Teluk Rubiah: A forest worth preserving

  • Living
  • Sunday, 16 Mar 2014

A tree found nowhere else, plus other interesting flora and fauna, make this forest in Lumut, Perak, ideal for a park.

REDDISH florets are strewn all over the forest path, like confetti. Though they resemble flowers, these are actually seeds of the kapur tree. All around us, rainforest trees soar sky-high. Below them, shrubs and plants with differently-shaped leaves abound. And down on the jungle floor, colourful fungi sprout.

At that moment, I understood why botanists used the words “mature,” “pristine” and “very nice,” when describing the Teluk Rubiah forest. I am surprised to find that such a forest exists in a place known more for swimming and picnics – the popular Teluk Batik beach in Lumut, Perak.

I had joined a team of researchers from local universities and Malaysian Nature Society (MNS), who were there for a quick survey in late January to determine the area’s trove of flora and fauna. The ultimate aim is to turn it into a nature park, with the endorsement of the landowner, Vale Malaysia Minerals.

Botanists are excited with the prospects as the area is one of the country’s few remaining tracts of coastal hill forests, plus it hosts an endemic tree, the Shorea lumutensis.

“We’re looking at an endangered habitat of high conservation priority,” says MNS head of conservation Balu Perumal. He says this kind of forest is not widespread and now, can only be found in very few places – Pantai Acheh in Penang, Tanjung Tuan in Port Dickson, Bukit Melawati in Kuala Selangor, and the coastline between Lumut and Segari in Perak.

“And nowhere is the coastal hill forest more threatened than in Perak since most of the coastline where the habitat is found, from Teluk Batik to Segari, has already been excised from forest reserve for industrial development. Protection of this forest translates to protection of one of the endangered coastal habitats in the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia.”

Public fears

The coastal hill forests of Perak is particularly important as they harbour the Shorea lumutensis, and another critically endangered species, the Shorea glauca. Research from the Forest Research Institution Malaysia shows that S. lumutensis is present in only five sites in Perak: two locations in Pulau Pangkor and three forest reserves around Lumut (Teluk Muroh, Lumut and Segari Melintang).

The dusky leaf monkey is one of three primates found in the area.

So when news surfaced that Vale Malaysia Minerals had purchased the Teluk Rubiah forest for construction of an iron ore processing facility, alarms bells were triggered – and not just among botanists. The Teluk Rubiah forest, also known as the Teluk Batik forest, is also a popular recreation site among the locals who trek and mountain-bike there. The Lumut Outward Bound School holds its training there, as well as the Royal Malaysian Navy.

The Teluk Rubiah forest was once part of the Teluk Muroh Forest Reserve. In the 1980s, a parcel of forest was degazetted for development of the Teluk Rubiah Golf Resort. The project includes exclusive residential homes but that never took off, so the area remain largely forested.

After years of suffering losses, the property was sold to Vale. The status of the land was changed from residential/recreational/tourism to industrial development to accommodate the Brazilian mining giant’s plans for an iron ore stockyard and distribution centre (iron ore will be shipped from Brazil, stored there, then shipped regionally).

The change in land-use prompted public protests as the local community feared that the whole forest will be cleared, and they will lose a favourite wild site.

The great hornbill inhabits only mature forest as they nest in the trunks of tall trees. – NUR ATIQAH TAHIR

Raja Zainariah Raja Hitam from Vale’s CSR and communications division assures the local community that the forest will stay. She says the iron ore stockyard is confined to the old golf course and resort site and takes up 37% of the total property. The remaining 63% – some 680ha of forest – will be conserved as a nature park.

“Wherever we operate, we always have an area which we gazette as a reserve to buffer our operations site. People have asked why we need to buy over such a big area, why not just the area for the stockyard. But it is our experience that if we do not buy over the land surrounding the project, it will eventually be transformed into a township or other development. We do not want that.”

She says Vale adheres to a “zero carbon” principle – so, wherever its operates, it will preserve an area of greenery to offset the emissions from its mining operations. With the help of the Malaysian Nature Society, Vale hopes to draw up a management plan for a park, with features like safe trails and proper signages. “This property is our land, and we don’t want people going missing, or accidents to happen,” says Raja Zainariah.

Important habitat

Some 55 researchers from local universities and research organisations trekked through the forest during the survey organised by MNS in late January. They made some interesting discoveries, which Balu hopes, would be enough to compel Vale to preserve the greenery.

He says the flora diversity of Teluk Rubiah forest is quite high with over 100 plant species identified to date. Notable species include timber trees such as cengal, seraya and meranti, landscape plants such as tembusu and the nibung palm, as well as medicinal plants such as tongkat ali and mempisang.

The Mortonagrion arthuri damselfly has ever only been recorded from Penang and Tioman, and now, in the Teluk Rubiah forest in Lumut. – DR CHOONG CHEE YEN

“Because of the terrain and soil condition which differ from inland forest, you have unique species coming up, such as the endemic Shorea lumutensis. Just like limestone hills, coastal hill forests have vegetation which are usually not found in areas around it.”

Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) botanist Dr Rusea Go also attests to the site’s conservation importance. “We don’t have much of this habitat. The other is Tanjung Hantu (also in Lumut) but that has been eaten up by development. This forest is very healthy when compared with the Tanjung Hantu forest. Considering the limited available area of coastal hill forests in Peninsular Malaysia and the many endemic species they harbour, I think these whole stretches of remaining forest should be of priority to conserve. The composition of species will differ as they would have adapted to the local environment, such as salty sea breeze and sandy soil.”

Go and her team found three species of orchids in three days of trekking: Apostasia nuda (one of the most primitive orchids), Cymbidium finlaysonianum and Dendrobium crumenatum (also called pigeon orchid). She says the short study period prevented a more substantial study of the true state of orchid diversity there. The dry weather conditions also contributed to the poor discovery.

In the small streams and ponds of the forest, UPM fish biologist Dr Mohammad Noor Amal Azmai found the dwarf snakehead or ikan haruan (Channa gachua), freshwater shrimps (Macrobrachium sp) and the common eel (Monopterus albus).

“The area should be conserved as the snakehead is not found everywhere … (but) only in small streams in hills, and in pristine, unpolluted waters,” he says.

MNS conservation officer Nur Atiqah Tahir recorded three primates (dusky leaf monkey, long and stump-tailed macaques) but no larger mammals than the wild boar. The others are the civet cat, mouse deer and tree shrew.

Rare damselfly

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia odonatologist Dr Choong Chee Yen made a rare find – the Mortonagrion arthuri damselfly. This is the third recorded locality of this species, which Choong has previously only found in Tioman in 10 years of field work. It was historically recorded from Penang 100 years ago but no one has seen it there since.

The Vale Malaysia Minerals iron ore stockyard and distribution centre is built on an old golf course in Teluk Rubiah. Some 400,000 tonnes of iron ore will be shipped monthly from Brazil to the site, for redistribution in the region.

“The species is very localised. Even in the habitat which it is associated with, (that is) the area between sea and freshwater, you might not necessarily see it. And it is not abundant. I’ve only seen a few individuals so far.”

He recorded some 30 species of dragonflies and damselflies during the survey – not a large number, he says, because of the limited freshwater habitat; there is only one small stream and a few small ponds. Save for the M. arthuri and another damselfly, Ceriagrion auranticum, all are common species.

The herpetofauna group did not see much due to the many people entering the forest during the survey. “With less crowds, we might see more species,” says Mogana Sundram, who heads the herpetofauna special interest group in the Selangor MNS. Nevertheless, his group added the monocled cobra, green vine snake, green crested lizard, Oriental garden lizard, Malayan box turtle, two species of common tree frogs and one common green frog, to the list of fauna found in Teluk Rubiah forest.

The forest is also rich in birdlife, with 125 species seen. Two sightings are particularly important: a pair of nesting white-bellied sea eagles and the great hornbill, an uncommon species dependent on pristine, mature forest as they nest in the trunks of tall trees.

MNS wetlands programme manager Sonny Wong was excited to find all three sub-family of fireflies and a bioluminescent beetle in one small valley in a single night. Wong says most people know of riverine fireflies which congregate in large numbers to light up whole trees, and less so fireflies in the forest, though the latter are actually more diverse. “The finds, in such a small forest, and during dry conditions, mean the area is quite rich in firefly diversity.”

Rocky boulders mark the spot where the forest meets the sea. Combing the 1.5km intertidal shore at the end of the popular Teluk Batik beach, MNS marine conservation manager Faedzul Rahman discovers an interesting habitat for marine life. He counted eight species of hard corals, two species of arthropods (invertebrates with segmented bodies), four species of snails, as well as one species each of sea sponge, sea cucumber and mussel. “The area is a good site for beach combing, to show people about marine life,” he says.

The researchers, who were there for only a few days, say that given time, they would have recorded more species. Nevertheless, the finds so far attest to the worth of Teluk Rubiah forest for conservation purposes.

MNS president Dr Maketab Mohamed says the forest provides a habitat for flora and fauna, while its small stream and waterfall makes it a watershed.

“Giving the forest back to the people is important, especially as an environmental education programme for school children.”

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