Paradise Losing?: The State of Sabah, Borneo

A recent post by Stranger Fruit about the rare rhinos in Borneo reminded me of what a special, unique place Borneo is, in terms of beauty and diversity of life. I have been to the island of Borneo twice, both times to the state of Sabah. Sabah is one of 13 states in Malaysia, and one of two on the island of Borneo which is located in the South China Sea. This is, hands-down, the most gorgeous example of nature I have ever seen; crystal clear water on white beaches, dense rainforests (some of which have never been explored by humans), tall snow-capped mountains. While it is being threatened by logging and human encroachment, I personally observed a real attempt by the government of Malaysia to preserve and respect their unique environment. The majority of the revenue that Sabah gets is from ecotourism, and very very little of that is from Americans. There are two reasons for that: the physical location is about as far away from the US as possible (flights ain't cheap), and there was a travel advisory against Borneo for awhile. I was the only American there, I never saw another one. It was great. (More, including pretty pictures, under the fold.)

In many ways, Borneo is fighting a difficult battle. They must balance becoming a modernized, globalized nation with a growing population with conservation of what makes the island a very special place. And I believe that, despite the best efforts of the many people who are working hard to conserve and protect th e native species, poaching and illegal logging are taking their toll. In just one year's time between visits, I saw the capital of Sabah (Kota Kinabalu) metamorph from a sleepy, somewhat ragged-looking city to a condo-populated bastion of construction and growth. Below are some pictures of this beautiful country, as seen by my eyes and camera.

The beach outside where I stayed....

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Orchids grow everywhere.

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Some people live here. These are shanty "villages" in the bay, on stilts.

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The flora is amazing.

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We took a boat cruise down one of the many rivers around Kota Kinabalu (KK, as the locals say). This is before sunset....

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During....

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After.

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An orchid market in KK.

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Talk about some stranger fruits!

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This merchant is selling a very tasty "hairy fruit" (direct translation) for about the equivalent of $1/kg. On the left, bird cages with all manner of birds, rodents, turtles.......dinner.

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Our dinner was a 15lb lobster (a monster which took 2 guys to haul from the tank). This was how they served the meat, in a pile.

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We drove about 1/2 up Mt Kota Kinabalu. This was the view.

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I hiked in the National Park near Mt. KK. Here was a small suspension bridge on a trail.

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I saw insect-eating pitcher plants.

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And beautiful streams.

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A researcher built a wooden walkway in the rainforest canopy, to study birds, butterflies, and mammals up there. Its about 65ft off the ground, and for some reason they let us walk around on it.

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Another village had natural mineral springs that they funneled into soaking tubs. The water came out clear emerald and smelled just heavenly, and your skin felt like silk after soaking.

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Great photos and blog, Shelley. More scientists need to explore this part of the world. I hope the developing world learns about sustainable development. My photos from Bali were posted this week.

Shelley, your photos show South-east Asia is an amazing place. I was in Malaysia for 4 years (KL) when I was young. Upon return to the States, my family missed the fresh fruits and the exotic flowers more than anything else. By the way, the 'hairy fruit' is the rambuttan. I used to eat them, almost year round, off the trees in our yard along with mangosteens and durians.

Rambuttan! Yes, I had forgetten! It was delicious. Some of the other fruits were more of an acquired taste but all were quite good. I would love to set up shop down there, if they had a top notch university system......

Rambutan is available canned here in the UK. Ought to be so in Michigan as well, as there's a large Malaysian student community in Ann Arbor.

Mangosteens now, that's different. Can't get them for love or money.

There's a lot more the Malaysian government could be doing to preserve the environment - stopping illegal logging is high on the list, and stopping overexploitation of marine tourist sites is another. A month back, a steel barge ripped off the top of several coral reefs in Sipadan (the famous dive site).

I'll look for the rambutans, although canned is just never the same, is it?

Its a shame about the coral reef in Sipadan. I'm sure there is a lot more Malaysia could be doing, I guess my impressions when I was there was that they *were* trying (especially in comparison to other places I had been in Asia, not the least of which is China's motto "find, exploit, sell"). It was just so refreshing to go to a place that hadn't been completely westernized/bastardized. Perhaps its just a matter of time, though.

I was born in Sabah, Malaysia and have not been back for six years. I am also a neuroscience student (what a coincidence!). I will be returning to Kota Kinabalu this Sunday. I look forward to redisovering this exotic part of the world once again. Your photos definately makes this trip back home worth looking forward too.