Friday, February 13, 2009

Visit to Samarakan

by CK Tham

On the 17th and 18th January 2009, we made a visit to Samarakan, Sarawak Planted Forest, Bintulu.

By road, Samarakan is within an hour drive from Bintulu. To get there, one has to travel along the Bintulu - Sibu road. After the airport junction, there is a turnoff on the left hand side with a signboard indicating Samarakan. Travel along this road until you see another signboard on the left again showing Sarawak Planted Forest.
Along the way, we saw some Acacia plantations and oil palm estates planted by private entrepreneurs. As we drove further, we came across termudak areas cultivated by local folks.
As we entered the Samarakan concession, we started to see different species of fast growing trees being planted for trials. These included Neolamarckia sp., Facalteria moluccana, Eucalyptus deglupta, Gmelina arborea etc.
We arrived at the plantation rather late after 6pm. Arrangement was made for us to stay at the guest house. We had a sumptuous dinner which was pre-cooked by Dr. Daisy.
For the past week, it had been raining frequently and we don’t know what sort of weather to expect. But fortunately, the sky stayed clear during our visit. Later that evening, we armed ourselves with torch lights and got ready for jungle tracking. Joanes had promised to show us some night life in a patch of conservation jungle.
As we took a short walk around the guest house in order to get ourselves accustomed with our gears, we started to see frogs, spiders, giant ant, etc.
Walking in the jungle was never easy; tracking at night was even more difficult. The hooks of rattans persistently reminded us not to walk too fast as there were many things to see. The undergrowth was thick with plenty of saplings of dipterocarps and macaranga.

We challenged each other to be the first one to spot some thing of interest. We soon started to see spiders and different species of them. Dr. Daisy kept reminding Joanes to take photos of the spiders and made sure we could see the eyes. These nocturnal spiders had extra large eyes.
Just as well, Joanes was a skillful photographer armed with macro lenses. Why Dr Daisy was interested in eyes only? Later, I remembered that she is an eye specialist. Would spiders need medical consultation for their eyes?

Figure 1. Strange looking spider.

Someone spotted some more eyes in the dark and shouted for Joanes. This time it was gecko hiding inside a hollow log. That gecko seems to like its photo taken. It just stayed still while Joanes was busy clicking his camera.
Later, we saw some more lizards. One of them is pictured below.
Figure 2. Cyrtodactylus pubisulcus

We saw many species of frogs. Most of them were pretty well camouflaged
amongst the fallen leaves on the forest floor. To find them you either listen to their calls or look for reflection of their eyes with touch light. A loud call is not necessary from a big frog. It had been observed that small frog can hide in hollow logs to amplify their calls.

Figure 3. Filed Eared Tree Frog (Polypedates otilophus)

Figure 4. Red sided sticky frog ( Kalophrynus species)

Figure 5.Rana sp.

The strangest thing we saw that night was a hammer-headed worm
(Bipalium sp). This creature is actually carnivorous and known to prey on earthworms.

Figure 6. Hammered head worm (Bipalium sp.)
Figure 7. Large land snail

While we were engrossed with different creatures of interest, Azizan had been leading the way in front. Suddenly, he signaled to Joanes that he seen something else. He whispered that there was a mouse deer amongst the undergrowth. We tried to move forward for a closer look but our noises had disturbed the animal and it shot off into the dark. Joanes was not able to take any photos of the mouse deer. From his past experience with mouse deer, Joanes felt that the animal might still be in the near vicinity. Slowly, Azizan and Joanes moved forward, flashing the touch light around and keeping their eyes open and ear propped. Sure enough they spotted the mouse deer not too far from us. We could see the animal popping its head, not quite sure to flee or stay. Joanes quickly aimed his camera and took some shots but only managed to capture shots of the hind portion before the startled animal took off into the dark.
As it was getting late, we decided to head back to camp. We came a cross patch of soggy flat. We could see the ground was covered with one species of filmy fern. We have to walk gently trying not to cause too much damage.

At the back of the training school, there was a small knoll. Right on top of this grew a Tapang (Koompassia excelsa) tree. Something moved. A leopard cat or a civet. Popped its head up to look at us and quickly swing round and disappeared into the darkness.

We kept swinging our torch lights around hoping to catch more things. Up on another young Tapang, we could see some things that reflected our light. We went nearer to catch a closer look. Just beyond the reach of our hands, there was this large lizard. It could easily measure 20 cm long. As we prepared to take photo, it swung round and scrambled up the tree well beyond camera’s reach. That was the biggest lizard we saw that night.

Back in the guest house, Lawyer Lau kept talking about the bear cub that he kept in his house as pet. It was hairy and cuddly. It behaved like a baby, he said. We kept telling him that sun bear are not pets like dogs or cats. But he didn’t seem to be convinced. We need to educate him about conservation in a proper manner. It was way after 3 am in the morning before we headed for bed.

The next day our programme was to visit Kapur Waterfall and Bukit Minah.
Just like the day before, the sky was clear.
On our way to Kapur Waterfall, we passed through some areas of Acacia mangium probably 7 to 8 years old. There were plenty of regrowth under the Acacia trees. As we were driving along, we saw movements on some bushes beside the road. Joanes quickly stopped the vehicles shouting that he saw monkeys. We got out and moved gently towards the bush. The animals were still there but trying to hide from our view. We tried to move closer hoping to catch a better look. The monkeys started to scurry away but I could see that there were 3 individuals of Grey Leaf Monkey (Presbytis hosei ) with white ring around the eyes. Joanes later confirmed there were more than three individuals.
These monkeys were eating young shoots from a bush right beside the road. Something was so attractive to eat that the monkeys were reluctant to move away as we motored by. On closer inspection, we saw that the monkeys had been nibbling young shoots from a low Ficus bush. The latex was still oozing from the nibbled tips.
I had seen similar incidents with orang hutan feeding on young shoots of Merrimia spp. as well as sambar deer chewing young shoots of Hevea brasiliensis seedlings.
These three species of plants, though belonging to different families, produce latex. Could it be something in the latex that attracts the animals? Something interesting to research on, maybe?
As we traveled to Kapur Waterfall, we noticed that the road condition was getting worst. Deep ruts were left by vehicles travelling to Lana in the past few days during the wet weather. Half way down the road, we decided it was best that we turn back. We then proceeded to Bukit Minah instead.
Bukit Minah is the highest point in this area. The next highest point would be Bukit Setiam near Tatou, several kilometers apart. We stopped to look at some plants at the foot hill. Our noises disturbed some birds and we could hear familiar whooshing sound from the wing of hornbills. High in the canopy, a Wrinkled Hornbill flew past, followed by a pair of Bushy Crested Hornbill.
The road going up to top was very steep. We had to engage low gear with our 4 wheel drive vehicle; the gradient was easily 45 º.
Joanes mentioned that before the road was constructed, it used to take an hour or two to track up. At the top of the hill, there was a communication tower fully equipped with solar panels that convert energy from the sun to electricity.
Beside it, there stood a lookout tower supposedly for surveillance when fire danger is high during March to May period.

Figure 8. Fire Lookout Tower

From the top of the tower, we could just about see the entire project. The 360º view indicated that the plantations were mosaic of Acacia interspersed with patches of high value

Figure 9. Mosaic of Acacia plantation interspersed with conservation forest conservation forest, riparian sites, steep hills etc. We stopped to take some pictures of an eagle sitting high on a branch, not bother by our noises.

Figure 10. Distant view of Bukit Minah

As we headed back to the nursery, we noticed something yellowish in color along the roadside. We stopped to take a closer look. And there it was an orchid with a tall inflorescence with yellow flowers. A Neuwedia sp ? growing amongst the bracken under the shade of Acacia trees. First time seeing this species around here.

Figure 11. Neuwedia sp.

The next thing that caught our eyes was a Dipodium pictum. There were several clumps growing luxuriantly under the Acacia shade. This species had flowers with reddish spots on the tepals. The strange thing is that the reddish spots are not in the front surface but on the underside of the tepals. It looked as though the flowers are turned inside out.
Figure 12. Dipodium pictum

On an open ground disturbed by logging, there were many Arundina graminifolia in full bloom. Generally, this species is common on exposed site and grows well under full sun. The flowers are like miniature Cattlyea.

Figure 13.Arundina graminifolia

When looked around the open ground, we saw some attractive reddish leaves intermingled with bracken fern.
On closer inspection, we found that the plant with reddish leaves were actually Melastoma malabathricum. What caused the plant to develop such abnormal leaves. Is it because of high acidity of the soil?

Figure 14.Melastoma malabathricum

Recently, apiculture had been introduced in the Acacia plantation. Bees introduced from China were producing good honey from Acacia.
We saw many beekeepers in Samarakan. They were husband and wife team. Each couple stayed in small shacks with solar panels providing electric power to their house. All of them kept a dog or two; it had been reported that sun bears were attracted by the honey and the dogs were supposed to keep the sun bears at bay.

As we passed the gate, I remembered that several years ago, I had seen a patch of Nepenthes hirsuta not too far from the gate. I reminded Joanes to look into this. Maybe he should collect some specimens and possibly transplant some individuals.

In the past two days, we had been introduced to the conservation work done in Samarakan.
Instead of the monoculture of Acacia plantation, Samarakan had been developed into a mosaic of planted Acacia interspersed with high value conservation forests, riparian sites and etc. This created a new environment that encourages biodiversity conservation. Studies had been conducted to ascertain the biodiversity status of the Acacia plantation. More information is being gathered as time progresses.
This is an example which illustrates that part of biodiversity can be conserved in degraded and fragmented forests. Increasingly, the public are aware of the importance of biodiversity conservation. There is also increasing demand on forests for recreation and ecotourism.
This project due to its proximity to Bintulu, could de developed into an education centre for the general public. Visitors could easily access the centre on day trip.
Longer stay could be developed along the home stay basis. Local folks could be trained in the hospitality industry as well as apiculture.

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