Bird haven: Some 27 species of migratory birds can be seen at Bako Buntal Bay, in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. Photo: Anthony Wong
Star2 checks out three amazing wetland nature reserves in Sarawak: Bako Buntal Bay, Kuching Wetlands National Park, and Semenggoh Nature Reserve, as they try to keep the wilderness as pristine as possible for the benefit of its rich flora and fauna.
Bako Buntal Bay
With binoculars steadied between hands and telescopes perched on the ground, we looked into the distance, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Chinese egret, said to number less than 5,000 worldwide.
We’re in Bako Buntal Bay, an area made of up mudflats, mangroves and an intertidal zone, which is tucked behind some nondescript kampung houses just 40km from Kuching. This is where some 10% of the storks flock to each year. But luck wasn’t on our side. Despite the low tide which should give us an unobstructed view of the birds feeding in the mudflats or skimming over the water surface, we didn’t spot any.
In the end, we made do with a presentation by Oswald Braken Tisen, deputy general manager of the protected areas and biodiversity conservation division in Sarawak Forestry Corporation.
He says the endangered Chinese egrets usually fly in from Korea and Taiwan and the highest number recorded at any one time is 40. He says 27 species of migratory birds have been seen in Bako Buntal Bay and they include the red knot, great knot, Nordmann’s greenshank, Asian dowitcher and Far Eastern curlew.
“Our base count over the last 10 years showed 25,000 birds have landed here. After long flights, the birds arrive hungry and tired. This becomes their transit station where they will stay for two to three weeks to feed and rejuvenate, before making their way southwards to New Zealand or Australia.
“The wintering group starts migrating from mid-October to escape the cold of countries like Alaska, China and Japan. They will stay on until late March, and then fly back to their home countries when the climate is warm again, to breed,” Tisen explains.
This range of migratory route is called the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, which stretches from the Arctic Circle through East and South-East Asia to the southern ends of Australia and New Zealand, covering some 22 countries.
Bako Buntal Bay has been certified as Malaysia’s first East Asian-Australasian Flyway Site. Globally, there are 90-plus of such sites in over 13 countries that have been identified as crucial places where migratory birds make stopovers.
“Bako Buntal has long been recognised as an important bird and biodiversity area, given its importance as a habitat for waterbirds. With the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Site status, we will get the opportunity to work with other partner countries in sharing data, knowledge and experience about conserving migratory birds. “We have organised discussions with villagers and have stressed to them the importance of keeping this site pristine so that the birds don’t disappear. Additionally, we can conduct a joint Asian waterbird census with other countries. No country can claim ownership of the birds. We share their existence when they make migratory stops along this route,” says Tisen.
Kuching Wetlands National Park
There it was by the river bank, it’s body motionless and basking in the heat of the morning sun. Loud chatters evaporated and cameras clicked away. Within a split second, the estuarine crocodile dived into the water and disappeared out of sight.
At the Kuching Wetlands National Park, chances of spotting this reptile in the wild are relatively high since the site is a designated nursery area of special value for the species. The area is said to have the highest density of the crocodile in Sarawak; there are around 317 of them there.
Measuring over 6,600ha and about an hour’s drive from Kuching, the park is a sanctuary for biodiversity. It was originally the Sarawak Mangrove Forest Reserve and spanned over 17,000ha.
However, over the years, the reserve has been cut up to make way for development, reducing it to its current size. In 2002, it was gazetted as a totally protected area and in 2005, as a Ramsar site. (The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands calls for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands.)
Suliman Jamahari of the Sarawak Forestry Department says Kuching Wetlands qualified as a Ramsar site as it is a breeding ground for endangered species such as the proboscis monkey, lesser adjutant (a large stork) and Griffith’s silver leaf monkey.
The project officer of the Ramsar management unit says the area hosts 115 species of birds and other animals such as wild pigs, bats, plantain squirrels, crested green lizards, mangrove frogs, and even the Irrawaddy dolphins, the most common of the four species of dolphins sighted there.
“Some 75 fish species of commercial value breed here too. It underscores the park’s importance as spawning and nursery grounds for fish and prawns,” says Suliman.
As for the vegetation, 64 species have been recorded, a third of which are mangrove species. Suliman says Kuching wetlands is a prime example of a natural coastal mangrove system. Its ecology has not been altered, with 90% of it being mangrove forest and the rest, heath and peat swamp forests. In Sarawak, mangrove forest forms only 1% of the vegetation; 85% is hill forest and 14% is peat swamp forest.
Outside the park, communities live in mostly traditional settlements. Although new housing developments and aquaculture farms are coming up in the surrounding areas, Suliman assures that there is minimal pollution entering the wetlands.
Future plans include zoning the park for restricted use, demarcating a 250m buffer around it, managing visitors, minimising logging of mangrove trees, rehabilitating degraded mangrove areas, and involving the local communities in addressing threats such as dumping of waste and palm oil effluent.
Semenggoh Nature Reserve
At Semenggoh Nature Reserve, visitors are in for a delightful sight – orang utans roaming freely in primary rainforest.
Park manager Chong Jiew Han says the Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre (located within the reserve) has under its wings 27 orang utans, of which 16 were born there.
“The centre was established in 1975 as a holding facility for consfiscated or surrendered protected species of wildlife, which were either injured or kept as pets.” The park, originally a forest reserve, was turned into a nature reserve in 2000.
Four components make up Semenggoh today – a botanical research centre, the wildlife centre, a seed bank and nursery, and the Sarawak biodiversity centre.
However, the primary objectives of the centre are on conserving a semi-wild orang utan population, as well as promoting education, research and tourism. A sister site, the Matang Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, was established in 1996, as an alternative to Semenggoh. It has taken over the wildlife rehabilitation work and houses a number of rescued orang utans which cannot be released into the wild.
Matang, however, is built within the larger Kubah National Park (2,230ha). To date, 11 orang utans have been released each in Semenggoh and Kubah forests.
“The orang utans are quarantined for 90 to 100 days with medical check-ups and behavioural monitoring. Details of their diet are recorded. Then, they are sent to the nursery and later on, the primary school where they learn climbing skills, nest-building, and picking up jungle food. In secondary school, they will learn more advanced survival skills. We will feed them less and their behaviour will be closely monitored.”
Chong says the orang utans will be evaluated on their forest skills and health before they are released. They will be left to fend for themselves but given supplementary feeding when needed.
Five of the 11 released orang utans have never returned to Semenggoh. Chong says this indicates that they are independent enough to source for their own food and have found new homes.
He says there are 2,000 to 2,500 wild orang utans in Sarawak. The main populations are in the 168,000ha Lanjak Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary and 24,000ha Batang Ai National Park. Adjacent to the two areas is the Betung Kerihun National Park in Kalimantan.
“We are working with our counterparts in Kalimantan to ensure that the welfare of orang utans in Borneo is protected,” says Chong.