Returning the love
A group of ‘volunteer ecotourists’ pay good money to sweat and plant trees. They return doubly enriched.
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.
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 (https://tinyurl.com/JoeGajah). 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.
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.
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