Sunday, July 06, 2014

Protecting Santubong’s clouded leopards


When reports of a sighting of three Sunda clouded leopards on Mount Santubong surfaced in April this year, the news was greeted with a mixture of excitement and anxiety – for good reason.

Very little is known about the clouded leopard in comparison with other big cats such as the lion and tiger as research on the species has been scant.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, in 2007, it  was estimated there were fewer than 10,000 clouded leopards in total effective population size, with real numbers suspected to be much lower.

The overall population of the clouded leopard is on a declining trend due to deforestation and illegal hunting, leading to a categorisation of Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List – meaning it is considered to be facing a high risk of extinction in the wild.

Up until recently, it was classically considered as a single species until it was discovered there were, in fact, two species – Neofelis nebulosa which dwells on mainland South East Asia and Neofelis diardi, also known as the Sunda or Sundaland clouded leopard, which is endemic to the islands of Sumatra and Borneo.

Thus, it is nothing short of astonishing that Borneo’s top cat has been living incognito almost literally at our doorstep all this time, undetected by the hundreds of people who trek up and down Mt Santubong every year.

Moreover, the rare sighting of the highly endangered species underlines the fact that for all of our perceived familiarity with our beloved Mt Santunbong, it seems there is still much which remains to be discovered about the richness of its biodiversity and wildlife, a mere 45 minutes’ drive from the state capital.

National treasure

Familiarity often causes people to take things for granted, and unfortunately, this has been mostly the case for what most of us think we know about Santubong.

In fact, the Santubong peninsula is a treasure trove of natural and historical heritage and a priceless national treasure, Malaysian Nature Society Kuching Branch (MNSKB) chairman Anthony Sebastian told thesundaypost.

“For example, Santubong was thought to have no hornbills but it is now known to have four species living there. Generally speaking, there’s no reason why all eight species of hornbills in state cannot live there,” he said.

On the significance of Santubong, Anthony immediately zeroed in on the forests as the “highest value of Santubong.”

“First, there is the coastal mixed dipterocarp forest where the land or mountain comes at a steep angle straight down to the sea, as opposed to the rest of 90 per cent Sarawak where there is usually a flat stretch of sand or land between the mountain and the sea.

“This only exists on Santubong and Tanjung Datu. There used to be a small patch in Lambir, Miri, but it has been completely destroyed.

“As it grows right next to the sea, the forests have evolved over thousands of years to be more tolerant to saltwater and other aspects of the environment there like the dry and strong winds.

“There are also a whole lot of very unique and even endemic species to be found in these forests. This is one of Santubong’s highest values,” he said, adding that the forests were one of the most beautiful to experience.

The MNSKB chairman also highlighted the strategic importance of Santubong’s location right next to the biggest urban centre in the state.

“Its value and economics just shoot up because there’s so many things you can do with it, not just in terms of biodiversity conservation. It’s also about giving researchers and people the opportunities to see these forests.

“It’s about developing the forests with beautiful trails and picnic spots and more while preserving the forest. It has much higher economic value to us to be used because of its nearby location,” he said.

Another type of forest found in Santubong is the tropical heath forest or kerangas, which is also ecologically unique.

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