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Published: February 17th 2013
Sabah likes to advertise itself as some kind of real life Eden, a nature paradise full of wild and fantastic creatures. And to reinforce that image you have the Lonely Planet, which has this to say about Sabah: ‘Malaysia’s state of Sabah proves that there is a God, and we’re pretty sure that he’s some sort of mad scientist. Sabah was his giant test-tube, the product of a harebrained hypothesis. You see, on the seventh day, God wasn’t taking his infamous rest, he was pondering the following: ‘What would happen if I took an island, covered it with impenetrable jungle, tossed in an ark’s worth of animals, and turned up the temperature to a sweltering 40˚C? The result? A tropical Eden with prancing mega-fauna and plenty of fruit-bearing trees. This ‘land below the wind’, as it is known , is home to great ginger apes that swing from vine-draped trees, blue-hued elephants that stamp along marshy river deltas, and sun-kissed wanderers who slide along the silver sea in bamboo boats. Oh but there’s more: mighty Mt Kinabalu rises to the heavens, governing the steamy wonderland below with its imposing stone turrets. The muddy Sungai Kinabatangan roars through the jungle – a
Male and female kissing
haven for fluorescent birds and cheeky macaques. And finally there’s Sipadan’s seductive coral reef that lures large pelagics with a languid, come-hither wave.’
Yep, if you would believe the tourist folders and the so-called unbiased guidebooks you would think this region is one of the few places on earth untouched by human hands, where the government has made sure that the forests have stayed intact through strict regulations, and animals are protected in a vast network of National Parks. And if you would look at the photos on blogs, travel magazines, tourist folders and watch television programs focusing on Sabah, you would only be confirmed in this deception. But, reality is different, and what everybody is showing you is… how they would like it to be. As you glance at the pictures on my own blog, you will see that even I am guilty of deceiving you. What you see is an idealised version reality.
Alas, it isn’t the truth. Sure there is still jungle out here and certainly some of it is teeming with wild-life. In fact the chances of seeing them are very good in Sabah. But that is not because there is so much of
it, no, the real reason is far more cynical. It is due to the fact that there is so little forest cover left, that all the animals have been forced into ever smaller enclaves. Great for wild-life viewing, not so great for all those animals stuck in small pockets of jungle cut off from one another by the constantly expanding oil-palm plantations.
Palm-oil, it is one of the mainstays of the Malaysian economy, and it will only become more important in the future. Touted as green energy, a clean way to power our cars and get us of the dependency of those dwindling and horribly polluting fossil fuels. It is set to grow and grow, all to ease our troubled minds. But palm-oil is used in many more products, just think of shampoo for example (Palmolive ring any bells?) and look closely at the ingredients of any processed food, you will find it somewhere in the list. So, it is big business and with demand rising it is just going to become bigger.
What does this mean? It means that the ugly truth of travelling around Sabah is this: As you let your eyes wander out of a
bus window or look down from a plane, the most prolific foliage you will see are the trunks and leaves from the palm-oil plantations, stretching from horizon to horizon an endless row of trees, covering valleys and hills and plains, from shining sea to shining sea. Yes, it is green, but is it a tropical Eden? Nope.
You can complain about it, and you can lament the fact that Malaysia is destroying its nature and selling its green heart in the name of progress. But that would be unfair, because in the end, it is us who are the consumer and thus we are as much to blame as anybody else. I guess we will all have to find a solution to this problem together, if we don’t want the next generation to seriously curse us for what we did.
So, no green Eden then, but as I said, the size of the parks does more or less guarantee you get to set eyes on some elusive creatures. A boat ride up the Kinabatangan River reveals a plethora of animals which you would not normally expect to actually see. And the underwater world around Sipadan is rather nice
as well, even if you don’t get to go to the famous marine park itself.
It is time to get back to reality though, and there is no place better (or at least closer) than Indonesia. I will just ignore the simple fact that Indonesia is the world's biggest producer of palm-oil. Ah well, can't win them all.
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