Ulu Muda Forest – Experiential Learning

A boat cruising along Ulu Muda river.
A boat cruising along Ulu Muda river.

Ulu Muda Forest – Experiential Learning

Hasanah (YH) has been supporting Water Watch Penang (WWP), in collaboration with Management and Ecology of Malaysian Elephants (MEME), towards community-based conservation of the Ulu Muda water catchment since early 2018. On 1 – 3 August 2018, I was extremely fortunate to have visited the Greater Ulu Muda Forest, recognized as one of the key biodiversity hotspots home to large mammals such as elephants, rhinoceros, tigers, leopards, etc. Apart from its biodiversity richness, it also serves as an important catchment area for three dams that supply water to help irrigate Malaysia’s largest rice fields, known as the Malaysia’s Rice Bowl. Together with Professor Chan and Wai Leng from WWP, Oi Ching and Dr Ahimsa from MEME, we travelled 2 hours by boat from Muda Lake Jetty to Earth Lodge, where we stayed in a remote area located in the middle of the jungle, completely off the grid (!) [eco fact: it is the only accommodation in Ulu Muda forest where it incorporates various environmental-friendly practices to reduce its carbon footprint, including solar-powered generator set, strictly “no-plastic” drinking bottles, scheduled electric supplies, among others]. The experience of the Ulu Muda environmental landscape began from our boat ride, where we witnessed the beauty of Ulu Muda lake at the start of our journey, but the mesmerizing scene was short-lived as we noticed the change in water quality – deterioration from clear to sediment-laden water – as we travelled further upstream. We later learned from Hymeair, the manager of Earth Lodge, that this was the result of unsustainable upstream logging practices. It was a depressing start in our journey, but our experiences took a sharp turn of events for the better: we hiked into the heart of the forest, and were lucky to encounter various wildlife – bats, snakes, binturong, sun bear, monkeys – at the same time, all of us were on alert mode to detect any signs of elephants, given that the area is a known elephant hotspot, hoping to get a glimpse of the big mammal in real life. But we were not so lucky. On the second day, we hiked towards a salt lick area, where we saw many traces of footprints and droppings of big mammals, as this is the place where they usually come to lick essential mineral nutrients from a deposit of salts. Later in the evening, we spent about an hour at a wide riverbank area, with our binoculars in hand, and counted the number of hornbills – about 500+ of them (!) – that were flying across the Ulu Muda forest. Before we ended our day, while cruising along the river back to Earth Lodge, we were gifted by the most memorable scene: a herd of elephants were slowly crossing the river, and some even bathed and played in the water, right in front of us!

A salt lick area for mammals in Ulu Muda forest.
A salt lick area for mammals in Ulu Muda forest.

Ulu Muda is rich in biodiversity, but little is known about the area: be it hornbill nesting areas or elephant migration routes. Despite Ulu Muda possessing a huge potential for ecotourism, and contributing towards valuable ecosystem services to downstream users, this natural asset is threatened by unsustainable logging activities upstream. There is an urgency to gazette Ulu Muda as a protected area, and this is, after all, not a distant mirage as we have recently witnessed promising signs from the new Kedah State Government, led by the MB of Kedah, Mukhriz Mahathir, on its commitment towards Ulu Muda conservation (see article: http://www.thesundaily.my/news/2018/06/24/call-save-ulu-muda-water-catchment-forest). This political will is a day of celebration for conservationists, as well as stakeholders whose livelihoods are dependent upon and directly impacted by Ulu Muda. Now that the most important step has been secured, it is time for us to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty. Hasanah’s grant programme on Ulu Muda protection hopes to build on this momentum and plays a role in facilitating stakeholder engagement and consultation process towards the eventual gazettment of Ulu Muda. Having in mind that sustainable governance of natural resources is a lengthy process and a complex endeavor, this initiative is timely: it is not about winning or losing, but the hard work lies in finding a win-win partnership for all stakeholders who have a stake in the ecosystem, and work towards achieving a common goal.

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