'Borneo is one great luxuriant hothouse made by nature for herself," the British naturalist Charles Darwin said of the island deep in the heart of the Malay archipelago.
At 130 million years, its rainforest is among the oldest in the world. Its biodiversity is so rich, it is said that 10 square kilometres of Sabah, on the island's north-eastern tip, contains more flora and fauna than North America and Europe combined. The Coral Triangle, a term referring to the waters between Borneo, East Timor and the Philippines, supports three-quarters of the world's marine life. Scientists are still unearthing new species: in 2006 and 2007, 52 new subspecies of fish, amphibians and plants were discovered in Borneo.
The island comprises the Indonesian state of Kalimantan, the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak and the sultanate of Brunei. Relatively little research has been done to document Borneo's bounteous flora and fauna; there has even been little mapping, for that matter.
It was only in 1988 that Malaysian authorities reached the Maliau Basin, a circular crater about 25 kilometres wide in central Sabah. Dubbed "Sabah's lost world", the basin is surrounded by 900-metre cliffs and vegetation so old it is thought to be one of the world's cradles of genetic wealth. So dense it's almost impenetrable, less than half of it has been explored by scientists. But they have discovered more than 80 species of orchid, plum-red rafflesias - at more than a metre in diameter, it's the world's largest flower - and a new species of tree.
As scientists uncover biological rarities, however, rampant deforestation - some of it legal - is occurring on the island, placing its rare and endangered species, many endemic, in peril. It is reported that half the world's tropical timber is drawn from Borneo, much of it destroyed to accommodate palm-oil plantations. Poaching and illegal hunting are also rife. Authorities in Sabah have promised to end all logging by 2014. They're looking to develop another industry instead. "We have taken the lead for ecotourism development in Borneo," the chairman of the Sabah Tourism Board, Dato' Seri Tengku Zainal Adlin, tells me emphatically.
Sabah's ecotourism policies are modelled on the United Nations' principles, that promote tourism ventures that contribute to the conservation of natural and cultural heritage, engage indigenous peoples and are most suited to independent travellers.
Among Sabah's eco initiatives is the Green Building Index, which requires all new hotels to have advanced waste and water treatment, Tengku Adlin says, although in our conversation he couldn't name one new hotel that complies. Another policy, the Fair Trade Select, highlights tourism businesses using ethical products; so far, the only business endorsed is the handicraft shop, Kadaiku, which Tengku Adlin owns. "The government has ideas but little will to enforce," a biologist working in Sabah tells me.
I have heard there is a clutch of private tourism operators in Sabah who have instigated their own eco initiatives. My first stop is Gayana Eco Resort, a recently refurbished overwater resort hugging a bay of lush rainforest and mangrove forest on Gaya Island, one of five islands comprising the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, a 15-minute boat ride from Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah state.
The bay was a marine wasteland when a local businessman, Ambrose Lee, bought Gayana four years ago, citing dynamite fishing and careless boating as among the causes of the devastation. Lee upgraded the resort's villas, installed a sophisticated water-recycling plant and started rearing fish using sustainable stock for the resort's on-site restaurants. Then he established the Marine Ecology Research Centre (MERC) to boost diminishing numbers of giant clam, a mollusc that can grow larger than a metre in length and live up to 100 years. Seven of the eight known species of giant clam are found in Borneo; they've been poached so heavily they're endangered.
Continue reading (incl. Pics) at: Going green in the Borneo jungle