Forest trail of the plant prospector



Posted on 13 January 1999  | 
Sabah, Malaysia: Seven sporadic patches of protected forest stand along the floodplain of the Kinabatangan river, the longest in the state of Sabah. They represent the last bastions of the region's biological diversity, harbouring rare animal and bird species, such as orang utans and proboscis monkeys, macaques, egrets, kingfishers, and herons.

Yet the vegetation in this treasure house of plant species has never been systematically documented. The Sandakan herbarium  part of the state's Forest Research Centre  houses a permanent collection of plant samples, but records are based on casual observations made over the years. So three years ago the Malaysian branch of the international conservation organization, WWF, embarked on a biological assessment of the area, gathering information not only on species but also on habitat types and local uses of plants, so that a management plan can be developed.

Much of our work involves the local people's knowledge and help, says Reza Azmi, WWF-Malaysia's scientific officer for the project. He is based at the Forest Research Centre and the specimens he collects from his field trips are preserved and documented there. The lack of records means Reza cannot always identify immediately the plants he finds. Some are not familiar to him but have already been well documented, while others are known to local villagers but have never been catalogued by botanists.

Reza found one such plant, the Begonia lazat (lazat is Malay for delicious) that is used locally as a vegetable. Struck by its flowers, he took samples and preserved them in spirit. It was only a year later, when he met an expert on begonias, that he was told it was a new species. Returning to the spot where he had found the flowers, Reza discovered they had all disappeared, but he does not believe the plant is now extinct. He thinks the species may be adapted to the early development of floodplain vegetation is sure it will be rediscovered where similar conditions exist.

Another exciting discovery was the Ficus albipila  the abbey tree of northern Australia, known locally in Sabah as the tandiran. Reza found it along the banks of the Kinabatangan, near Sukau village, and a local guide told him it was the Menggaris, which is among the tallest trees of the rainforest. But Reza was not convinced. I suppose it was sheer stubbornness he says, but I just felt I had to delve deeper. He took some leaf samples back to the herbarium and it was confirmed that the tree was indeed a rare fig, one of a primitive group left over from very ancient forest.

The species is unusual in that it has been recorded all the way from Sri Lanka to the northern regions of Australia, but it is not particularly common. The prominent tropical biologist, Professor E J H Corner had encountered only four such trees in Malaya between 1940 and 1970s and the most recent collections dated from the early 1960s. So Reza's discovery is highly significant  apart from one or two in an Indonesian arboretum, the Kinabatangan trees are the only other known living specimens of their kind in Asia.

Another remarkable feature of this ficus is that it is one of only two species of trees in which bees make their nests high up towards the top. One theory suggests this is because the trunk is so smooth that bears are unable to climb it to reach the honey. But the discovery that has really caught Reza's attention is a little-known forest tree of the floodplains, the Ceriscoides, known locally as limau-limau. It is an unusual tree of the Rubiaceae family and, Reza says, its formidable spines make it a tricky business collecting specimens.

The continental Asian species of this group are better known, but of those that occur in the wet equatorial tropics, information and records are at best scanty. Reza's fascination with the Ceriscoides has led him to focus on its taxonomy and ecology for his post-graduate research work, which he began last year at the University of Malaysia. From his work, at least seven new species have been recognized and three of these are only found in Sabah. But academic research is only one part of the work of this determined young man, whose spirit of enquiry is matched by a growing enthusiasm for conservation, which spills over in his contacts with planners and the local communities through the many education and awareness activities he helps organize.

(743 words)

*Praveen Bhalla is a freelance journalist based in Switzerland

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