How nat­u­ral­ists are step­ping up to pro­tect the won­ders of Langkawi.

Nat­u­ral­ists at Langkawi’s high-end ho­tels are lead­ing the charge to pro­tect na­tive flora and fauna as the Malaysian re­sort is­land faces a tourism boom.


It’s early in the morn­ing on the Kilim River, a snake of tur­bid green wa­ter flanked by craggy lime­stone out­crops and the black­ened trunks of man­grove trees. A brah­miny kite— known lo­cally as an ea­gle—cir­cles above our boat, its snow-white belly glid­ing against a dusty blue sky. At the bow is Aidi Ab­dul­lah, the cheery chief nat­u­ral­ist at the Four Sea­sons Re­sort Langkawi, ex­plain­ing, with much gusto, the life and times of a man­grove tree.

The only tree ca­pa­ble of liv­ing be­tween the land and the ocean, man­groves don’t just pro­vide shel­ter for ju­ve­nile fish and crus­taceans; they turn salt wa­ter to fresh via a mem­brane in their leaves. But that’s noth­ing com­pared to the spindly, half-sub­merged roots. Bind­ing with their next-door neigh­bor, man­groves share both foun­da­tions and nu­tri­ent sources—all in per­fectly equal mea­sures. “It’s a true so­cial­ist tree,” says Ab­dul­lah. “The col­lec­tive is stronger than the in­di­vid­ual; there is no rul­ing class.”

Th­ese man­groves, some of the world’s big­gest, are an en­dur­ing draw on Langkawi—a clus­ter of 104 is­lands formed more than half a bil­lion years ago, long be­fore the Hi­malayas even came into be­ing. The bald peak of Gu­nung Mat Cin­cang, which rears up be­hind idyl­lic Datai Bay on the main isle’s north­west cor­ner, was the first part of South­east Asia to rise from the seabed dur­ing the Cam­brian pe­riod. Langkawi’s rare rock for­ma­tions boast a com­plete Palaeo­zoic ge­o­log­i­cal range, from Cam­brian to Per­mian.

It’s a unique trait that, in 2007, earned the ar­chi­pel­ago a pres­ti­gious UNESCO Geop­ark list­ing. Then things started to get a lit­tle shaky. Though large parts of Langkawi are pro­tected, like Kilim Karst Ge­o­for­est Park, bur­geon­ing tourism num­bers and re­lated de­vel­op­ments have strained re­sources and the abil­ity to mon­i­tor ac­tiv­i­ties within the parks. Strong wakes from speed­ing tour boats have trig­gered ero­sion, desta­bi­liz­ing trees along the Kilim’s banks, while op­er­a­tors feed wild brah­miny kites with skins from bat­tery-farmed chick­ens con­tain­ing an­tibi­otics and growth hor­mones—one fac­tor that has led to weak­ened egg shells and a sub­se­quent drop in kite num­bers. In 2014, UNESCO de­clared that the is­land fell short of what it con­sid­ered a re­spon­si­ble duty of care, and if is­sues such as ea­gle feed­ing and speed­ing boats weren’t rec­ti­fied by June 2015, Langkawi would lose its geop­ark sta­tus.

In re­sponse, the Langkawi De­vel­op­ment Au­thor­ity (LADA) filed re­ports to ad­dress some of the more du­bi­ous ac­tiv­i­ties and scraped through the as­sess­ment. “The prob­lem in Langkawi is the lack of en­force­ment. LADA is only con­sul­ta­tive. They can­not ap­ply the rule of law,” says Ab­dul­lah, who sits on LADA’s Con­sul­ta­tive Coun­cil for Con­ser­va­tion and is also a geop­ark am­bas­sador.

Through it all, Ab­dul­lah has been in­stru­men­tal in low­er­ing boat speeds and re­duc­ing car­bon emis­sions and oil spills by con­vinc­ing boat own­ers to switch from two- to four-stroke en­gines. He’s also helped dis­cour­age both ea­gle feed­ing and the use of mist nets that trap mi­gra­tory birds, while lead­ing rub­bish col­lec­tion and man­grove plant­ing teams in Kilim each year, with more than 5,000 trees planted since 2010.

Plagued with lax de­vel­op­ment reg­u­la­tions

and even poorer en­force­ment, Langkawi re­mains a bat­tle­field for en­vi­ron­men­tal war­riors. Last year, Ir­shad Mo­barak—The Datai re­sort’s res­i­dent nat­u­ral­ist and owner of an eco-tour com­pany, Jun­gle­walla—locked horns with a de­vel­op­ment com­pany that had cleared a large swath of the Kilim man­grove for­est for a ho­tel. How they man­aged to ob­tain ini­tial ap­provals is un­clear, but the project has since been sus­pended. His bat­tles against il­le­gal log­ging and land clear­ing fol­low a sim­i­lar pat­tern.

A for­mer in­vest­ment banker, Mo­barak has spent over a decade me­di­at­ing be­tween lo­cal groups and gov­ern­ment, urg­ing tourism op­er­a­tors to adopt a more sus­tain­able ap­proach. While he says LADA has be­come more proac­tive, the re­sults have been dis­ap­point­ing. Mo­barak be­lieves the key is rais­ing aware­ness among vis­i­tors, so they know how to be­have in an eco­log­i­cally sen­si­tive area like the Kilim. “Tourists need to un­der­stand that when they buy an ea­gle- or mon­key-feed­ing tour, they are con­tribut­ing to the is­sues as­so­ci­ated with them. If they choose to only pa­tron­ize op­er­a­tors with good prac­tices, then Langkawi’s prob­lems are less.” As an eco-tourism provider, Mo­barak is also set­ting an ex­am­ple with the re­cent launch of a com­mer­cial so­lar-pow­ered boat—a first for the is­land and Malaysia as a whole.

Over at The Datai, he’s been re­plac­ing non­na­tive plants with lo­cal species to help pro­vide food and habi­tat for birds, but­ter­flies, and mam­mals—in­clud­ing the fam­i­lies of wild boar and mon­keys al­ready liv­ing on the grounds. The 23-year-old re­sort will close in Septem­ber to un­dergo ex­ten­sive ren­o­va­tions; Mo­barak is ad­vis­ing on wa­ter con­ser­va­tion, plas­tic-free wa­ter bot­tles, and wildlife man­age­ment for the re­vamp.

Nearby, re­tired Amer­i­can marine bi­ol­o­gist Dr. Gerry Goe­den has spent the last six years re­gen­er­at­ing the reef in front of The An­daman, a Lux­ury Col­lec­tion re­sort—the only other ho­tel flank­ing Datai Bay. Years of fish­ing ac­tiv­ity cou­pled with the ef­fects of gray wa­ter from the ho­tels had weak­ened and bleached the co­ral be­fore the 2004 In­dian Ocean tsunami swept most of it away. “It was in ter­ri­ble shape,” Goe­den re­calls. Along­side an on­go­ing ini­tia­tive to clear the reef of dead co­ral, The An­daman has built a ded­i­cated nurs­ery where guests can snorkel among the corals and trop­i­cal fish. “We had a li­a­bil­ity that we could turn into an as­set,” Goe­den says. “Our ini­tial goal was con­ser­va­tion—to re­vi­tal­ize the reef. Now it is about ed­u­ca­tion and get­ting guests in­volved.”

Above: En­vi­ron­men­tal­ist Ir­shad Mo­barak at The Datai Langkawi. Op­po­site, clock­wise from left: Kayak­ing amid man­groves on the Kilim River; Aidi Ab­dul­lah, chief nat­u­ral­ist at the Four Sea­sons Re­sort Langkawi; iden­ti­fy­ing birdlife from The Datai’s na­ture...

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