough to support the diversity of flora and fauna which makes Malaysia one of the world’s 12 mega-biodiversity countries.  

The 434,300ha Taman Negara is the peninsula’s only sizeable wild sanctuary. “We need a second one to prevent extinctions. You don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” says the ecologist.  

“And since no wildlife recognises the East-West Highway and boundaries of the park, we should not see Belum and Temenggor as two forests. It’s one contiguous block. Let’s treat it as such.” 

Belum-Temenggor is also worth conserving because of its unique flora-type, the Bamboo-Schima or northern monsoonal Burmese-Thai forest vegetation. Currently, Peninsular Malaysia lacks a comprehensive and representative “protected area” network as not all its forest types are protected. While Taman Negara represents the flora peculiar to central peninsula and Endau-Rompin State Park, species distinct to the south, the northern flora-type is not represented. The gazettement of Belum-Temenggor will fill this gap.  

Belum-Temenggor adjoins two protected areas in southern Thailand – Hala-Bala Wildlife Sanctuary and Bang Lang National Park. When linked up, they form a trans-boundary protected area of some 850,000ha, possibly the largest single wildlife sanctuary on the Malay Peninsula. Such a vast expanse of protected forest will allow plants and animals to thrive.  

Scientists believe that the Belum-Temenggor forest is some 130 million years old, making it older than the Amazon and Congo forests. Cycads growing there hint at this forest’s antiquity; these palm-like growths date from the Jurassic period and are one of the oldest plants on earth. Over 3,000 species of flowering plants grow there, including the peninsula’s three Rafflesia species – R. kerrii, R. cantleyi and R. azlanii.  

The orang asli of Belum-Temenggor are highly dependent on the forest and the lake. They say fish catch has declined due to logging and fishing by outsiders.
R. azlanii is so far found only in Perak and Pahang. When first seen in the 1993 MNS scientific expedition, it was mistakenly identified as R. hasseltii, a species found only in Sumatra then.  

The mistake showed up only in 2001 when Rafflesia enthusiast Matthew Wong collected a bloom from Temenggor, near the Kelantan border.  

The Temenggor population of R. azlanii is important to science, it being the “type specimen” – the original sample from which the species was described.  

Unfortunately, bulldozers and chainsaws have reached Sungai Halong where the species was first discovered. 

With its rich wildlife and wild landscape, the tourism potential of Belum-Temenggor is immense but it is under threat. “To develop tourism, we need unlogged forests,” says Sebastian. He says nature tourism, such as wildlife-spotting at salt licks and elephant-viewing along the East-West Highway, is still untapped for want of a management plan.  

Keeping Belum-Temenggor intact makes sense for it is worth more than just timber alone. The MNS estimates that logging yields between RM58mil and RM250mil annually. But if other products and ecological services which the forest provides – such as water supply, tourism, non-timber forest products, carbon sink, pharmaceuticals, flood control, fisheries and electricity generation – are given a price tag, Belum-Temenggor is worth some RM1bil to RM1.2bil.  

The call to save Temenggor is not new but so is the pressure to log it. And the Perak Government has reneged on earlier statements that it will preserve the forest. In 1998, then Perak Mentri Besar Tan Sri Ramli Ngah Talib said the proposed state park of 137,000ha would include Belum and the western part of Temenggor. Later, he said the park would cover 60,000ha of Temenggor, with another 2,000ha as an educational and scientific research centre. 

In 2003, the Forestry Department said 5,950ha around Sungai Halong (site of the 1993 scientific expedition) in Temenggor, would be an educational and research forest. But that site is now being logged. 

In February, after many futile attempts, MNS council members finally got the opportunity to present their case to Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Mohd Tajol Rosli Ghazali, who then asked for suggestions to address the issue. 

The MNS has put up its case for preserving Temenggor. But will the Perak Government and the Forestry Department see the forest not only for its trees?  

 

Postcard Plea

THINK the Temenggor forest is worth saving? Then support the Malaysian Nature Society’s Belum-Temenggor Campaign 2006 to urge the Perak and Federal Governments to stop the logging and safeguard the forest for future generations. 

The MNS is distributing two sets of postcards for the public to sign – one is addressed to Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and the other, Perak Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Mohd Tajol Rosli Ghazali. 

The prepaid postcards are available from all The Body Shop outlets and the MNS office (Address: JKR 641, Jalan Kelantan, Bukit Persekutuan, 50480 Kuala Lumpur or 03-22879422). For more information, visit www.mns.org 

Related Stories:
Threat from tree farms
Orang asli victims
Hornbill heaven
 

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