Monday, February 7, 2011

Sarawak: Borneo Highlands - The Importance of an Important Bird Area

This is another entry that gives me a chance to cheat a little by plagiarizing myself. Borneo Highlands, one of my favourite places in Sarawak, has already been featured on this blog. 

This time, though, I travelled up to the resort to participate in what I hope will be a significant event for conservation in Sarawak: the launch of the Gunung Penrissen Important Bird Area. I wrote it up for the Malaysian Nature Society column in the Borneo Post. 

My article appeared on 14 June, just before Eileen and I left Sarawak for the year, and this is what I had to say, interspersed with photographs of one of the area's great specialties, the Pygmy White-Eye (Oculocincta squamifrons), and a couple of shots of a more widespread and colourful Bornean mountain endemic, the Chestnut-crested Yuhina (Staphida everetti):

The Importance of an Important Bird Area 

The eagles made the day.

With the greatest respect to YB Dato James Dawos Mamit, Deputy Minister of Tourism Malaysia; to Tony Sebastian, past president of the Malaysian Nature Society; and to Mark Rosario of Borneo Highlands Resort – all of whom spoke well, and interestingly, and to the point – nothing coming from the speaker’s platform could have signaled the launch of the Gunung Penrissen Important Bird Area better than two Blyth’s Hawk-Eagles, stunning black and white birds of prey, circling repeatedly in broad circles just above us, over speakers, assembled guests and reporters, as if to say: “Look at us!” (And look we surely did!) “WE are why you are gathered here, and WE are why this land is worth saving and protecting – so that we can fly here, and hunt here, and nest here, and so that you earthbound creatures can see us, and marvel at us” – and marvel we did. Even the Deputy Minister looked up, and pointed, and smiled.

The Penrissen Mountains, where the Borneo Highlands Resort sits, are not the highest peaks in Borneo. They surely do not match majestic Mount Kinabalu, far away in Sabah. They are, however, important all the same, both for birds and for the other plants and animals that live there. Borneo’s mountains are like islands within a larger island, isolated areas of high country where evolution can proceed on its own. Because the different parts of the range are separated, distinct forms may evolve on each. Every one of these distinct forms is a separate part of Borneo’s biological heritage, and the mountain areas that are their only homes are the repositories of that heritage.

That is why it is important that Gunung Penrissen has now been declared an Important Bird Area (IBA). Each IBA is part of a global network established by BirdLife International, the world’s leading partnership of organizations devoted to the conservation of birds. As of 2009, the network contained almost 11,000 sites in some 200 countries and territories. 

BirdLife works with the World Conservation Union (IUCN) to maintain the official global list of the world’s threatened and endangered bird species. According to BirdLife International’s website, “The IBA Programme of BirdLife International aims to identify, monitor and protect a global network of IBAs for the conservation of the world's birds and other biodiversity. BirdLife Partners take responsibility for the IBA Programme nationally, with the BirdLife Secretariat taking the lead on international aspects and in some priority non-Partner countries.”

The Malaysian Nature Society is BirdLife International’s BirdLife Partner in Malaysia. It has worked with BirdLife to select each IBA according to an agreed-upon set of scientific criteria. An IBA must contain bird species that are “vulnerable to global extinction or whose populations are otherwise irreplaceable.” At least one such species, the Bornean Wren-babbler (Ptilocichla leucogrammica), has been identified in the Gunung Penrissen area, though it also occurs elsewhere in Borneo. 

Gunung Penrissen also qualifies as an IBA because it is home to birds restricted in overall range, and in choice of habitat (or biome). Common at Borneo Highlands are two species found only at mid-mountain habitats in the mountains of Borneo, the colourful Bornean Barbet (Megalaima eximia) and the Pygmy White-Eye (Oculocincta squamifrons), a tiny, active greenish bird with a distinctive scaly crown, both hard to find in other parts of the island such as Kinabalu National Park. From the undergrowth comes the whistled song of the Blue-banded Pitta (Pitta arquata), a shy, cherry-red bird with an iridescent turquoise breast-band, also found only in Borneo. White-throated Fantails in the Penrissen range belong to a special race, Rhipidura albicollis sarawacensis, shared only with nearby mountains in Kalimantan.

With its official launch, Gunung Penrissen joins a list of 55 IBAs for Malaysia. There are so many because Malaysia, as a country, is an important place for birds, and for wild animals and plants in general. That number, fifty-five, is only one index of how important it is. Another is – or should be – the recognition it receives from its own citizens, and from overseas visitors like me. The launch ceremony, attended by government officials and conservationists, community leaders, representatives of MNS and the tourist industry, public and media, was a celebration of both of these things. I was glad to be there – and I was glad that the eagles, whose land it is, were there, too.

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