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Tags: Malaysia, Maliau Basin Trek, Stories

Saving Sabah's Lost World

Can tourism really save one of the most untouched places in the world?

As our jeep makes its way down the newly-laid tarmac road leading into Maliau Basin Conservation Area, there is no sign of human life. A solitary crane resting on an emerald lake raises its elegant neck for a brief glimpse of us as we pass, and overhead, the powerful thumping of the wings of hornbills evokes Pterosaurs in flight. Trepiditious of what we might find, we felt very much like early explorers on the cusp of a discovery.  

Sabah's Lost World unfolds 

Maliau Basin, a 130-million-year-old rainforest, is one of very few places in the world that has never been inhabited by humans. It is twice the age of the more well-known Amazon rainforest, and yet is more untouched than the Amazon. It was only in 1988, when a full scientific expedition into Maliau Basin was first carried out, that news of it began to trickle to the outside world. To this day, it is still known to conservationists as one of the most untouched places in the world, and aptly known to locals as 'Sabah's Lost World'. 

The road ended at a serene area where we would spend the night, a sprawling area of wooden huts, jewelled ponds and trees in shades of emerald. 

As dusk begins to settle, native wildlife begin to emerge from the trees. Pairs of stout wildboar trot idly by, stopping from time to time to forage in the mud pools dotted around the wooden huts. As night falls, our guide points us towards the field where muscular, dusty-brown sambar deer come out with their wobbly young to graze. A flying squirrel - the first we've ever seen! - spreads its webbed wings and glides effortlessly abovehead across to the next tree. 

The next morning, we embark on our three day trek into Maliau Basin, a protected area accessible only by foot. Upon commencing our trek, the noise that accompanies us is immersive and constant, as if welcoming us to a different realm. High up in the canopy are a family of gibbons, which alternates between raucous hooting laughter and free-wheeling swinging from tree to tree. The now-familiar heavy thumping of wings overhead is interspersed with the hurried patter of animal feet on the forest floor. One of many waterfalls roars in the distance.

The scene around us changes as one forest type ebbs into the next. The lowland forest with sparse, towering trees gives way at higher elevation to the dwarf forest, where carnivorous pitcher plants are scattered on dense, stunted trees. We are reminded by our guide that here, in the most remote of places, we only have the trees to guide our way. 

A tree that is more valuable than gold 

Hours of trekking in the rainforest later, we come across a tree which indeed seemed to be trying to tell us something. There, carved into its magnificent bark were large markings. The markings looked like hieroglyphs - a secret language that we were not meant to decipher. 

We learn from our guide that one of the big threats to Maliau Basin is the Gaharu hunters, the roaming gangs of poachers that stay for months in the jungle looking for the Aquilaria tree. On a per-kilo basis, bark obtained from this tree is the most expensive thing you can buy in this world. These messages, carved into the tree bark, are the poachers’ coded way of communicating with one another in the rainforest. 

The Aquilaria tree doesn’t look particularly remarkable, but it has been hunted to near-extinction for a chemical reaction that it produces. When the tree is wounded, by insects or humans, it reacts to the wound by producing protective resin. When the resin soaks into the tree’s bark, it could produce agarwood (oud), a scented bark known as the “Wood of the Gods”, one of the world’s rarest and most expensive commodities. Through the Gaharu hunters, agarwood is smuggled from Sabah’s Lost World to gilded corridors in China, the Middle East, Japan and Europe. There, 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 hunting for the tree cause considerable damage to Maliau Basin’s ecosystem. The Gaharu hunters tend to travel very light, and bring with them only small amounts of rice and salt. Due to their limited food supply, they hunt for food in the rainforest. At times they would catch themselves a Pangolin, and at other times they would catch other threatened species that they can sell in the local black markets.

That's the fascinating and alarming thing about supply chains - who would have thought that a scent could threaten our endangered species? 

The Gaharu hunters are believed to be helped by people within the local community. We were told by local conservation groups that in recent years, there has been shift in recent years in the local communities’ relationship with the rainforest.

Before, they saw the rainforest as a resource. They would occasionally hunt a wildboar for a festival or a fish for dinner. This had minimal impact on the ecosystem as the wildlife regenerated quickly, outpacing the local communities’ needs. With economic development in recent years, local communities have started seeing the rainforest more as a commodity. On one hand, local communities have seen their standard of living improve with the introduction of electricity and phone services. However, these modern-day comforts come at a cost and the income that local communities receive from traditional farming activities has not increased. In order to plug their income gap, they turn to poaching.

Conservation isn’t about scientists doing work on the ground, it’s about communities as a whole working together

Local conservationists believe that the key to protecting the basin is through employing local communities to work at Maliau Basin to address their income gap. If members of the local communities are given jobs at the basin and can see the importance of conserving it, for practical reasons or otherwise, there will be a knock-on effect on the rest of the local community. With employment, incidents of illegal poaching and support for the Gaharu hunters will diminish.

We have heard this tale many times in our travels - whether in the context of protecting the mountain gorillas in Rwanda, or protecting the rainforests of Borneo. Whenever local communities are involved in conservation, better outcomes are seen for both the local communities, and the wildlife or forests needing protection. However, the involvement of local communities often requires outside resources, and such resources more often than not come from tourism dollars. 

The road into Maliau Basin Conservation Area has been criticised for having been built without adequate consideration for the area’s fragile ecosystem. With the road, as with the local communities, we cannot wind back the clock on development and the challenges that it brings. On the other hand, the road also brings about opportunities for conservation, as it facilitates the tourism needed to deter poachers and provide employment to local communities.

We're often asked by travellers whether we worry that by making special places in the world more accessible through Seek Sophie, we are making these places less 'untouched' and therefore less special. Often, our answer to that question is: Maliau Basin. Whether or not we go there, special places in the world are disappearing. We have seen from our travels that tourism often serves to slow down the demise of wildlife and places, so long as we all tread responsibly, and involve local communities in conservation efforts. So, that is our hope: by making special places in the world more accessible, we can hopefully conserve them for just a little longer. 

Afterword: This was written by Jacinta, co-founder of Seek Sophie, who was deeply moved by what she saw at Maliau Basin. She worries that Maliau Basin in its current form won't be there for much longer because it's not only threatened by poaching, it's also being threatened by proposals to mine coal and gold there. Can we collectively save one of the most untouched places in this world simply by going there? 

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