Conservation and cultivation: Alpha 3 in Maliau Basin

28th March 2014

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Seven-tier waterfalls; carnivorous plants; tea-coloured rivers, pit-vipers; 22-pound parasitic flowers; Clouded Leopards; pygmy elephants; Asian Paradise Flycatchers; 600 year-old agathis trees; Rhinoceros Hornbill birds. Maliau Basin is no like other – the Land that Time Forgot – one of the Earth’s true remaining wildernesses. Unknown to many; understood by few. In a rare privilege, Borneo expedition 14C and Alpha three have had access to this great natural wonder…

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The first thing that strikes you on entering is Maliau is its gigantic scale. Overhead, winnowing butterflies the size of birds colour the sky. Underfoot, huge Bullet Ants march with re-enforced shells that look they would take down small mammals. The consistent high temperature here, has over eons allowed metabolic rates to operate at a faster level which has super-sized certain species, particularly insects.

The highland forests and heaths are dominated by giant Casuarina trees; in the lowlands majestic agathis and dipterocarp tower out of canopy, some coiled by great strangling vines – the largest dipterocarp documented in Sabah is over 85 metres high or 300 feet. They were growing when Julius Caesar ruled the Roman Empire...and they grow still. The sheer proportion of this landscape brings a sense otherworldliness and vastness – the ancestors of these tree families were sustainers of life in the Jurassic period, so when one venturer remarked that ‘he would not bat an eyelid if  a dinosaur were to wander into camp’...he was not  that far off...

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Maliau - Lost World of Borneo

When in 1947, a British pilot was making a flight from Sabah and Tawau from a rising mist emerged steep cliffs which he narrowly missed. This was the first official recording of the Maliau Basin; indigenous people have been foraging and hunting in the region but have never settled. It then slipped back in to the mists for the rest of the world until in 1988 when the first expedition into the Basin was made and today it is estimated that still only about 30% of it has been explored.

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The Basin holds by far Sabah’s high density of primates and wild cats, while on its upper reaches, above the oaks, chestnuts and laurels, dozens of rare orchids have been recorded.  Scientists and Raleigh International have encountered the elusive clouded leopard, endangered sun bear and endemic species like the Tufted Grand Squirrel and Male Bulwer’s Pheasant. 

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Rich diversity

Bound by steep escarpments, Maliau has remained undisturbed partly due to the difficulty of access and the geography of the Basin. This is a vast natural amphitheatre, measuring up to 25 km in diameter and surrounded by steep cliffs up to 1700 m in height. The Basin was made through sedimentary forces over 15 million years ago, combined with major geological shifts, creating more than 30 spectacular waterfalls in the valley.

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There are more than 30 species of mammals, 270 bird species and over 80 species of orchids, rare and endemic, recorded in Maliau. The most recent June 2006 scientific expedition yielded 10 possible new species of flora and fauna, according to Maliau Basin Conservation Area’s Dr Waidi Sinun, Yayasan Sabah’s group manager of conservation and environmental management.   For Alpha 3, it is literally a case where new species may be around every corner.

Alpha 3 Building Maliau’s reputation as an environmental hot spot

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Raleigh has been working with Yayasan Sabah to cement Maliau’s reputation as one of the world’s most important ecological areas; Alpha 3’s project works towards this goal. The main elements of phases two and three are to improve infrastructure and facilities . This will not only provide facilities for visitors but improve their understanding of the region. This area is located near the Belian Camp where Alpha 3 are situated, in the protected area but outside of the basin. It is also located near the scientific research where Alpha 3 have been researching, finding out more about area’s bio-diversity and compiling their own findings.

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With the help of rangers, the venturers are clearing 700 metres of natural trails through forest teeming with life.  The trails will have three distinct sections – orchids, trees and herbs. These new trails will provide an invaluable sample of the type of life that exists within the basin. The future visitors to these trails will be small groups of university students who come to learn more about the plant and animal eco-systems. This is hard work in dense humid rainforest. It is also careful work as the utmost care is taken not to disturb any life. All of the new flora will be taken from the nearby nursery, which the volunteers are helping to maintain, and planted along the trails. The venturers will also assist on the labelling and categorizing of flora within the nursery. The trails currently have large ditches that make access very difficult; the group will thus need to design and build five bridges to surmount the ditches – this will take considerable planning, graft and ingenuity.

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One of the highlights of the camp is the thirty-foot-high, 600-metre-long Sky Bridge that brings you high into the canopy. Walking through this cloistered green Cathedral of soaring ancient trees, the venturers will be in the presence of cast of apes and monkeys – from gibbons to silver leaf monkeys – a city of tree-top dwellers. And when they cast their gazes out past the giant trees, they will see the huge verdant landscape; here, shadows lie on shadows and deep distant jungle disappears into mist and darkness. As the great evolutionist, Alfred Wallace said of Borneo: “it produces a sense of the vast, the primeval, almost the infinite. “

Following their hard work on site, Alpha 3 will then descend into Basin on trek. They will pass through numerous spectacular waterfalls, including the famous multi-tiered Maliau Falls which measures over 38 m high. They will hike through virgin rainforest and observe a spectrum of nature’s dazzling design. They will see the incredible variety, and sometimes, incomprehensible weirdness of life. It will also give the ventu rers time to reflect the fact that Maliau, despite all its wonders, is so special merely because it exists as one the last remnants of unbridled raw nature. All over the world from Borneo’s state of Sarawak to the Brazilian Amazon natural unique ecosystems have evolved over millions of years only to be cut asunder in a blink of time’s eye.

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It is not the will of nature, but the will of humans that allows Maliau Basin to sustain. Originally part of timber concession held by the Yayasan Sabah Group, it escaped the chainsaws in the early 90s and mining exploration attempts in early 2000, despite it being gazetted as a Class I (Protection) Forest Reserve in 1997 (banning all logging and mining activities).  It is sobering for Raleigh volunteers to imagine this environmental wonder could merely have been a footnote in the history of deforestation. But what they can take with them is that their efforts will have a real impact on the conservation effort taking place in Maliau and the building of its reputation as one of the world’s most diverse environmental hotspots.

Maliau Basin has a profound effect on many of the young people who visit it, motivating some to become advocates of a more sustainable future. For one would hope that by considering the treasures we have lost, we will be inspired to protect what we can help endure.

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