Brunei is an unusual shaped country, with a large swathe of Malaysian territory (part of Sarawak) separating the western and eastern districts of Brunei. Even more unusual is that its borders are discernible from space. This Google Maps satellite image shows that the majority of Brunei’s territory appears to be a darker shade of green than Malaysia’s.
The reason for this is logging.
This close up of a section of the border reveals a tell-tale maze of dirt logging roads on the Malaysian side, built to extract fallen trees. The jungle on the Brunei side remains relatively pristine.
Here is another section.
This image shows how neat rows of oil palm trees have replaced the rainforest on the Malaysian side of the border.
Why the big difference in land usage between the two countries?
Conservationists would argue that Brunei has done a better job in protecting its forests by:
Reducing the number of licensed logging operators.
Increasing the area of gazetted (protected) forests to 55% of the total land area.
Enforcing laws with regular patrols by forest rangers.
Banning the export of raw logs and sawn timber and limiting exports to finished and semi-finished products such as furniture components, door frames, doors etc.
Economists on the other hand might point out that Brunei is so oil-rich (forestry only contributed a minuscule 0.14% to GDP in 2018) that it does not need to exploit its forest resources as aggressively as Malaysia. Furthermore, Brunei’s pampered citizens enjoy generous handouts from government such as free education, healthcare, pensions, housing schemes, subsidised petrol and utilities. Given these perks, there is less incentive for Bruneians to earn a living doing dangerous work in a steaming jungle.
This post records the final section of my coast to coast journey across Malaysia via Cameron Highlands, Gua Musang & Lake Kenyir.
After a Thrifty Traveller breakfast of roti canai and kopi kosong for just RM2,I left Gua Musang for the nearby village of Pulai.
Kampung Pulai is famed for its Guan Yin temple, known as the Water and Moon Temple, thought to be over 400 years old, making it perhaps the oldest in Malaysia. Hakka Chinese settled here more than 600 years ago in search of gold and they maintained their traditional Hakka culture, largely undisturbed by the outside world until the first tarmac road to the village was built in 1988.
The village has a lovely setting, alongside a small river and a lake, surrounded by rubber plantations and overlooked by spectacular limestone hills. On the opposite side of the lake, facing the village is one such outcrop called Princess Hill which contains a cave with a Guan Yin statue. To reach the cave I crossed the suspension bridge over the river and walked around the lake.
The rubber trees appeared to be well looked after with tapping still going on. There was a large buzzing hive of wild bees on one of the trees which I was careful not to disturb.
I arrived just as the elderly caretaker was unlocking the steps up to the cave.
From the top of the steps there was a good view looking back over the village in the early morning mist.
Inside the cave were a couple of large stalagmite formations, one of which has been transformed into a Guan Yin statue.
After this slight detour I returned to my trans Malaysia route, leaving Gua Musang on the Central Spine Road (highway 8) for some distance before turning onto Jalan Felda Aring (1744), a minor road serving the Federal Land Development Authority (FELDA) plantations and settlements in this part of Kelantan. This was the section of the journey that I was most worried about because I was unsure what condition the road would be in and whether it would be passable. It would have been a long way back if I had to turn around. In the end my concerns were unwarranted because it was in excellent condition and with very light traffic it was a pleasure to drive.
Throughout this trip I encountered a lot of logging lorries, far more than I remember seeing on previous travels. There are newspaper reports of rampant illegal logging going on in parts of Malaysia. I don’t know where these particular trucks obtained their logs. Most of the surrounding area looked like it was deforested some time ago to make way for palm oil plantations.
Crossing over from Kelantan into Terengganu brought more lush vegetation as I approached Lake Kenyir. This massive man-made lake was created between 1978 and 1985 by damming the Kenyir River. It is the largest artificial lake in Malaysia with an area of 260,000 hectares.
A new attraction near Lake Kenyir is the Kenyir Elephant Conservation Village. I didn’t go in but I gather it is somewhat similar to Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary.
At the lakeside itself, activities include the Kenyir Water Park, boating and fishing. They have some rather ugly houseboats for rent here but I feel Malaysia Tourism could do a lot more to bring in tourists. Some Kerala style houseboats for example would be a good addition. The Lake Kenyir Resort Hotel was closed for renovation.
From Lake Kenyir, the East Coast of Malaysia is within easy striking distance. I would have chosen to end my coast to coast journey at Penarik which has one of best stretches of beach in the area. In the end I didn’t go to Penarik this time but continued my travels up to Kota Bharu as I had other places to visit which I’ll write about in future posts.
The famous author Agnes Newton Keith, who wrote Land Below the Wind and other books about her life in Sandakan, was married to Harry Keith, Conservator of Forests for North Borneo (now Sabah, Malaysia).
Harry was a dedicated official and passionate about the need to sustainably manage North Borneo’s forest reserves. The British North Borneo (Chartered) Company, which was running the territory at the time, derived the bulk of its income from the sale of logging permits. No doubt Borneo’s vast forestry reserves seemed inexhaustible but even as early as the 1940s, Harry could see that continued rampant logging activity was not sustainable.
Despite his best efforts however you would have to conclude that he and his successors ultimately failed in their role as conservators of forests because Sabah today is pretty much logged-out.
How can that be you might ask? Isn’t it true that 48.8% of Sabah’s total land area (7,362,000 ha) is classified as Forest Reserve? That is true but of that total, only 342,216 ha (4.6% of Sabah’s total land area) is classed as Protection Area in which logging is not permitted. A further 90,386 ha (1.22%) is considered as Virgin Jungle Forest where logging is strictly prohibited but in practice illegal logging has taken place. The majority of the Forest Reserve is categorized as Production Forest and can be, and has been, ‘selectively logged’ under licence.
This WWF graphic illustrates what is happening all over Borneo. (Sabah is in the top right corner.)
When Harry Keith retired in 1950, North Borneo’s forest cover was still fairly intact but by the 1980s logging was at its peak and Sabah was exporting 12 million cubic metres of timber per year, much of it to Japan to be turned into plywood and disposable chopsticks. Presumably the remains are now lying rotting in Japanese landfills. An ignoble end to once mighty trees!
Some trees have fared better. It is said that logs from Sandakan were used in the construction of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing.
By the early 2000s, Sabah’s timber exports had dwindled significantly mainly due to depletion of forests and Japanese and other lumber trading firms had moved on to new sources like Papua New Guinea.
I do not wish to sound too gloomy. Forests can recover. If all humans left Sabah tomorrow the jungle would return to its former glory in 250 years or so. But that is too long a time horizon for businesses to consider and as for politicians, they know that future generations do not have a vote so who cares if their world is wrecked?
As for the future of wild animals, I’m afraid I am very pessimistic. They are doomed. Already they are virtually extinct outside of zoos and wildlife parks, not just in Borneo but all over the developing world. The only creatures which can thrive in today’s overcrowded world are rats, cockroaches, flies and ants.
Organizations like WWF are wasting their time. The battle for pandas, tigers, elephants, rhinos and the like is lost. Instead WWF should turn its attention to tackling the source of this and so many other problems, and that is global over-population. This is a glaring issue but no governments, apart from China’s, seem willing to do anything about it. On the contrary, many countries are actively encouraging their citizens to have more children.
In my view the United Nations should set a target to half the world’s population over the next 100 years or so. Every country should adopt a One is Enough child policy and use a combination of incentives and deterrents to achieve it such as:
removal of child benefits
free or subsidised schooling for first child only
lower income tax for those couples with only one child or no children
Ok, I admit I am being hypocritical here as I have three children but I have only recently become convinced that having a smaller world population would solve so many of the problems facing the planet. I’ll encourage my children to have one or less kids.
Taman Negara is Malaysia’s premier national park covering a vast area of a million acres spanning three states. Established in the 1930s, Taman Negara is the oldest and the largest protected area in the peninsular and acts as a gene bank for biodiversity resources
in Malaysia, many of which are threatened by relentless development.
The park’s pristine condition makes it a popular eco-tourism destination but most visitors do not stray far from the main entry point of Kuala Tahan, leaving the bulk of the park undisturbed by humans, apart from the small community of Orang Asli who have always lived there.
My younger son and I spent a couple of days at Taman Negara last week and we covered the usual tourist activities such as the 530 metre long canopy walk, a boat trip to Lata Berkoh and a short hike up Bukit Teresek.
We wisely decided not to attempt the tortuous 7 day hike to, and climb up, Gunung Tahan, peninsular Malaysia’s tallest peak (2,190m).
While there is no denying the unspoilt beauty of the scenery of Taman Negara, many tourists must go away disappointed at the lack of wildlife that can be spotted. Unlike an African safari where animals congregate at water holes or roam the plains in vast herds, Malaysia’s wild critters are a shy bunch and rely on concealment for survival, and there are plenty of places to hide. In our short stay we saw a family of wild boars, a deer and some monitor lizards but there was no sign of tapirs or wild elephants. As for glimpsing virtually extinct rarities such as the Sumatran Rhinoceros or tigers, you have more hope of winning the lottery.
Even birds are not abundant. We see more in our garden than in the rainforest. The bugs are impressive though – exotic, huge and everywhere.
On our way back from Taman Negara it was disturbing to see considerable logging activity going on just a few kilometres away from the national park’s boundaries.
Here a line of trucks is queuing up to be loaded with logs which will be turned into laminated flooring or garden furniture for a UK hardware shop, or shipped to Japan for use as disposable chopsticks or to China as plywood for the construction industry. Is it sustainable logging? Of course not.
As forest clearance creeps closer to the edge of Taman Negara, whatever animals live there will shift to the centre of the park making them even rarer to spot for the tourist.
Here is a link to the satellite map of the area where the logging is taking place. I don’t know when Google recorded that image but presumably more logging has taken place since. It’s not very pretty.