Thursday, October 15, 2015

An Introduction to Natural Sarawak

words: Dave Avran/Anthony Sebastian, images: Veronica Ng/as credited


As kids, we grew up reading Grimm's Fairy Tales, where the hero (who is always a Prince) finds himself embroiled in an exciting adventure in an enchanted forest. Think Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, The Grateful Prince, Rumpelstiltskin and even Robin Hood. Think strange and unusual people, magical trees and speaking animals.

Thanks to a kind invitation by the good people at the Sarawak Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA) to attend and cover this year’s edition of Animals for Asia International Conference 2015, frigglive discovered Malaysia’s very own enchanted forest right here in Borneo.


We will let the very eloquent and suave Anthony Sebastian of Borneo Futures tell you this fascinating “Once upon a time” story. 


An Introduction to Natural Sarawak
by Anthony Sebastian


Photo credit: Anthony Sebastian

Few places on earth evoke an overwhelming sense of the mystical unknown.  Borneo is one such place. Just north of where the equator slices through this great island lies Sarawak, the largest of Malaysia’s thirteen states. Historically part of the Brunei Sultanate, it came under the rule of the White Rajahs in 1841. The rule of the Brookes ended in 1946, and Sarawak was ceded to Britain as a colony. In 1963 Sarawak, together with the Federated States of Malaya, Singapore and British North Borneo (Sabah) formed the nation of Malaysia.

To picture this land is to journey through a myriad of landscapes that have evolved over millions of years. Humankind’s hand is evident. In fact, the people of Sarawak are as fascinatingly varied as its animal and plant life, with more than sixty discernable cultures speaking an equally diverse range of languages and dialects.

Today, the visitor to Sarawak more often than not arrives from the skies, which gives him/her a bird’s view of the ocean gently giving way to land. White-fringed breakers, in lace-like ribbons, extend over a long distance before the bright sands of the shore appear. This tells of shallow waters, the first clue to the intriguing story of Borneo’s natural history.

It was only at the end of the Cretaceous period, 65 million years ago, that land emerged in this part of the world, from the Tethys ocean, along the edge of a great fault in the earth’s mantle. This volcanically active fault is known today as the Southeast Asian ring-of-fire. It extends from the eastern Himalaya through Myanmar, down the Andamans, Nicobars, Sumatra and Java, curving around through the Lesser Sunda islands and Sulawesi up into the Philippines. By the late Tertiary (5 million years ago), the world basically looked as it does today, sculptured by ice and water over the 1.8 million years known as the Quaternary Period.

 

Photo credit: Typhoon Studio for the Sarawak Government

Borneo was part of a large landmass named after a great, now extinct, river called the Sunda. The Mekong in Indochina, the Pahang in the Malay Peninsula and the Rejang in Borneo all share elements of a similar fish fauna, a legacy from being tributaries of the Sunda. Sundaland, the continental shelf under the South China Sea, the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra and Borneo gets it name from this river.

As warming climates began to melt the great ice caps, and the seas began to rise. This rise, based on some calculations, was over 100m, drowning much of the low-lying lands in this part of the world. Only the highest peaks remained above water, giving rise to the vast archipelago that is Southeast Asia today. The largest of these is Borneo.

Soils washed down from the hills began to reclaim land from the shallow seas, forming the vast coastal flatlands. The warm and wet tropical climate encouraged life in every form, and plants began to proliferate on this new land. The ever-present influence of water in the flatlands had a profound influence on life. The plants and animals of the coasts embarked on a course of adaptation, which over time, lead to evolutionary change in species. The result is one of the highest levels of wetland endemism in the world.

  



Photo credits: MySabah.com

Vast areas of Sarawak’s coastal plains consist of peat. Some of these deposits of peat soils reach depths of over 20m. Early explorers and naturalists, when faced with these swamp forests and its inky black waters, felt a sense of helplessness that endures today through their writings… “inhospitable mosquito-ridden swamps, impenetrable tangles of vines and creepers, soils so soft that even the trees avoid touching them, developing stilt roots to keep themselves above the sticky sludge….”

The coastal water-logged flatlands end at the foothills, where tropical rainforest takes over. Humbling, is the term that comes to mind in the presence of the 80m-tall rainforest giants. The term rainforest evokes an image of a lofty world of impenetrable jungles and never-ending rain. Lofty indeed it is, but the forest floor is a surprisingly open carpet with dead leaves, shade-loving shrubs, ferns and palms. Unlike savanna grasslands, where wildlife is spread out over vast expanses on a single plane, the rainforest is multi-dimensional, its wildlife spread out both horizontally and vertically.

Rising above the foothills, one enters the world of the Bornean mountains, a special world indeed. Central Sarawak resembles the long curving strips of whale baleen, ripples in the earth’s crust as tectonic plates crushed against each other. These natural troughs have given rise to hundreds of rivers and streams, which stitch the landscape together. The Rejang, at 760km, is Sarawak’s longest and largest river system, closely followed by the Baram (635km). Rivers in Sarawak exhibit a wide range of character. The clear torrential streams and cascades in the hills gradually change into slow meandering silt-bearing behemoths, depositing their load in their deltas.

 
Photo credits: Robert Tseu

Mount Murud is the highest peak in Sarawak. At 2,422m, it is still dwarfed by Mount Kinabalu, the highest point on Borneo at 4,101m.  However, both are peaks on the mountain spine of Borneo, stretching northeast-southwest across the island. These highlands are home to an amazing array of plant and animal life found nowhere else on earth. Two-thirds of Borneo’s endemic birds, and one-third of its endemic mammals, are confined to these mountains.


 Photo Credit: Paul White  

Another feature in Sarawak is karst, or more commonly called limestone outcrops. The remnants of ancient coral reefs, weathering and water have sculptured the reefs into spectacular formations. Caves are a feature of karst, and Sarawak boasts the largest in the world underneath Gunung Mulu. The Niah and Bau caves have preserved archeological records of early life on Borneo, as well as a host of unique plant and animal life.

Offshore islands add another dimension to Sarawak’s landscape. They give an insight, in miniature, into nature at work. Reef formations, mass nesting of sea turtles, stepping stones on migratory journeys and pristine landscapes are preserved on these islands.

Leaving scientists to their investigations, we must be content in our knowledge that Borneo’s lifeforms have confounded and astonished the world for over two centuries. More answers will undoubtedly be forthcoming, but we do not have to wait to appreciate this amazing diversity of life. We do however have a responsibility to preserve this complexity of life for posterity, to enable future generations to unlock nature’s mysteries.

 

Photo credit: www.sarawakforestry.com

 

    photo credit: www.proboscis.cc

Sarawak’s animal and plant life is renowned for its diversity and endemism. An example is tropical heath forest, a remnant of ancient Sundaic forests. It is known locally as Kerangas, meaning where-rice-will-not-grow. Asia’s only great ape, the Orang Utan, and the Proboscis Monkey, the largest semi-aquatic monkey in Asia, are also found here. In spite of what we already know, enough remains undiscovered to keep scientists busy forever!

Nowhere is this better underscored than in humankind’s history itself. The discovery of prehistoric human presence in limestone caves at Niah early in the last century opened a treasure trove of jigsaw pieces from our past. We know now that humans were present on Borneo 40,000 years ago. Even more fascinating is that the world they lived in was strikingly different from the Borneo we know today. Their “village” at Niah, now about 30km inland, was on the coast then. The climate was drier and cooler, with a mean temperature of 21ºC. The open landscape was home to spectacular megafauna which included a giant pangolin (now extinct), elephants, rhinoceros and tapir.

Interest in Sarawak’s natural history dates back almost two centuries. Explorers have left a legacy in their writings. Alfred Russell Wallace collected feverishly in Sarawak, as well as other parts of Southeast Asia. His keen sense of “relationships” between the strange new lifeforms he encountered took him down a path that led to our understanding of what the modern world today calls “evolution”. It is now acknowledged that the theory of evolution, widely attributed to Charles Darwin, was in fact first conceptualized by Wallace. It is less known that Wallace first wrote his “take” on evolution here in Sarawak in 1855, called “Law of Sarawak”.

The fascination with Sarawak continues today. The Giant Pangolins may have disappeared, but new species are being described. The mystical allure of this land is continues as we revel in new discoveries and reflect on past splendour, in a place which was never as we know it today, and will carry on its journey of evolution in spite of us. This is the marvel of nature, and we can but enjoy the small portions assigned to us in this great journey.

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

0 Comments:

Post a comment

<< Home