May 13, 2019, by Susan Lim

The undervalued realm

“The Muda River used to be crystal clear, and many beautiful stones could be seen.” A boatman of the Muda River, Pak Din reminisced during a sharing session with journalists who had an advocacy visit to the Ulu Muda Forest Reserve, “Yet, frequent logging activities have sedimented and shallowed the riverbed, and turned the domestic water brownish.” Organised by Water Watch Penang and Management & Ecology of Malaysian Elephants (MEME), the advocacy trip has been eye-opening for many.

Figure 1: The sunlight stream amidst the jungle of Ulu Muda.

The Muda river streams through the Ulu Muda Forest Reserve which is classified as an Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) situated at the border between northeast Kedah and Thailand. With the area equivalent to two Singapore-s, it was estimated that this rainforest is at least 170 million years old, and has been recognized for its ecotourism potential due to its biodiversity. This explains its status as a safe-haven to the wildlife, such as elephants, tigers, leopards, sun bears, tapirs and so forth. The land also houses about 300 species of birds. Of all species, there are 10 species of hornbills, including the globally endangered Plain-pouched hornbills, residing in the woodland. The biodiversity in the region has established its significance as one of the most vital forest reserves within our borders. As Prof. Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, the principal investigator of MEME also a professor at the School of Environmental & Geographical Sciences, University of Nottingham Malaysia, said in a talk show with Sharaad Kuttan “We need elephants to conserve the forest, and forest to conserve elephants”. Additionally, Ulu Muda plays a critical role as a water catchment that contributes approximately 96 per cent of Kedah’s and 80 per cent of Penang’s water supply. Kedah’s paddy fields which harvest four-tenths of Malaysia’s overall rice supply also rely on the water source.

It has been evident that Ulu Muda, like other forest areas in the country, is vital in conserving the biodiversity as well as providing ecosystem services for us such as clean water supply, flood mitigation and carbon storage. Yet, it is disheartening to see that it has not received a proper sustainable management plan nor has it been gazetted as a protected area by the government. Unsustainable tourism and illegal poaching have quietly, yet rapidly jeopardised the biodiversity in Ulu Muda as well as the quality and water output volume. Indeed, the Kedah state has revoked logging permits and deferred new issuances. Still, this vulnerable rainforest is easily accessible via logging roads albeit the repeal of logging permits. The Earth Lodge chief executive officer, Hymeir Kamarudin, maintained that although logging was no longer permitted, no proper sustainable plan has been formed to alleviate illegal activities happening in the area. It was also mentioned that the protection on the area is not strong enough to maintain the security of the region. Hymeir further stated that he would encounter vehicle oil drippings occasionally. This shows that with a lack of enforcement and protection of the area, poachers can easily access wildlife and forest products by entering the forest through multiple entry points created. Thus, it can’t be clearer that further long-term action plans need to be implemented.

Figure 2: Trekking in the forest, following the footpaths of gentle giants.

Knowing that time waits for no one, the Friends of Ulu Muda and several other NGOs wrote a letter via the Malay Mail News has proposed suggestions that can be done by both State and Federal government to change the game in the Ulu Muda Forest Reserve. They called on the state government to: (1) Impede any issuance of licenses for any form of activities that would damage the ecosystem functions of Ulu Muda, (2) Officialize the entire land of Greater Ulu Muda Forest Reserve as a State Park, and (3) Form a sustainable financial plan such as Payment for Environmental Services and invest in alternative income source such as ecotourism. As the Ulu Muda Forest Reserve has significant impacts at the national level, the Federal government was also encouraged to: (1) Aid the Kedah state in exploring suitable framework for protecting the Ulu Muda Forest Reserve while able to generate income out of it, and (3) Found an Ulu Muda Trust Fund for the conservation and management of the Ulu Muda Forest Reserve. Initiatives need to be done as soon as possible before further damage been done to the underappreciated land.

In brief, the Ulu Muda Forest Reserve quenches thirsts and irrigates crops that feed thousands. It is undoubtedly crucial to the biodiversity, ecosystem and our lives. With perpetuating damages going on unresolved, it would not only endanger rare species that reside in it but also pose a water crisis before us. Therefore, enforced enactments mentioned need to be implemented to conserve the scarce resource, preserve the biodiversity and avoid the happening of a water crisis. “But I believe that as long as we respect the forest, the forest will return us.” Pak Din, the boatman stated in the sharing session. Us as the beneficiary of the environmental services provided should start making a move in conserving the home of treasured animals and maintaining the environment where they can live unworriedly of tomorrows’ stays.

Written by: Sue Z

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