Slated for de­struc­tion

Ke­lan­tan’s cav­ernous Chiku Cave – with its stun­ning lime­stone for­ma­tions and rare wildlife – will be history if the site is quar­ried.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By TAN CHENG LI star2­green@thes­tar.com. my

ON maps, it shows up as a tree- cov­ered re­gion. The Re­lai For­est Re­serve, to be ex­act. But what is seen from the air is an ex­panse of rub­ber and oil palm trees, bro­ken up in parts by soar­ing lime­stone out­crops. Through the years, pieces of the re­serve in the hin­ter­land of Ke­lan­tan, in the area called Chiku, have been given away for agri­cul­ture or en­croached upon. With the for­est land­scape al­ready de­stroyed, the lime­stone hills are the only wild ar­eas left – the only refuge for what­ever flora and fauna that re­main. And yet, these too, might soon be gone.

The coun­try’s big­gest ce­ment clinker plant is set to come up there, at a site some 30km from Gua Mu­sang. The com­pany, ASN Ce­ment, in­tends to quarry the lime­stone karst which lo­cals call Chiku 7, for raw ma­te­ri­als to pro­duce ce­ment clinker.

The pro­ject ap­pears to be a re­place­ment for a sim­i­lar one in Mer­apoh, Pa­hang, which was aban­doned two years ago fol­low­ing public protests and the dis­cov­ery of ex­ten­sive cave sys­tems, new species of geckos and rare plants.

The same sce­nario is un­fold­ing in Chiku now. Cav­ing en­thu­si­asts have found unique cave for­ma­tions and ar­chae­o­log­i­cal rem­nants, while sci­en­tists have found rare and new species, which all make the Chiku karsts worth pre­serv­ing. But will these new in­for­ma­tion be enough to con­vince the Ke­lan­tan Gov­ern­ment to pull out from the pro­ject to pro­duce 10,000 tonnes of clinker ce­ment a day?

In mid- Fe­bru­ary, Men­tri Be­sar Datuk Ah­mad Yakob led the ground- break­ing cer­e­mony for the ce­ment plant. Nev­er­the­less, the de­tailed en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact as­sess­ment on the pro­ject has yet to be ap­proved. It is still be­ing vet­ted by a panel of ex­perts put to­gether by the Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­ment.

Nu­mer­ous lime­stone hills are scat­tered over the Chiku area. Lo­cals have given some of them names such as Chiku 4, Chiku 5 and Chiku 7, but many re­mained un­named and none have been thor­oughly ex­plored. So when cav­ing en­thu­si­ast Laili Basir ven­tured into the caves of Chiku 7, he was blown away by what he saw – huge cham­bers with beau­ti­ful min­eral for­ma­tions shaped over mil­lions of years. In one cave, a crys­tal- clear stream flows through for some 800m, har­bour­ing tiny fish and shrimps. Laili es­ti­mates there are be­tween 40 and 50 caves in the area, and feels they should be pre­served for tourism and not be de­stroyed.

“One of the caves is big and ac­ces­si­ble. There is no need to crawl to reach it so it is suit­able for both young and old. The for­est there is gone ... the only nat­u­ral and orig­i­nal area is the lime­stone hills. Some of them are con­nected. If you blast one, it will af­fect the oth­ers. So the im­pact will be worse.”

He also fears that the stream may be di­verted from the cave dur­ing quar­ry­ing. “This will change the cir­cle of life in the cave as the nerve of the cave is the river.” The karsts also pro­vide pro­tec­tion from flood­ing as they re­tain wa­ter dur­ing the mon­soon, he adds.

Ne­olithic arte­facts

While map­ping the caves, Laili’s team made an im­por­tant dis­cov­ery – a Ne­olithic ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site. They found fos­sils of snails eaten by Stone Age peo­ple and pot­tery shards. From the snail species and pot­tery pat­terns, ver­te­brate palaeon­tol­o­gist Lim Tze Tshen es­ti­mates the site to be about 10,000 years old. Fos­sils of the munt­jac and por­cu­pine also lit­tered the floor of another cave. Lim says a 1990 re­port on the flora and fauna of lime­stone hills in Ke­lan­tan by the World Wide Fund for Na­ture ( WWF) had de­scribed the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal im­por­tance of Chiku as “sig­nif­i­cant” but there has been no sys­tem­atic sur­vey since then.

He points out that the de­tailed en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact as­sess­ment ( DEIA) sub­mit­ted by ASN Ce­ment did not have any ar­chae­o­log­i­cal study. “If we hadn’t gone there and sur­veyed the cave, all these will be mined for ce­ment and ev­ery­thing will be de­stroyed. There will be no history recorded for the area.

Now, we can push back the history of the Chiku area back to the Ne­olithic pe­riod. This part of our coun­try’s history is rel­a­tively un­known, so with ev­ery spot that we find, we fill the gap and get a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of our history,” says Lim, a re­search as­so­ciate at the Mu­seum of Zool­ogy in Univer­siti Malaya. He has in­formed the Mu­seum Depart­ment of the dis­cov­ery,

and hopes proper ex­ca­va­tions will be car­ried out.

Rare finds

With most of the low­land for­est in Chiku gone, wildlife such as ele­phants, tigers, sun bears and deer are gone, too. What’s left are small an­i­mals such as serows, wild boars, mousedeer, black gi­ant squir­rels and por­cu­pines. But on the harsh en­vi­ron­ment of the lime­stone hills, lizards and snails sur­vive.

Her­petol­o­gist Dr Lee Gris­mer, who has dis­cov­ered sev­eral new species of gecko through­out Penin­su­lar Malaysia, has added another one to the list – a bent- toed gecko which lives in a cave in Chiku 7. He says DNA analy­ses and anatom­i­cal com­par­isons in­di­cate there is no other species like it in South- East Asia. Gris­mer, of La Sierra Univer­sity in Cal­i­for­nia, is cur­rently de­scrib­ing the species.

“Its only suit­able habi­tat is in the cave. It does not pri­mar­ily in­habit the sur­round­ing veg­e­ta­tion. Its long limbs and toes, flat body and head, make it highly adapted for mov­ing about only on the cave walls of the lime­stone hill it lives in. If this hill is quar­ried and this species is found nowhere else which at this point is what we be­lieve, it will go ex­tinct.”

Tiny land snails flour­ish on karsts be­cause the cal­cium- rich soil favours their growth and re­pro­duc­tion. Con­ser­va­tion sci­en­tist Dr Reuben Cle­ments says lime­stone hills in Ke­lan­tan are likely to har­bour undis­cov­ered species of mi­cro- snails as they have never been ad­e­quately sur­veyed. He has found a new species of the tiny mol­lusc at Chiku 7, yet un­de­scribed.

Three species new to science have also emerged in karsts close to Chiku 7: one Di­plom­matina species from Chiku 4, another one from Felda Paloh, and a Phi­lalanka species from both hills.

Mo­ham­mad Ef­fendi Marzuki, who had col­lected the snails, are de­scrib­ing them. “Ev­ery hill will have one or two dif­fer­ent species,” says the plan­ta­tion man­age­ment re­searcher with a keen in­ter­est in mala­col­ogy ( the study of mol­luscs). “Even on hills near each other, I found very dif­fer­ent species. Chiku 7 has not been thor­oughly stud­ied, so it is likely to have new species as mi­cro- snails are highly spe­cialised. The Di­plom­matina for ex­am­ple, lives only on lime­stone walls. If Chiku 7 is de­stroyed, any in­for­ma­tion on its di­ver­sity of species will be lost.”

Cle­ments has found some 40 species of snails in the Chiku area. Most no big­ger than a pin­head, these snails are of­ten ig­nored but they are eco­log­i­cally im­por­tant – they re­cy­cle nu­tri­ents when they feed on plants, and are them­selves food for other an­i­mals. “These snails re­quire hu­mid con­di­tions to sur­vive. When you clear the for­est for plan­ta­tions, the en­vi­ron­ment dries up and the mi­cro- cli­mate of the hill is dis­rupted, so all these en­demic species can­not sur­vive,” he ex­plains.

Karsts gen­er­ally have high flo- ral rich­ness. In Penin­su­lar Malaysia, some 130 plants grow only on them. Botanists from the For­est Re­search In­sti­tute Malaysia have sur­veyed Chiku 7 re­cently but they de­clined to be in­ter­viewed. It is learnt that they have found some rare plants which are rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the north- eastern re­gion.

In the 1990 re­port, the au­thors Dr Ge­of­frey W. H. Dav­i­son and Dr Ruth Kiew wrote that lime­stone flora of­ten have dif­fer­ent morphs. In Chiku, they said the bal­sam Im­pa­tiens opinata has blooms of pale yel­low with red spots and white. Else­where in Ke­lan­tan, the colours range from ca­nary yel­low with red spots to peachy or­ange and claret- red. “These pop­u­la­tions rep­re­sent evo­lu­tion in ac­tion and con­ser­va­tion of the var­i­ous forms is nec­es­sary to con­serve their full ge­netic com­ple­ment,” they wrote.

Foul air

Univer­siti Te­knologi Malaysia pro­fes­sor Dr Maketab Mo­hamed says the main pol­lu­tion prob­lem from ce­ment plants is dust. He says par­tic­u­larly wor­ry­ing is minute par­ti­cles which can be in­haled, which can cause lung dis­eases in the young, old and sick. Such plants also dis­charge mer­cury. Though the amounts will be low, Maketab points out that the ce­ment plant is lo­cated be­side Sun­gai Chiku, a trib­u­tary of Sun­gai Galas which is tapped for public wa­ter sup­ply. Ac­cord­ing to the DEIA, the pro­ject sits up­stream of sev­eral wa­ter sup­ply schemes, so dis­charges will have to meet strict rules.

For the vil­lagers of Felda Chiku 7, it is not just their health that is at risk, but also their liveli­hoods.

“Dust pol­lu­tion can re­duce the yield of oil palms,” says small­holder Che As­faizul Che Rahim. “This has hap­pened in the quar­ry­ing of Bukit Sagu near Kuantan. It af­fected the Felda plan­ta­tions nearby.”

He says over three- quar­ters of the 1,400 vil­lagers dis­agree with the pro­ject due to con­cerns over air, noise and wa­ter pol­lu­tion, the an­tic­i­pated in­flux of mi­grant work­ers and in­ter­rup­tions to the tran­quil vil­lage en­vi­ron­ment. “Dur­ing di­a­logues with ASN Ce­ment and the lo­cal author­i­ties, we have asked for as­sur­ance that there will be no pol­lu­tion, but they can­not give us that guar­an­tee.”

There is another point to con­sider: car­bon diox­ide is gen­er­ated dur­ing ce­ment pro­duc­tion and this will in­flate the coun­try’s car­bon foot­print. Based on the pro­duc­tion of 3,100,000 tonnes of clinker a year, the DEIA states that the plant will emit 1,581,000 tonnes of car­bon diox­ide an­nu­ally. So the ques­tion arises: should we al­low an in­dus­try that threat­ens the cli­mate?

The land­scape of Chiku has changed dras­ti­cally from forests to farms, so much have al­ready been lost. Let’s not al­low for more losses.

“There is more rea­son now to pre­serve the lime­stone hills as they are the only nat­u­ral ar­eas left,” says Laili.

Photo: alI SHaM­Sul Ba­HaR

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1 These tree- clad lime­stone karsts are the only re­main­ing wild ar­eas in Chiku but they may soon be quar­ried for ce­ment pro­duc­tion. — MoHd FaIZal SHauPI

5 a stream runs through one of the caves in Chiku 7 lime­stone. — alI SHaM­Sul Ba­HaR

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2 unique cave for­ma­tions, shaped over mil­lions of years, can be a tourism- draw. — alI SHaM­Sul Ba­HaR

4 Pot­tery shards re­veal the ex­is­tence of a ne­olithic set­tle­ment in the cave. — laIlI BaSIR

3 This bent- toed gecko, seen here clean­ing its eye with its tongue, is a new species found in a cave in Chiku 7. — dR lEE GRIS­MER

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