© The Star 14 April 2017
PETALING JAYA: Kinabalu Park, one of Malaysia’s two World Heritage Sites, has lost large proportions of forests in its buffer zones.
It has been named as one of the worst affected Natural World Heritage Sites, seeing 15,000ha of its forests (about the size of 30,000 football fields) cleared between 2000 and 2012.
This was stated in an international study led by University of Queensland.
“Some notable Natural World Heritage Sites which lost large proportions of forest in their buffer zones are the Australian Fossil Mammal Sites, the Discovery Coast Atlantic Forests in Brazil and Kinabalu Park in Malaysia,” the study published in the Biological Conservation journal in February noted.
The 75,370ha Kinabalu Park is one of two Unesco Natural World Heritage Sites in Malaysia. The other is Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak.
The study revealed that the 203 Natural World Heritage Sites were some of Earth’s most valuable natural assets but many were deteriorating due to urbanisation, agriculture and logging.
“Our findings clearly show that Natural World Heritage Sites are becoming increasingly isolated, which is a concern since their ecological integrity depend on links with the broader landscape,” the study said.
It added that past studies found that environmental degradation around a protected area could lead to similar degradation within its borders.
The Kinabalu Park, which was designated as a Unesco Natural World Heritage Site in 2000, is an epicentre of biodiversity.
Unesco said it was home to at least half of all Borneo’s plant species, birds, mammals, amphibian species and two-thirds of Borneo reptiles unique to the island.
Among the rare species that can only be found in the Kinabalu Park are the Rothschild Slipper orchid and the Rajah Brooke’s Pitcher plant.
Known as the gold of Kinabalu, the Rothschild Slipper orchid takes 15 years to grow. It is one of the world’s most expensive orchids in the black market.
The Rajah Brooke’s Pitcher plant is the world’s largest pitcher plant that can grow up to 41cm.
Sabah Parks director Dr Jamili Nais maintained that the Kinabalu Park and its biodiversity remained intact despite fears over a substantial reduction of its buffer areas.
There was no land clearing or forest damage within the park, which is about three times the size of Penang island, he said.
“The integrity of the park is constantly safeguarded,” he said.
Jamili said there was no designated buffer zone around the world renowned park.
“What happens outside of the park boundaries is beyond the scope of the World Heritage Site.
“Having said that, we should bear in mind that the land surrounding the park is occupied by the native Kadazandusun who have been cultivating crops there for generations,” he said.
Jamili said these people initially practised shifting cultivation but had since switched to permanent farming methods.
Sabah Parks, Jamili said, had initiated a community-based forest conservation known as tagal hutan with villages around the park.
He said Sabah Park was also working towards getting the area to be declared as a Geopark, another Unesco initiative.
Geoparks are single, unified geographical areas where sites and landscapes of international geological significance are managed with a holistic concept of protection, education and sustainable development.
Sabah naturalist Datuk C.L. Chan said a reduction in the buffer area surrounding the Kinabalu Park had not affected the biodiversity within the World Heritage Site.
However, he said Unesco’s concern over the reduction of buffer areas around the park should not be taken lightly.
He said Kinabalu Park could end up as an island within a sea of agriculture and human settlements if the forested areas outside the boundaries continued to be cleared.