Sabah’s last fully protected peat swamp frontier, the Klias Forest Reserve, is getting the attention it needs to continue existing despite conflict with human needs.
AGE-OLD stories warn children not to play till dark because the "tembuakar" which roams swamps and rivers on Sabah’s southwest coast will subdue them.
Indigenous communities claim the creature takes on 44 life forms, appears after a heavy storm, is capable of uprooting bridges and can overnight "eat" grasses that clog rivers.
But it is not the mystery of the "tembuakar" that pulls students and researchers to the Klias peat swamp in Beaufort, about two hours by road from the capital, Kota Kinabalu.
It is the lure of the endangered Proboscis Monkey, Buffy Fish-Owl and Sambar Deer that is drawing visitors curious about how these animals co-exist in Sabah’s last peat swamp environment.
Not only is it a Class 1 Forest Reserve, which means it is totally protected, the Klias peat swamp has the support of the United Nations Development Programme/Global Environment Facility (UNDP/GEF).
To make learning fun, the 3,630 hectare Klias Forest Reserve now boasts of a field centre, complete with a laboratory, hostel and a Nature Interpretative Trail (NIT).
UNDP/GEF Klias Peat Swamp Forest project national expert for Sabah, Rashid Abdul Samad, said students and undergraduates are using the Nature Interpretative Trail to learn conservation and development issues.
Rashid said the trail system, which will eventually be managed by local communities, will be fully operational by year-end.
A guidebook is available for groups to observe certain animals and plants along the trail, which takes them to the heart of the forest reserve.
Environmental education aside, conservation of the Klias Forest Reserve is a priority for its stakeholders, knowing full well that it is sandwiched by farms and oil palm plantations.
"There is a conservation plan for the protected area, which also defines strategies for the buffer zone where land owners, villagers and plantations are located.
"Within the plan, management systems are prescribed for both the forest reserve and buffer zones, in addition to identifying strategies to address issues and threats affecting sustainability of the ecosystem.
"Key efforts are in raising awareness and capacity building. Such campaigns are ongoing and are aimed at educating communities, development planners and decision makers on why we should conserve peat swamp forests and how to reduce threats," Rashid said.
Threats include forest conversion at nearby non-protected areas, fire and drainage issues.
Rashid said the Sabah Forestry Department, which is the key stakeholder for the project, encourages land owners to use sustainable agriculture methods and has organised fire management training for community volunteers so that they can assist in fire control.
The El Nino drought almost a decade ago degraded about 300ha of the reserve, which is being rehabilitated.
Canals excavated outside the reserve to extract and transport timber, but later abandoned, are being blocked to stop water run-off into the river system.
"Drainage and associated water draw-down effects are being addressed by monitoring and implementing physical intervention.
"Hydrological monitoring stations were placed in 2002 to analyse water-table fluctuations, particularly the effects of man-made drains," he said.
Despite challenges that the reserve faces to its unique peat swamp ecology, Rashid is optimistic that threats will be reduced if dealt with adequately.
"Local communities are learning to support conservation work. Forestry Department staff are trained to ensure a balance between human and ecological factors," he said.
Sabah Forestry Department director Sam Mannan said although the Klias Forest Reserve "is the last frontier of peat swamp forest ecosystems in Sabah".
"This ecosystem is sensitive, especially with activities that are going on outside.
"We hope to promote hands-on conservation with the new facilities as the integrity of the forest reserve is our concern. We must work with students and other groups. The field centre must serve a purpose.
"The emphasis now is on conservation and protection, and maybe later, tourism will benefit," he said.
Mannan pointed out that communities outside the reserve are gaining from the field centre as they are now receiving power supply and an improved road network.
"Forest conservation doesn't just serve our own interests, it should also help others. Even if we station a hundred people here, we won't meet our objectives without the support of those around us," Mannan said.