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Inikea project: Achievements and challenges – 26 years on
Published on: Sunday, May 19, 2024
By: Sherell Jeffrey
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Campsite location of resources and wildlife survey Inikea 2023. (Pic: Yayasan Sabah Group)
SABAH has taken a stand to rehabilitate and restore its tropical ecosystem in the face of global rainforest degradation. 

However, a question lingers – can a severely degraded rainforest, ravaged by overlogging and wildfires, regain its once-vibrant biodiversity? 

For many, the prospect seems bleak, a Herculean task that defies the laws of nature.

The Innoprise-Ikea Tropical Forest Rehabilitation Project (Inikea), initiated in 1998, has been at the forefront of this effort, spanning a vast 14,300 hectares of the Sungai Tiagau Forest Reserve near Luasong, Tawau. 

However, no previous surveys or such activities have been conducted in the Inikea area and there was a lack of documented information on this project’s impact on wildlife diversity. 

It was only recently, after 26 years of enrichment planting and liberation treatments, a comprehensive survey was conducted to evaluate the project’s impact on wildlife diversity and formulate a strategic management plan for Inikea’s future.

The survey, led by the Sabah Wildlife Department and involving various government agencies, including Yayasan Sabah Group, institutions and universities, gathered valuable data on the abundance and distribution of wildlife, potential threats and the area’s suitability for tourism development.

Camera traps being set up in the area. (Pic: Yayasan Sabah Group)

With 132 participants covering 10 campsites within a 2.5km radius, the survey uncovered the progress made in restoring the biodiversity lost to overlogging and wildfires in the past.

The findings were recently revealed during the Inikea Resources and Wildlife Survey 2023 Seminar, shedding light on the project’s achievements and the challenges that lie ahead. The primary objectives were to document wildlife abundance and distribution, assess potential threats, evaluate tourism opportunities and identify critical areas for future research.

“The findings from this survey are nothing short of groundbreaking,” said Yayasan Sabah Group Conservation and Environmental Management Division Group Manager Dr Waidi Sinun.

Dr Waidi

“The Inikea area has proven to be a biodiversity hotspot, harbouring numerous endangered and vulnerable species that are not only scientifically significant but also hold immense appeal for nature enthusiasts from around the world,” he said. 

“The Inikea Resources and Wildlife Survey has opened our eyes to the immense value of this rehabilitated rainforest.

“It is now our responsibility to build upon these findings and develop a holistic management strategy that safeguards this natural treasure while providing opportunities for sustainable eco-tourism and scientific exploration,” he said.

Across the 10 campsites, the survey teams encountered a staggering diversity of life forms, including 77 animal species at Campsite One alone, encompassing one endangered gibbon species and three vulnerable species – the sun bear, clouded leopard, and marble cat. 

Other notable sightings included the critically endangered Helmeted Hornbill, the near-threatened Common Birdwing butterfly and the elusive Bornean Banteng, a species of wild cattle captured on camera traps mere meters from Campsite Three.

“The undulating terrain and unique geomorphological features like waterfalls and natural pools create a perfect setting for eco-tourism activities such as jungle trekking, bird watching and animal viewing,” said researcher Dr Siti Sarayati Abdul Mawah from Campsite One. 

However, the survey also highlighted potential challenges and threats that must be addressed to ensure the long-term sustainability of the Inikea project. 

From Campsite Two, Habibah Mohd Yusah from Yayasan Sabah Group, pointed out the need for improved accessibility, basic facilities and security measures, as well as the importance of mitigating extreme weather events and potential flooding.

Mahani Mohd Isa from Sabah Environmental Trust, of Campsite Three, emphasised the importance of expanding the protected area to include critical water catchment zones and establishing ranger stations near the Gunung Rara Valley Corridor to promote research and enhance security.

From Campsite Four, Dr Ahmad Asnawi Mus from Universiti Malaysia Sabah, identified both opportunities and threats related to tourism development. 

“While the area boasts unique landscapes, including riparian locations with huge boulders and sandy areas, challenges such as trail accessibility, waste management and the need for sustainable ecotourism planning must be addressed,” he said. 

Shahrul Rizan Said from the Sabah Wildlife Department, of Campsite Five, highlighted the potential for further exploration and the deployment of advanced technologies like drones to access challenging terrains.  Additionally, he stressed the need for enhanced enforcement and patrolling measures to safeguard the areas’ resources effectively.

In light of these findings from the five campsites, the survey team has put forth a comprehensive set of recommendations, including long-term monitoring of forest dynamics and ecological processes, biodiversity assessments, microclimate monitoring, soil health studies and carbon sequestration research. 

The establishment of conservation zones, sustainable tourism plans and ranger stations in critical areas are proposed to balance ecological preservation with responsible human access.

At Campsite Six, Sharon Koh from WWF-Malaysia reported the detection of 15 mammal species and six bird species, including the Scheduled 1 species such as the Banteng, Elephant, and Sun Bear. 

Alarmingly, the team also identified threats such as poaching, with evidence of bullet casings, traps and suspected gunshot wounds on trees. Gaharu poaching and illegal coal prospecting activities were also documented.

Dean G Gangko from Universiti Malaysia Sabah, of Campsite Seven, revealed a diverse array of wildlife, including 61 bird species, 25 mammals, 16 amphibians, seven reptiles and numerous insects and arachnids.

The team highlighted the area’s tourism potential, with features like towering tropical trees, caves and diverse forest ambience. However, challenges such as poor trail conditions and a lack of signage were also noted.

From Campsite Eight, Rayner Bili from the Sabah Forestry Department, who surveyed the Sungai Sumagas Forest Reserve, reported the detection of 20 mammal species, including 10 threatened species under the IUCN Red List criteria. 

Among the endangered species sighted were the Bornean Banteng, Pig-tailed Macaque, Bornean Pygmy Elephant and Bornean Gibbon. 

The team also recorded 39 bird species, with five species considered threatened and four endemics to Borneo.

At Campsite Nine, Dr Spencer Hedley Mogindol from Universiti Teknologi Mara highlighted the area’s potential for ecotourism activities, including wildlife tourism, educational programs, and community-based initiatives. 

The survey documented 20 mammal species, with 10 considered threatened and 70 bird species, with 12 classified as threatened and 19 protected under the Wildlife Conservation Enactment 1997.

Aliah Majilih from Yayasan Sabah Group, of Campsite 10, reported a total of 122 species recorded, including 26 mammals, 71 birds, 17 amphibians and seven reptiles. 

Among these, two species were critically endangered, seven were endangered and 15 are vulnerable. 

The team identified the area’s potential for ecotourism, research and community involvement, while also noting challenges such as poaching, encroachment and human-wildlife conflicts.

Throughout the surveys at the last five campsites, the teams encountered a diverse range of wildlife, including iconic species such as the Bornean Pygmy Elephant, Sun Bear, Bornean Banteng and various hornbill species. 

However, the presence of poaching activities, encroachment and potential threats from development and natural disasters highlighted the need for robust conservation efforts.

Left pic, Mammal footprint detected in the area. Right pic, Mammal detected in the area. - (Pic: Yayasan Sabah Group)

The researchers emphasised the importance of establishing conservation zones, enhancing enforcement and patrolling measures, initiating restoration projects and fostering collaborations with local communities and organisations. 

Additionally, they recommended further research efforts, including long-term monitoring, biodiversity assessments and microclimate studies, to support informed decision-making and ensure the area’s long-term sustainability.

The seminar also featured a forum titled “Exploring Optimal Strategies for Updating Wildlife and Natural Resources Information,” which brought together prominent figures from various organisations, including Sabah Forestry Department, Sabah Parks, Kinabatangan Orang Utan Conservation Programme (Hutan), Bring Back Our Rare Animals (Bora) and several universities.

The discussions centred on the challenges of conducting comprehensive surveys, establishing baselines and developing effective management plans in the face of shifting environmental conditions and limited resources.  

Participants shared their experiences, insights and concerns, highlighting the complexities involved in conserving Sabah’s rich biodiversity.

Deputy Chief Conservator of Forest Research and Development Dr Arthur Chung spoke about the importance of focusing on keystone and indicator species during surveys. 

“The first survey should involve learning about the area’s interesting insect species, such as the Rajah Brooke Birdwing, Malaysia’s national butterfly or endemic species found only in Borneo or Sabah,” he said.

 “In subsequent surveys, you can just focus on these indicator species, which can be representatives of many insect groups,” he added. 

From left: Marc, Maklarin, Chung, Zainal and Mohd Soffian. 

“There is a need for continuous monitoring and management, especially in disturbed forests,” said Hutan Scientific Director Dr Marc Ancrenaz. 

“Even if our forest is badly affected, we must care for it. These ecosystems are highly dynamic and distinct from primary forests. They are altering trees and wildlife communities are evolving and adapting to new influences that are not visible in primary forests,” he said. 

One of the central topics of discussion was the issue of shifting baselines, which refers to the changing perceptions of what constitutes a “normal” or “healthy” ecosystem over time. 

Sabah Parks Director Dr Maklarin Lakim spoke about the importance of incorporating sociological aspects into baseline data, as protected areas increasingly involve human communities.

“I think sociological components of baseline data are crucial and will inspire other protected area plans,” he said. 

The challenges of managing and conserving specific species, such as elephants, banteng and macaques, were also extensively discussed. Bora Project Manager cum Senior Veterinarian Dr Zainal Zahari Zainudin spoke about the need for active intervention and pragmatic management approaches.

“Wildlife management requires pragmatism and emotionlessness. We desire numbers of wildlife, but not more than the carrying capacity. We have issues otherwise,” he said.  

Sabah Wildlife Department Deputy Director Mohd Soffian Abu Bakr pointed out the importance of data collection and centralised management, suggesting the establishment of a dedicated Wildlife Management Centre to store and analyse data from various surveys and expeditions.

The role of citizen science in wildlife and natural resource monitoring was also widely discussed, with experts recognising its potential while emphasising the need for proper integration, training and coordination within management strategies.

Throughout the forum, a recurring theme was the need for sustainable funding and innovative approaches to generate revenue for conservation efforts. 

Suggestions included ecotourism initiatives, carbon trading, and appealing to government agencies and donors. The forum highlighted the complexities and urgency surrounding the conservation of Sabah’s natural heritage. 

The panellists emphasised the need for collaborative efforts, robust data collection, continuous monitoring and adaptive management strategies. 

The delegates involved in the survey. (Pic: Yayasan Sabah Group) 

By addressing the challenges head-on and embracing innovative approaches, they said Sabah can pave the way for a future where its rich biodiversity thrives, benefiting both present and future generations.

To conclude, the dedication and tireless efforts of the research teams involved is nothing but inspirational. Their unwavering commitment to reviving this once-thriving rainforest is nothing short of remarkable.

While the journey ahead is undoubtedly arduous the Inikea project has shown that with unwavering dedication and a comprehensive approach even the most severely degraded rainforests can be given a second chance at life.

The Inikea project has reignited hope for the future of Sabah’s rainforests and that with continue efforts there is hope of restoring these vital ecosystems to their former glory.


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