Protecting Santubong’s clouded leopards

The decapitated head and body of a clouded leopard being sold at Kapit. Protecting Santubong’s endangered clouded leopards can help to educate the public about the importance of ensuring its survival so that they will know that it is not all right to hunt, kill, trap, sell or eat the animal. — Photos courtesy of Anthony Sebastian

WHEN reports of a sighting of three Sunda clouded leopards on Mount Santubong surfaced in April this year, the news was greeted with a mixture of excitement and anxiety – for good reason.

Very little is known about the clouded leopard in comparison with other big cats such as the lion and tiger as research on the species has been scant.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, in 2007, it  was estimated there were fewer than 10,000 clouded leopards in total effective population size, with real numbers suspected to be much lower.

The overall population of the clouded leopard is on a declining trend due to deforestation and illegal hunting, leading to a categorisation of Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List – meaning it is considered to be facing a high risk of extinction in the wild.

Up until recently, it was classically considered as a single species until it was discovered there were, in fact, two species – Neofelis nebulosa which dwells on mainland South East Asia and Neofelis diardi, also known as the Sunda or Sundaland clouded leopard, which is endemic to the islands of Sumatra and Borneo.

Thus, it is nothing short of astonishing that Borneo’s top cat has been living incognito almost literally at our doorstep all this time, undetected by the hundreds of people who trek up and down Mt Santubong every year.

Moreover, the rare sighting of the highly endangered species underlines the fact that for all of our perceived familiarity with our beloved Mt Santunbong, it seems there is still much which remains to be discovered about the richness of its biodiversity and wildlife, a mere 45 minutes’ drive from the state capital.

Tropical heath forest or the kerangas forest which can be found at Santubong is mostly endemic to Borneo. Unfortunately, it is fast disappearing from other parts of Sarawak due to agriculture and deforestation activities.

National treasure

Familiarity often causes people to take things for granted, and unfortunately, this has been mostly the case for what most of us think we know about Santubong.

In fact, the Santubong peninsula is a treasure trove of natural and historical heritage and a priceless national treasure, Malaysian Nature Society Kuching Branch (MNSKB) chairman Anthony Sebastian told thesundaypost.

“For example, Santubong was thought to have no hornbills but it is now known to have four species living there. Generally speaking, there’s no reason why all eight species of hornbills in state cannot live there,” he said.

On the significance of Santubong, Anthony immediately zeroed in on the forests as the “highest value of Santubong.”

“First, there is the coastal mixed dipterocarp forest where the land or mountain comes at a steep angle straight down to the sea, as opposed to the rest of 90 per cent Sarawak where there is usually a flat stretch of sand or land between the mountain and the sea.

“This only exists on Santubong and Tanjung Datu. There used to be a small patch in Lambir, Miri, but it has been completely destroyed.

“As it grows right next to the sea, the forests have evolved over thousands of years to be more tolerant to saltwater and other aspects of the environment there like the dry and strong winds.

“There are also a whole lot of very unique and even endemic species to be found in these forests. This is one of Santubong’s highest values,” he said, adding that the forests were one of the most beautiful to experience.

The MNSKB chairman also highlighted the strategic importance of Santubong’s location right next to the biggest urban centre in the state.

“Its value and economics just shoot up because there’s so many things you can do with it, not just in terms of biodiversity conservation. It’s also about giving researchers and people the opportunities to see these forests.

“It’s about developing the forests with beautiful trails and picnic spots and more while preserving the forest. It has much higher economic value to us to be used because of its nearby location,” he said.

Another type of forest found in Santubong is the tropical heath forest or kerangas, which is also ecologically unique.

It is a forest type found mainly in the northwestern corner of Borneo, including most of Sarawak, a little in Riau in Indonesia and a small patch in the south eastern coast of peninsular Malaysia.

“Sarawak should be proud because we have most of the kerangas forest. The biggest stretch of kerangas forest was from Lundu all the way to Serapi in the area known as Sampadi. I say was because much of it is now oil palm plantation,” Anthony noted wryly.

Anthony Sebastian

Threat to heritage

The recent sighting of the clouded leopard at Mt Santubong has helped cast a welcomed public spotlight on Santubong, long marked for tourism development.

“Having a population of endangered clouded leopards living so close by also presents a priceless opportunity to educate the public about the importance of ensuring their survival so that they will know it’s not all right to hunt, kill, trap, sell or eat the animal,” Anthony pointed out.

At the same time, it has also raised concerns on the management and conservation of the Santubong peninsula as well as their impact on the future well-being of the many unique species which call it home.

The 1,410 ha Santubong National Park (SNP), gazetted in 2007, is the third smallest of the 25 national parks in the state, of which most is occupied by Mt Santubong.

Surrounding lowlands, sustaining the forests which host most of its prey base such as deer, wild pigs, monkeys, porcupines and other small mammals, lie outside the park’s boundaries and are subjected to the threat of deforestation for agriculture and development purposes.

While clouded leopards are highly arboreal and probably at ease living on steep mountain sides, based on the little known about the creature and its habits, Anthony suspects they come down to the lowlands to hunt and breed.

Another factor to consider is that because of deforestation, the forests of Santubong peninsula are fragmented and isolated, meaning that without decisive and concerted intervention, the clouded leopard and other resident wild species will be essentially hemmed into an ever-shrinking patch of forest.

Based on anecdotal evidence and reports by visitors, even the existing national park has not been able to escape the threat of illegal logging and hunting, with perpetrators choosing to exploit the lesser visited eastern side of Mt Santubong for their illegal activities, usually entering the park undetected via sea.

Add to this, a number of large-scale development projects already underway or in the pipeline for the Santubong peninsula (including the proposed Mt Santubong cable car project), and it doesn’t take much to see the very real and present threats to its rich biodiversity unless steps are taken now to effectively plan for and manage land use and natural resources in the area.

This is also where the environmental and scientific community can step up to work closer together with state agencies and administrative departments (and vice versa) to formulate and implement strategies to protect the wildlife and environment as well as ensure decisions and policies, affecting the Santubong peninsula’s development, will not adversely affect the forests and the seas.

Mt Santubong and its surrounding forests are rich in biodiversity and unique wildlife, including a number of species endemic to Borneo.

Park expansion?

Anthony also suspects the three individuals sighted recently were probably a breeding pair and a juvenile as clouded leopards are normally solitary animals except during mating and breeding season.

It is also likely there may be more of them around but this is difficult to determine for sure without further studies as these predators are self-regulating (meaning their populations and breeding patterns adjust to suit external factors such as availability of food sources and home range).

However, he cautioned these are at best “educated guesses” and that more studies and research needed to be carried out to thoroughly study and evaluate the current status of the clouded leopards of Mt Santubong as well as measures to be taken to ensure their continued and permanent survival.

Going forward, more comprehensive and effective forest management and conservation are a must for the peninsula to ensure the clouded leopard and other iconic species such as the hornbills and Irrawady dolphins can survive and thrive.

“By itself, it (the leopard) has no value. It’s part of the forest. It requires the forest to live. Without the forest, there is no cat. The forests are the highest value of Santubong. With the forest, you have cats, hornbills and so on.

“With the forests, you have the prey base and food sources which they need to survive. When the forests degrade, the top predators are the first to go,” he explained.

Anthony also cautioned any measures to conserve and protect the unique forests of Santubong peninsula should include the sea, further strengthening the argument that the present boundaries of SNP should be extended.

“It should not be just land-based as Santubong has an integral connection with the surrounding seas. Everything about it is influenced by the sea. If you truly want to protect Santubong as an entity, you have to include the sea,” he said.

As for the clouded leopard, Anthony sees in it all the makings to be the state’s next great icon.

“It’s got everything you need to attract people’s attention. It looks beautiful and sexy — plus a ferocious snarl – all the mysterious romance of a beautiful endangered species we still know so little about.

“There’s just something about it which speaks to people,” he mused out loud.

On June 25, the MNSKB signed a memorandum of understanding with Kuching North City Hall (DBKU) to organise the second edition of ts highly successful Santubong Nature Festival (SNF) on Nov 8-9 this year.

This is the first time MNSKB is teaming up with a state agency to organise the SNF.

“This is such a unique opportunity for us and DBKU to showcase what Santubong has to offer. Think about it, how many city councils can legitimately say they have a mountain in their backyard? We look forward to working together with them to bring an even better SNF to the public this year to raise public awareness about Santutubong so that they can appreciate how wonderful and beautiful it is,” Anthony said.

To find out more about MNSKB or how you or your organization can participate in the SNF, email [email protected] or visit http://mnskuching.blogspot.com and http://santubongnaturefestival.blogspot.com.

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