Sipadan reverts to State control
Published on: Saturday, March 05, 2016

Kota Kinabalu: Diving haven Sipadan, off Semporna, and its nearby waters are now officially back under the State control 19 years after its jurisdiction was placed under the Home Ministry.The island, along with Ligitan Island, was declared as belonging to Malaysia on Dec. 17, 2002 when Indonesia took the territorial dispute to the International Court in the Hague and was the scene of the first Abu Sayyaf kidnapping in 2000 of 21 tourists and resort workers from the Southern Philippines, led by the notorious Commander Robot.

The Philippines applied to intervene in the proceedings on the basis of their claim to Northern Borneo, but their request was turned down by the court early in 2001.

The ICJ's rejection of the Philippine action was also seen as a setback to the latter's perceived claim to Sabah.

Viewed as a goldmine because of its natural wonders and coral reefs, it was turned into a sanctuary to save the turtles from extinction in 1964 by the first State Government after the formation of Malaysia.

Prior to that, it was a bird sanctuary. In 1983, Borneo Divers and Sea Sports Sdn Bhd became the first operator on the island and soon almost a dozen tour firms set up shop offering diving facilities but causing a huge environmental concern.

Among the problems were waste disposal, with claims that some of the operators were quietly disposing off the waste at sea and that the increasing number of tourists were disturbing egg-laying by turtles.

The tourism potential of the island became more significant when famous French explorer Jacques Cousteau filmed "Ghost of the Sea Turtles" there in 1989.

Cousteau was quoted as saying on Sipadan: "I have seen other places like Sipadan, 45 years ago, but now no more.

Now we have found an untouched piece of art."

More and more operators soon wanted a piece of Sipadan and built facilities on the island as visitors and divers grow, resulting in unplanned development.

A report carried out by the Daily Express in 1994, quoting unnamed sources from the government said that all structures had to go as a result of overcrowding.

The source mentioned specifically structures built before 1993, with the sources singling out three main operators.

Coral reefs in several parts of the island's waters were damaged in 1996 after the deadly Greg Storm wreaked havoc and efforts to restore them were not entirely successful, no thanks to the coral bleaching phenomenon in 1998 due to global warming and rising sea water temperatures.

The Federal Government soon took charge and gazetted the Sipadan Island under the Protected Areas and Protected Places Act 1959 in 1997.

This also came as Indonesia was making further noise over its purported claim on the island.

The restriction covered the whole land surface of the island and 500 metres from the water tide lines, accounting for a total size of 516.4 hectares.

A Joint Management and Supervision of Sipadan and Ligitan Islands was established in 2003 and chaired by the Chief Secretary to the Government and the State Secretary, with members comprising officers from the related Federal and State agencies.

The committee ordered all operators out of the island and their structures removed on grounds of conservation after noting findings of experts from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and non-governmental bodies in 2004.

Sabah Parks began its operations on the island on Jan 1, 2005, with the joint committee limiting the number of divers to 120 people a day.

The committee also provided the statutory body the authority to supervise the entry and management of visitors and resort operators in accordance to law in 2005.

Four years later, the 13.5 hectare land of the island was gazetted as a State Park and officially became a park on Nov 5, 2009.

Only on July 2, 2015, the coral reef and the waters nearby the island, measuring 16,846.5 hectares, were gazetted as a protected area under the Parks Enactment 1984, increasing the marine park size to 16,860 hectares.


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