13/06/2024 09:58 AM
From Emin Madi

Stepping into the pristine, undisturbed tropical rainforest of the Maliau Basin Conservation Area (MBCA) in Sabah is like immersing oneself in the multitude of wonders of the natural world.

Touted as 'The Lost World of Sabah', Maliau Basin offers an awe-inspiring blend of unidentified sounds, vibrant foliage, towering tree trunks and magnificent canopies. The calls of gibbons, incessantly noisy cicadas and the presence of diverse herbs and creepers contribute to a sense of wonder and a compelling desire to uncover its mysteries.

This writer got to experience some of its wonders recently when he was enlisted as an “embedded journalist” in Yayasan Sabah’s resource and wildlife survey in MBCA.

The 14-day survey, which ended on May 26, was aimed at documenting Maliau Basin’s wildlife abundance and distribution by using camera traps and mist nettings, as well as assessing the area’s potential for tourism development and identifying research questions for future explorations.

Located in Sabah’s Tawau division, the Maliau Basin covers 58,840 hectares or 588.4 square kilometres of rainforest.   

For the record, in 1981, Yayasan Sabah voluntarily designated the largely unexplored basin as a first-class conservation area for the purposes of research, education and training. In 1984, the Sabah state Cabinet approved Yayasan Sabah’s designation of Maliau Basin as a conservation area.



Anyone who has had the opportunity to visit MBCA is bound to return home with a better understanding of the importance of protecting and conserving Malaysia’s remaining untouched rainforests.

MBCA as well as Sabah’s other natural treasures such as Danum Valley and Imbak Canyon have benefited from Malaysia’s, particularly Sabah’s, conservation efforts which have gained international recognition. 

The recent survey by Yayasan Sabah had more than 100 participants who were divided into nine teams, each stationed at one of nine campsites. This arrangement ensured comprehensive survey coverage within a five-km radius outside the spectacular and almost circular rim of the Maliau Basin.

I was teamed up with a group of 15 super-fit researchers from Yayasan Sabah, government agencies and non-governmental organisations.

The writer (third from left) with the participants during the Yayasan Sabah's 2024 resource and wildlife survey at Maliau Basin Conservation Area.

Due to inaccessibility by road transport, four teams, including the one I was part of, were airlifted by a helicopter from the Maliau Basin Studies Centre to our allocated camping sites, which took us less than six minutes to reach.

Without the chopper, we would have had to spend several days trekking through the thick jungle, dragging with us our two-week load of supplies, including tents, personal belongings and other essentials.

Our campsite, nestled between two rivers, was surrounded by tall canopies but we still managed to get a glimpse of a hornbill flying by almost daily.

The river nearest to our camping ground was small and rather shallow but its rushing water was clear while the larger river on the other side was murky.

On our second day there, our team set up nine camera traps at the campsite, placing them in various strategic locations. Mist nettings were also put up to catch birds for check-listing purposes.



On the third day, eight members of our team left our campsite to embark on a mission to reach the base rim of Maliau Basin.

At about 11 pm on the fourth day, pandemonium broke out at our campsite when someone shouted, ‘Kepala air, jangan tidur’ (Water surge, don’t sleep). I was just about to go to sleep then. There was also a drizzle at that time.   

I immediately jumped out of my hammock-bed and noticed some of my colleagues were already busy packing up.

With a torchlight in hand, I walked to the river nearest to our camp and was shocked to find that the rampaging water had already reached danger level.

The situation became panicky after one overly cautious person was heard saying, ‘Kalau kedua-dua sungai ini banjir besar, habislah kita!’ (If both rivers here become flooded, we’re finished!).

Luckily, the water surge episode lasted only several hours. By late evening the next day the river returned to normal and its water was clear enough for consumption.

That same day, the group attempting to reach the base rim of of Maliau returned to our camp, explaining to us it would require at least five days or more to get to the base rim due to the rough and hilly terrain.



I got the opportunity to scour the forest with our team leader Professor Dr Abd Hamid Ahmad from Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) and David Francis of Yayasan Sabah.

Abd Hamid said their data collecting work is important to strengthen the management of MBCA.

“For that matter, our field survey adheres to MBCA’s strategic management plan. It’s vital to have a strategic management plan for any conservation area in Sabah, which must be carried out accordingly to ensure its sustainability,” he told Bernama.

We became excited when we came across an area with a high density of belian, also known as ironwood, trees. We also found many fallen seeds of the belian trees.

Abd Hamid said some of the standing belian trees are easily 400 to 500 years old based on their sizes. These trees reflect the uniqueness of Maliau Basin’s rich biodiversity.

Profesor Dr Abd Hamid Ahmad dari Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) with the writer (right) with one of the big belian tree in the Maliau Basin Conservation Area.

Two days before returning to the Maliau Basin Studies Centre, our team collected the camera traps and later checked the results.

We were ecstatic when one of the cameras recorded a lone, beautiful and healthy banteng, a Southeast Asian wild cattle species, also known as tembadau by the locals here.

The rest of the cameras recorded the presence of a muntjac, a deer species; mousedeer; sun bear; and a Bornean crested fireback pheasant and Bulwer’s pheasant.



According to Maliau Basin management committee secretary Dr Waidi Sinun, the wildlife survey is important to ensure that MBCA is sustainably conserved and maintained for the benefit of future generations.

“It will be much more secure for a heritage (like MBCA) if people are collectively made aware of the responsibility to preserve and protect this place.

“I believe in partnership and empowering people, (particularly) the young generation, about the responsibility of managing all of our conservation areas,” he said.

He also hoped Yayasan Sabah’s most recent resource and wildlife survey will provide appropriate information for their planners to draw up a strategic management plan for MBCA for the 2024-2034 period.

It was reported that one of the first people to discover Maliau Basin was the pilot of a light aircraft who, in 1947, narrowly avoided crashing into what turned out to be the cliff of the Maliau Basin’s northern rim, which was then unchartered territory.



There is a Murut community still living on state land outside the buffer zone of MBCA. In their language, Maliau means ‘Land of the Giant Staircase’, probably in reference to the step-like rivers and abundant cascading waterfalls found in the area.

According to Yayasan Sabah, a Sabah Museum team had attempted to explore the western rim of Maliau Basin in 1980, but were turned back by malaria and lack of supplies.

In 1986, plans began to be laid for the first major scientific expedition to the interior of the basin, which was undertaken jointly in 1988 by Yayasan Sabah and WWF-Malaysia.

The second expedition took place in 1996, undertaken jointly by Yayasan Sabah, UMS and the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Environment, Sabah. 

In 1997, the Sabah State Legislative Assembly voted to gazette Maliau Basin as a Class 1 (Protected) Forest Reserve and increase its area to 58,840 ha so as to include the outer slopes of the basin and Lake Linumunsut, and excise it from Yayasan Sabah’s timber concession area.

Meanwhile, the preliminary results from the nine teams that participated in the recent survey revealed that MBCA is still exposed to encroachers with the discovery of abandoned camps and bullet casings.

But there were also interesting findings including new distribution records for birds and species such as banteng and pygmy elephants, and the presence of mud volcanoes. 

All the data and findings are currently being studied and documented by Yayasan Sabah.



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