Re­turn­ing the love

A group of ‘vol­un­teer eco­tourists’ pay good money to sweat and plant trees. They re­turn dou­bly en­riched.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Ecowatch - By CHRIS­TINE DAS

I HAD been wait­ing for this mo­ment for four years. Now, I was fi­nally go­ing to plant trees for ele­phants in Sabah.

In 2013 and 2014, I had raised funds for ele­phant con­ser­va­tion through the sales of orig­i­nal paint­ings and re­lated mer­chan­dise.

These funds were en­trusted to the Bor­neo Con­ser­va­tion Trust (BCT) Sabah, partly for tree plant­ing. Now, Josephine Maluda of BCT had asked us to join (and pay our own way for) a “tree plant­ing travel” pack­age to Kam­pung Bilit, along the Kin­abatan­gan river in east­ern Sabah. Apart from tree plant­ing, the pack­age in­cluded a 3D2N stay at Myne Re­sort (an ac­tive con­ser­va­tion part­ner of BCT) plus four river study tours.

This was my sec­ond visit to the Kin­abatan­gan re­gion, one of the best places to see wildlife in Malaysia.

Ele­phant or­phans

Dur­ing my first visit in 2013, an MOU was signed for 43ha of land to be set aside as a Wildlife Cor­ri­dor, which is cru­cial for ele­phants and other wildlife to move be­tween frag­mented for­est ar­eas.

Back then, I met Lit­tle Joe the or­phaned Bornean pygmy ele­phant, the sole sur­vivor from the poi­son­ing tragedy in 2013 which killed an en­tire herd of 14 ele­phants, in­clud­ing its mother (­jah). He was just one of many such vic­tims of “hu­man-ele­phant con­flict” in Sabah as de­vel­op­ment en­croaches into their homes.

It was that en­counter that re­ally ig­nited my in­volve­ment in con­ser­va­tion through art.

This time, our pur­pose of re­plant­ing (mainly fruit) trees in Kam­pung Bilit was to pro­vide food for the healthy lo­cal pop­u­la­tion of orang­utans and macaques.

Josephine also em­pha­sised that the seedlings pur­chased from lo­cals pro­vides them with a sus­tain­able and al­ter­na­tive in­come. We pur­chased 50 tree seedlings.

Join­ing me in this tree-plant­ing mis­sion were two ex­tra­or­di­nary homegrown pho­tog­ra­phers, Frank Fau­rillo and Jimmy Omar. Jimmy is also a nat­u­ral­ist who is very ac­tively in­volved in en­vi­ron­men­tal man­age­ment and con­ser­va­tion in Sabah.

We had a very lively six-hour road trip from Kota Kinabalu to Kam­pung Bilit. Half­way through, re­al­ity hit us. We no­ticed the

abrupt change in the land­scape from beau­ti­ful, lush rain­forests to uni­form plan­ta­tions as far as the eye could see.

We all had a sink­ing feel­ing see­ing the loss of rich rain­for­est and wildlife habi­tats – but it made our pur­pose of plant­ing trees be­come more im­por­tant. Al­though 50 trees would not be enough to re­store what had been lost, we were happy to be able to do some­thing, rather than noth­ing.

Bit­ter­sweet en­counter

On the evening of the first day, we went on an evening river cruise to see some wildlife. I def­i­nitely had an­other pur­pose, to see my favourite Bornean ele­phants! I didn’t see them in the wild dur­ing my first visit to Kin­abatan­gan, but this time, I prayed very hard to have a glimpse of them – at least one lah!

Af­ter a heavy down­pour and some sight­ings of pri­mates and birds, wow, did we see them! The herd of about 20 ele­phants were not only graz­ing by the river, they also swam across it with their ba­bies right be­fore our eyes. Oh what a mag­nif­i­cent sight! I, for one, was moved to tears.

Yes, I am a softie when it comes to ele­phants and I had been wait­ing for four years to see this. All of us in the boat gasped, try­ing hard to be as quiet as pos­si­ble – though we couldn’t stop click­ing our cam­eras. I had to con­sciously stop my­self from tak­ing pho­tos so that I could just take in the scene fully with all of my senses; just be­ing alive in the mo­ment, with its sights and sounds.

We re­mained for a while, just watch­ing them. Your heart just wells up with love for these gen­tle gi­ants. Yet, we re­alise that much of their habi­tat had been lost, which made the ex­pe­ri­ence rather bit­ter­sweet.

The sil­ver lin­ing was that when we started our walk to plant trees the next morn­ing, we all marched in unison, dou­bly res­o­lute in our sense of mis­sion.

Af­ter the tree plant­ing, we went on an­other river cruise and saw even more wildlife, in­clud­ing horn­bills, ea­gles, pro­boscis mon­keys and orang­utans. All in all, it felt so ful­fill­ing to give back some­thing to na­ture.

It also made my pro­fes­sion of paint­ing art­works for con­ser­va­tion feel so much more worth­while! I came away with a deeper sense of love, re­spect, re­spon­si­bil­ity and con­vic­tion for na­ture af­ter my Kin­abatan­gan visit and I hope to do more in the fu­ture.

— Pho­tos: JIMMY OMAR

A mother ele­phant with its baby, seen dur­ing the writer’s boat cruise on the Kin­abatan­gan river.

Chris­tine wear­ing a T-shirt with her art­work to raise funds for ele­phants.

A Pro­boscis mon­key seen dur­ing the river cruise. – FRANK FAU­RILLO

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