Huge rainforest reserve in making

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 August, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 August, 1995, 12:00am

STRADDLING 200 kilometres of jungle frontier between Malaysian and Indonesian territory on the island of Borneo, a unique rainforest reserve in the making is already leaving scientists agog.

In the past year alone, three completely new tree species along with previously unknown amphibians and reptiles have been discovered in the ancient repository of wood and waterways.

Some of the world's rarest animals have also been spotted stalking the ancient ecosystem. It is, for example, one of the last known havens of the Clouded Leopard.

Most importantly, though, the jungle, known as Lanjak-Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary on the Sarawak side and Bentuang-Karimum in Kalimantan, stands as a glowing symbol of cross-border collaboration in the fight to save vanishing rainforests.

Earmarked to span more than a million hectares by the time the huge tract of forest is officially gazetted as a reserve by both nations, it will form the world's largest transnational rainforest conservation zone; a beacon of common commitment to the equatorial environment.

Standing behind the Malaysian and Indonesian governments, the International Tropical Timber Organisation is preparing a management plan for the entire reserve.

In the meantime, scientists are already evaluating the natural riches of the forest which has lain undisturbed for 75 million years.

Drained by the Mujuk and Katibas rivers, headwaters of the mighty Rajang, the ecosystem is unique and until now undocumented.

Unlike most other rainforests, it envelops highlands with a harsh, windy climate so, in parts, the rainforest is not typically dark and dank, but light and dry.

On the narrow summit ridges of the 1,400-metre Mt Lanjak, the bio-diversity extends further with a mossy forest thriving in clouds and mist.

Even further down the slopes is a small tract of secondary jungle, described as a 'halfway house' in the evolution of rainforests.

Just over a century ago, it was cleared by a community of native Ibans. When they left, the jungle reclaimed the clearings and regenerated a new form of forest.

Roaming these diverse jungle corridors and thickets is a polyglot of wildlife ranging from bears to tiny squirrels.

The area is also home to one of the world's largest populations of endangered orang-utans. Over 400 individuals have been counted, making the sanctuary one of the last major strongholds for the disappearing ape.

Another exclusive member of the island's unique wildlife that has made the reserve its home is the Borneo Gibbon.

So far, 214 bird species have also been counted, 13 of them unique to Borneo. There is also a bewildering variety of reptiles and amphibians.

Already, one new snake species has been discovered with more undoubtedly lurking in the undergrowth and the diverse ecosystem may even yield bio-chemicals, pharmaceuticals and drugs that could have a profound effect on the future of mankind.

With the inventory of flora and fauna only just beginning, a comprehensive management plan for the park is now being drawn up. When implemented, it will include a Science Centre and a network of ranger stations and researchers to protect the sanctuary from intruders.

But the reserve will be more than a jungle-based ivory tower for academia. The Science Centre will be educational as well, introducing groups of students and eco-tourists to the wealthy but delicate ecosystem.