LAHAD DATU: Just before sunset, a group of visitors watched excitedly as a lone flying black squirrel slowly made its way up to the highest point of a tall tree, before it plunged and slided into another tree.
The small mammal’s presence is indeed very significant because the magas tree where it lived is actually standing right in the compound of the quiet and tranquil Kawag Danum Rainforest Lodge (KDRL), in the district of Lahad Datu.
KDRL is in the logged-over Kawag Forest Area, which is situated inside the Ulu Segama Malua Forest Reserve that is part of the 242,000 ha of the Ulu Segama Malua-Sustainable Forest Management Project (USM-SFMP).
For the flying squirrel, forest restoration effort in a disturbed vegetation like the Ulu Segama Malua Forest Reserve brings genuine hope and future to the endangered wildlife in Malaysia, particularly Sabah.
In fact, the Kawag Forest Area (KFA), sited in the Greater Danum Valley Conservation Area and Ulu Segama Malua, has been identified as a wildlife tourism region under the Sabah Development Corridor (SDC).
In 2012 and 2013 the State Government regazetted the Ulu Segama Forest Reserve and Malua Forest Reserve to Class 1 Protection Forest Reserve respectively to protect more high conservation value area.
Since its inception in 2006, the USM-SFMP has implemented several initiatives towards restoring and conserving contiguous forest reserves in the Ulu Segama-Malua.
Activities being carried out include silviculture treatment, forest restoration, wildlife monitoring, forest resource management and community forestry.
According to Sabah Forestry Department (SFD), forest restoration, silviculture and wildlife monitoring were implemented in collaboration and supported by local and international stakeholders.
The collaboration projects involved include the Malua Wildlife Habitat Conservation Bank, Forest Rehabilitation and Protection of Orang Utan Habitat Forest, restoration and rehabilitation in the USFR and the Tropical Rainforest Seed Bank Merisuli.
The KDRL, which was completed in 2014, is part of the ecotourism development that will enhance and strengthen Sabah Forestry Management principles by creating public awareness and environmental education.
The USM-SFMP was also to secure a home for Orang Utan in co-existence with the forest management in the long run.
Recently, a scientific exploration was done in the Kawag Forest Area to explore and survey the population of wildlife in the area, which will be made into public awareness material.
Participants of the six-day exploration include top researchers from Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS), University College Sabah Foundation (UCSF), UiTM, Sabah Parks, Sabah Forest Department and non-governmental organization.
Exploration activities which centred around the Kawag Forest Area covered birds and mammals survey, physical (hydrology and geology), plants diversity, forest ecology, insects, amphibians and reptiles survey.
Having spent several days with some of the well-known scientists in Sabah, this writer experienced the demonstration that even after the rainforest were disturbed, it could still provide the environmental services that rainforest normally provides.
However, I was reminded that this is possible because the forest in Kawag was given the time to heal and especially if the ‘disturbances’ were done correctly and scientifically based, the forest would continue the good things that nature does.
It was noticed that rivers in Kawag are clearer and after a rainstorm, it recovers from slight murkiness in a matter of hours, while the forest continues to provide a habitat suitable for wildlife as amply evidenced by the presence of wild Borneon elephants and Tembadau (Banteng).
Researchers observed that certain animals thrive in a disturbed forest due to the abundance of food source and due to the gap opening that allowed light to penetrate the forest floor.
Professor Felix Tongkul from UMS’ Tropical Biology and Conservation Department, said the Kawag Forest area was literally sitting on a 200 million years old crystalline basement, making it a huge potential place for geological heritage site.
(Basement and crystalline basement are the rocks below a sedimentary platform or cover.)
Wildlife investigator, Dr Hamid Ahmad, from UMS confirmed KFA is home to Orang Utan and eight species of ungulates, particularly the famous Borneo pygmy elephants, tembadau (Banteng) and deers.
Alim Biun, a bird expert from the Sabah Parks, recorded the presence of more than 100 species of birds, making Kawag Forest Area a potential birding sighting spot.
Bat researcher, Isham Azhar, from UCSF said he found 15 species of bats around the KFA, while Paul Yambun of Sabah Parks recorded the presence of 15 species of amphibians.
Dr Rahimatsah Ahmad, Chief Executive Officer of Sabah Environmental Trust, an NGO, said the forest surrounding KDRL, has the potential for geotourism (tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical characters of a place).
“This place (KFA) is also place for volunteer tourism for forest restoration efforts,” he told Bernama.
Dr Berhaman Ahmad, head of UMS Department of International Tropical Department, said the government’s decision to reclassify the Ulu Segama and Malua Forest Reserve as Class 1 Protection Forest Reserve was very timely and highly significant.
“We must remember that forest is actually water because water reservoir can only be found in a water catchment forest.
“This (conservation efforts) is considerably important given the prevailing global concern on the issue of Environmental Services or Ecosystem Services (PES).
“Well functioning ecosystems provides reliable and clean flows of water, productive soil, relatively preditable weather and many other services essential for human well-being,” he said.
Dr Waidi Sinun, secretary of Danum Valley Management Committee, said the purpose of the exploration was to gather important scientific information which are crucial in communicating to the stakeholders, espepcially the public, regarding the important such forest as Kawag forest is and the rationale for its conservation and protection.
“Findings from the exploration are important because when we want to communicate about this area (USM Forest Reserve), about the richness of its biodiversity and its physical uniqueness.
“We need to communicate using facts and information of high integrity. I believe this can only be achieved by working with well known and experienced scientists and researchers.
“Thanks to the Sabah Government that encourages research activities and international research collaboration,” said Waidi, who is also CEO of Borneo Refugia, a Yayasan Sabah subsidiary company managing KDRL.
With good road access, high diversity of wildlife, the KDRL, a one-hour drive from Lahad Datu airport, is poised to become an important tourist destination in Malaysia. KDRL is managed by Borneo Refugia.