Ravaged by Deforestation, Sabah Belatedly Turns to Birdwatching Tourism
With 40 percent of its rainforest gone, Malaysian state seeks rich birders
By: Lee Weng Chung
Despite massive deforestation to harvest timber for export and open land for oil palm plantations, the Malaysian north Borneo state of Sabah still boasts one of the last bits of untouched wilderness in the Maliau Basin, which has been dubbed “The Lost World.” With millions of colorful, exotic birds lost in the past 50 years to habitat destruction, Sabah’s government is now turning to birdwatching tourism to help protect the remaining 688 avian species. Sixty-six of them are endemic to Borneo, shared by the neighboring state of Sarawak, the sultanate of Brunei and Indonesia’s Kalimantan. Eight of these are found only in Sabah. And laws are also being considered to protect them.
“Presently there are no protection measures specific to birds, but we have to protect them," said Christina Liew, the state Minister of Tourism, Culture and Environment, adding that similar laws that protect orangutan and other endangered wildlife would be needed to protect the wild birds. The government, she says, is working with the Sabah Birdwatchers Association (SBWA), formed last year, to identify bird species that need protection. Fifteen of these are already on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list, with the Helmeted Hornbill listed as critically endangered. The Bornean Peacock-Pheasant, Storm’s Stork and Chinese Egret are endangered while 11 others are vulnerable to extinction.
What has prompted the government to act is the belated realization of the size of the world birdwatching or birding market: US$180 million. And it is expected to grow to US$270 million in five years, making Sabah’s remaining birds a valuable tourism asset. The state is targeting birdwatchers from America and Britain, of whom some 18 million Americans and two million Britons travel overseas to watch birds.
Sabah, say tourism officials, has all it takes to tap into this lucrative niche market. Birds are thriving in forest conservation areas and wildlife sanctuaries such as Sepilok, Tabin, the Danum Valley, and the Maliau Basin in the interior of Sabah. These areas have yielded 15 locations for birdwatching, all within a two-hour drive from a port of call, according to Ron Pudin, SBWA President. Even the mountainous Kinabalu Park in Kundasang, a world heritage site 1,900 meters above sea level, has many colorful birds to see. Every autumn and winter, about 10 million migratory birds from Siberia, North Asia, and Australia flock to Sabah to escape the cold.
Success in wildlife and nature conservation of the orangutans, proboscis monkeys, pygmy elephant, and other flora and fauna has inadvertently benefited the birds which live among them in some of the last remaining rainforests that are protected from deforestation. (The biggest setback was the failure in breeding the Sumatran rhinoceros which has now been declared extinct in Sabah when the last of them died three years ago.)
In the past birdwatching was offered as an optional tour or on request to tourists who come to see other wildlife, diving at the world-famous Sipadan oceanic island, or climbing Mount Kinabalu, Malaysia’s tallest mountain at 4,095 meters. Yet between 1,000 and 3,000 birdwatching tourists, mostly from America, Britain, and Taiwan have come to Sabah every year before the Covid-19 pandemic slammed the doors on them.
Tourism, mostly ecotourism, is Sabah’s third biggest earner, contributing 10 percent to the east Malaysian state’s GDP. But the Covid-19 pandemic has taken a heavy toll. In 2019 slightly more than four million tourists gave the state a record RM9 billion (US$2 billion) income. This was wiped out the following year. As travel worldwide picks up again, tourism officials are seeing the potential of promoting Sabah as a birdwatching destination to the world. The depreciation of the ringgit against the US dollar and other major currencies has also made travel to Sabah very cheap.
Birdwatching tourists are rich. They stay longer – between two and three weeks – and spend between RM250 and RM4,000 a day. Most birdwatchers come well equipped with powerful binoculars and cameras with expensive long lenses. Pudin says Sabah is the best logistically for birdwatching as it offers better chances to see most of the bird species except for the very rare ones like the Bornean Peacock-Pheasant. There are about 20 of them in Telupid, about 203 km by road from Kota Kinabalu state capital. Yet he says there is an 80 percent chance of seeing the bird from hides during feeding time. The Bornean Peacock-Pheasant was thought to be extinct in Sabah until trap cameras captured it sometime between 2015 and 2016.
Conservationists say the birds have been ignored for so long because of a mistaken belief that birds displaced from their habitat would make new nests in a new environment. But they failed to breed in their new homes and their population diminished. Many of these lowland forest birds are not migratory although they will move elsewhere to find food and nest once they have lost their habitat.
The greatest destruction of birds occurred in the early 1970s and 1980s with soaring Japanese demand for timber and the burning of large tracts of logs over forests to clear land for growing oil palms. Environmentalists say Sabah has lost about 22,900 square km – 40 percent – of its rainforest in the past 50 years, representing about a third of Sabah land mass.
Pudin says deforestation remains the biggest threat to the birds as timber is still Sabah’s top export earner. But he worries over the rise in bird trading and hunting of the birds for trophies and food. A pair of the Bornean Peacock-Pheasant are being sold to pet lovers for about RM20,000. The Helmeted Hornbill is hunted for its feathers that the natives use to decorate their ceremonial costumes.
Meanwhile, Sabah is instilling interest in birdwatching among children hoping that they will help in the state’s bird conservation efforts. In October, Sabah will stage its first four-day Asian Bird Fair themed ‘Birding and Children: Hand in Hand’. “It is crucial that we start them young as they are our future birders, researchers, ornithologists, and environmentalists,” Liew said.