Graveyard of the “Fallen Angels”

24th August  2014-As the forests here get mowed down at an unprecedented rate, sorrow fills the soul. Last year we had the misfortune of being right next to one such deforestation. Not only do one hear and see the trees tumbling down, one can even smell it…the sickening smell of sawdust ,herbalish smell of uprooted tree trunks and the damp smell of dead leaves on the forest floor mixed with freshly dug earth.

So it does not come as a surprise then, that Malaysia has the ‘distinction’ of being the country with the highest rate of deforestation in the world.

 In an article by Rhett A.Butler in mongabay.com, this was revealed from data in a breakthrough global  forest map . This map was developed by a team of researchers from the University of Maryland, Google Inc, NASA, USGS, South Dakota State University, the Woods Hole Research Centre, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. It is based on 650,000 images captured by NASA Landsat cameras at 30 meter resolution.

 


Between 2000 and 2012 Malaysia’s total forest loss was 14.4 % of its 2000 forest cover or equivalent to 47 278 km2 ( 18,244 miles2) . To put it into perspective this is larger than the area of Denmark. Although Malaysia’s forest loss was partly offset by a gain in vegetation cover through natural recovery, reforestation and plantations, the loss of biodiversity is enormous as plantation forests cannot compare with natural forests. Most of Malaysia’s forest loss occurred in its densest forests with tree cover exceeding 50% and which store the most carbon and are richest in wildlife. Read more at

http://news.mongabay.com/2013/1115-worlds-highest-deforestation-rate.html

For the past few decades Cameron Highlands have been relatively spared of the massive deforestation in the lowlands due to its inaccessibility. However the opening up of not one but 3 more highways and the unbridled corruption here, are proving to be the death kneel for Cameron Highlands as deforestation accelerates.

Most of the remaining forests in Peninsular Malaysia are centred along the ‘spine’ or mountainous areas where Cameron Highlands is situated. What is happening here reflects the pressure these highland forests are facing now that their brethren, the low land forests are mostly gone except in parks.

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Elevation                    Areas (Hectares)

<1000m                      18,117.8

1001-1200m               13,232.3

1201-1400m               16,736.2

1401-1600m               17,213.4

1601-1800m               5,170.4

1801-2000m              719.3

>2000m                     28.5

Total                           71,218

The nature of Cameron Highlands terrain which spans an elevation of  1700 m,( from 300 m above sea level in the East  to more than 2000 m in the West ) is such that  it is able to play host to a range of tropical rain forests making  Cameron Highlands forests  a huge storehouse of biological wealth.

The lowest regions are the river valleys of Sg Telom, Sg Bertam and Sg Lemoi which are towards the East. These areas are between 300m to 750 and are covered( or  in some places used to be covered) with the Hill Dipterocarp Forest. Here the trees which are predominantly Dipterocarp (Diptheros     “2 winged”; karpos “fruit”), can soar up to 50m in height. They flower infrequently but when they do the forests become ablaze with colour. The main and upper canopies of this multi-tiered forest  is a very rich habitat for birds, small mammals and insects. Lower down epiphytes and ferns perched on tree trunks and branches. On the forests floor there is a bewildering array of palms, saplings, climbers, crawlers and parasites. Hill Diptherocarp forests in these river valleys are under threat from the construction of not one but two dams. These dams form a convenient excuse to shave these forests bald and extract the prized timber.

Higher up between 730-1200m is the Upper Diptherocarp Forest. The trees are shorter and less dense than their lowland cousins. An interesting tree found here is the damar tree whose resinous substance found on its bark is used by the indigenous tribes to light up their homes.

At elevations between 1200 to 1500 m are the Lower Montane or Oak Laurel Forest . These are found on the mountain slopes surrounding the tourist hubs of Brinchang and Tanah Rata and where most of the popular forest trails are. It includes the slopes of Gunung Berembun, Gunung Jasar and Gunung Brinchang. It is relatively bright here with thin undergrowth. Trees with buttress are uncommon and the tree canopy is lower than in the valleys.  The leaf litter is thick and spongy. Many epiphytes and terrestrials such as orchids and ferns are found in abundance. Unfortunately  the loss of these forests are the greatest in recent years as developmental pressures peaked. The lower forests have mainly been cleared for farms earlier on and deforestation is now moving upwards into higher slopes.

Above 1500m are the Upper Montane forests  and they are better known as the mossy or cloud forests. At this cloud level the forests are usually enveloped in mist. Lichen, moss and liverworts abound, giving the forests their fairy tale elf-like appearance. A large proportion of tree species here belong to members of the Ericaceae family ( such as the rhododendrons.The trees are stunted and gnarled. Pitcher plants are also plentiful here. These forests are found on the mountain peaks and ridges. For the moment they are fairly safe as bulldozers prefer the forests on the lower slopes.

An increasing number of residents here have now experienced deforestation up close and personal. If one is a nature lover, it hurts like crazy. Shortly after a steep slope covering a few hectares (which borders the local forestry department!) was illegally cleared , birds were seen flying helter-skelter looking for their nests and babies, shrieking away. (There are a total of 661 species of birds In the checklist of the Birds in Peninsular Malaysia 2011. Approximately 250 + species can possibly be found  in Cameron Highlands out of which over 70 are possibly purely montane species. REACH, our local environmental NGO is publishing a book on Montane Birds of Cameron  Highlands which will be out quite soon. It is part of our documentation of wildlife as the habitats of of our wildlife gets destroyed )

Living at 1400m above sea level, most of the forests being cleared in our vicinity are lower Montane forests which are abundant in orchids. The sheer abundance of orchids took me by surprise when we went to one such newly deforested site. Along jungle trails we hardly see these orchids as they are perched higher up on the tree branches seeking sunlight. But when the trees fall, the orchids all come tumbling down and I had to steel myself looking at all the fallen trees and the orchids.

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Yes, the above (except for 1) are all pictures of orchids,orchids that were hanging on to the fallen tree trunks and branches for dear life. Some laid on the ground. In 100 acres alone there were not thousands of orchids, there were tens of thousands of orchids when we did the maths. There were bulbophyllums, coelogynes, erias, trichotasias,dendrobiums,renantheras, , epigeneiums taeniophyllums and many more. We also found some which we thought was almost extinct such as the monomerias. ( There are more than 600 species of orchids found in Cameron Highlands ).REACH rushed to salvage them but there was only so much one can save. Throughout Camerons this scenario of wildlife loss is repeated over and over again and it boggles the mind just how much natural treasures are gone forever.

The squirrels, the pit vipers, the agamid lizards, the insects, the birds can move away but the plants can’t. The fallen trees laid everywhere , some sawn, some uprooted, some torn. They lay in piles like in a lumber yard.( In many cleared areas these logs are simply buried).

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As I stood in silence watching the scene before me it reminded me of a graveyard. A graveyard  of ‘fallen angels’ where the denizens of the forest laid.