Trouble in paradise: Langkawi struggles to hold onto Unesco geopark status

It’s a little after 10am when Eric Sinnaya and I set off on Langkawi’s Kilim River. The water, made deep green and glassy by the sun, gently ripples as the blue and white wooden dinghy slices through it. Mangrove trees, their blackened roots like the frames of old-fashioned hoop skirts, crowd the riverbank. Beyond, clusters of limestone outcrops gather along the horizon, their sheer sides sprouting rare white orchids and Cycas clivicola trees, which nestle into cracks in the rocks and feed off rain residue.

Pulling over to the side of the river, Sinnaya, chairman of the Malaysian Nature Society, explains how the mangroves work as a team to filter salt from the water. A breeding ground for fish, mangrove forests “regenerate the sea”, he says. The riverbank, exposed with the lowered tide, is covered with mudskippers, amphibious fish that live at the interface between land and water. Together with male fiddler crabs – small, brightly coloured crustaceans with one claw vastly bigger than their body – they are busy scuttling around freshly sewn mangrove spears that have recently been dropped by the overhanging trees.

Sinnaya has brought me into the Kilim Karst Geoforest Park to explain its importance to Langkawi, a main island clustered with 103 others off the far northwestern tip of Malaysia. Once a hideaway for pirates rampaging in the Andaman Sea, these days Langkawi – or to give it its official name, Langkawi the Jewel of Kedah – is better known for its tourists, who come to linger on its fresh white beaches, indulge in its duty-free booze and explore its exquisite nature.

And therein lies a problem.

FORMED MORE THAN HALF a billion years ago, well before the peaks of Mount Everest rose to their current stature, Langkawi has a unique ecology, typical of islands separated from mainlands by substantial bodies of water. Gunung Machinchang, one of the peaks on Langkawi Island, was the first part of Southeast Asia to rise from the seabed during the Cambrian period. The dense rainforest that clings to the sides of the mountain has been growing and evolving for millions of years.

It’s a distinction that in 2007 earned Langkawi a Unesco geopark listing, the first in Southeast Asia and a title highlighting the island’s important geology and contributions to our knowledge of the Earth. The listing encompasses the whole of Langkawi while identifying three primary hot spots: the Machinchang Cambrian, Kilim Karst and Dayang Bunting Marble geoforest parks. Like most Unesco recognitions – “world heritage”, “geopark” or other – the listing has helped position its holder as a premium tourist destination, with arrival numbers escalating over recent years and injecting much needed revenue into the Langkawi community. Interest has been so great, in fact, that tourism authorities have renamed their promotion campaign “Naturally Langkawi”.

However, plagued by unregulated development issues and the consequences of quick-buck tourism, the island faces losing its golden-egg-laying goose.

Geoparks are assessed by Unesco every four years. During Langkawi’s last assessment, in 2011, its authorities fell short of providing what the United Nations agency considers a responsible duty of care. The Unesco team considered slapping Langkawi with a yellow card – essentially a very strong warning that would give it two years to clean up its act or be delisted – but lobbying by people connected to the Langkawi Development Authority (LADA) reduced the censure to the issuing of a 27-point report card, with cautionary advice offered that if the noted issues weren’t addressed and rectified by June 2015, more action would be taken.

The report card calls for better management and promotion of the park areas; the employment of park rangers to oversee daily activities; better practices by tour operators and guides; a stop to the removal of fossils and endangered plants and animals by tourists, guides and other bounty hunters; the control of eagle feeding; a stop to boats speeding on the Kilim; monitoring sites and signage; the education of local children in the importance of the environment; and an increase in community involvement in the operation of the parks.

The list was handed to LADA, which, to its credit, set about establishing plans and reports for everything under the sun. Written were a Management Plan of Langkawi Geopark, a Community Plan, a Geopark Sites Management Plan (which is, apparently, different from the Management Plan of Langkawi Geopark), a Geopark Ranger Plan, a Conservation Expert Group Establishment Plan, a Langkawi Geopark Strategic Plan, a Kilim River Erosion Control Plan and a Langkawi Geopark Public Education Plan.

But three years down the track, and only months away from the next assessment, few of those plans have been implemented and nothing has actually changed.

“The government will never meet the deadline,” says Sinnaya, matter-of-factly. “They understand the problems, but there is no will to fix them. Their only concern is meeting the key performance indicators that will bring extra revenue or make them look good. The environment is the lowest concern in the equation.”

“Losing the geopark status would be an ostrich-sized egg in the face,” says Aidi Abdullah, a naturalist at the Four Seasons Resort Langkawi and one of three conservationists consulting for LADA. “There is an enormous amount of work to do, and none of it would be difficult to fulfil. We know what needs to be done; the problem is getting the political motivation to make it happen.”

All Nazatul Ruhaiza Binti Abdul Wahab, manager of the Geopark and Conservation Division at LADA, will say on the matter is, “LADA is very serious with the list of comments given by Unesco [and] together with the cooperation and support from the community in Langkawi will ensure adequate measures are taken to maintain the global geopark status for Langkawi.”

OF ALL THE ISSUES facing the park, the one that gains the most attention from naturalists is the feeding of eagles. Langkawi is home to brahminy kites (also known as red-backed sea eagles), a rusty red bird with finger-like-feather-tipped wings and snow-white bellies. Feeding the birds has become one of Langkawi’s most popular tourist activities.

Abdullah, a short, happy man with a cigar smoker’s husky voice, explains how “eagle feeding” came about: in the 1980s, the banks of the Kilim hosted a productive charcoal factory. Growing in and around water, mangrove trees produce a dense timber, the properties of which are ideal for making charcoal. But the residue from the factory polluted the water, “turning it the colour of cafe latte” and significantly hampering fish reproduction. Fish stocks plummeted. The eagles, dependent on the fish for food, also nosedived in number, to 20 per cent of previous levels, according to some estimates. Desperate for a feeding ground, the eagles started nesting at the airport, which resulted in the further loss of birds and many an aircraft engine.

A feeding project aimed at both luring the birds away from the airport and giving tourists something to do was hatched. But feeding the eagles chicken skins – a substance high in fat and, in the case of cheap battery chickens, also high in growth hormones and antibiotics – has produced a new set of problems.

Chicken skins are not nutritious enough for the birds. Consequently, their eggs are more fragile and fewer chicks are surviving. Because they no longer have to hunt, the birds are becoming obese and the young no longer know how to prey.

“Most naturalists are against eagle feeding, but it’s an imperfect answer to an imperfect situation,” says Abdullah, as we watch a guide on a tourist boat throw a bucket full of chicken skins into the water. About 50 birds, their bellies illuminated against a royal blue sky, circle above, then, one by one, swoop down to snatch the food from the surface.

Furthermore, the boats’ two-stroke engines leave a film of oily scum on the river’s surface, which clings to the roots of the mangroves.

“We want speed cameras. We want non-oil based engines. We want regulations. But the bureaucracy just goes round and round,” says Abdullah.

It’s a numbers game. The Malaysian government nominated Langkawi for geopark listing to celebrate its unique biodiversity and increase tourism. But the volume of tourists that have since arrived is causing it to crumble. Visitors to Kilim Karst Geoforest Park alone rose from 78,145 in the year prior to receiving the title to 307,889 last year, and there’s no improved infrastructure to cope with them.

For Sinnaya, the answer is to reduce the number of tourists. For LADA, the key is to cap tourist arrivals, but encourage them to stay longer and spend more.

LADA’s blueprint for Langkawi, completed in 2011, includes plans for a new jetty and visitor centre with an interactive exhibition explaining the mangrove forest at Kilim, and a more structured system to deal with the numbers. As yet, nothing has been built. The same year saw a push to charge for plastic bags and, consequently, encourage people to use fewer, as is the case on the nearby island of Penang. The campaign went nowhere.

“All issues are a problem of enforcement,” says Irshad Mobarak, a former banker who is now owner of eco-tour agency Jungle Walla. “Unesco requested LADA to employ geopark wardens, who would be clearly identifiable in marked vehicles and uniforms, to manage nature-based activities. The wardens have no authority. So all they can do is take pictures and report, and that reporting just ends up back in the bureaucratic circle.

“The easiest solution is to make everybody aware of best practices; how to care for the environment. This is not just for local communities and tour operators, but tourists, too. Tourists need to understand that when they buy an eagle- or monkey-feeding tour, they are contributing to the issues associated with them. There need to be pamphlets in the plane; in the ferry; in every hotel room. It’s about supply and demand. If the customer demands better practices, the operators will have no choice but to adhere to them.”

For Mobarak, issues surrounding Langkawi go well beyond those caused by tourism. He says Langkawi Island has lost about 50 per cent of its natural heritage over the past 30 years. The remaining 50 per cent is fragmented by rice production and other agriculture. Being an island, Langkawi is only capable of supporting a small population, and that limit has been reached in terms of development and clearing.

“Islands, due to their isolation, are wonderful places for evolution to occur. Likewise, they are most vulnerable to extinction,” he says.

More development – including big resorts by Starwood Hotels and the Marriott group that are under construction – the hazardous disposal of grey water (that from showers and sinks) and illegal deforestation are all taking their toll on the island.

Technically, Langkawi’s remaining forests are protected from logging. While there is some encroachment by locals who clear forest for orchards and agriculture, improvements in management and recent access to satellite imagery have managed to curtail the loss of trees significantly. Rumours still abound, though, of loggers working through the night, and paying off officials.

There is hope on the horizon. A former general manager of LADA, Kamarulzaman Abdul Ghani, who was instrumental in obtaining for Langkawi its geopark status, has banded together with former Unesco evaluators Professor Ibrahim Komoo and Professor Mohd Shafeea Leman, and former prime minister of Malaysia Mahathir Mohamad to create the non-government organisation Friends of Langkawi Geopark (FLAG), to increase awareness among the community and help push the politics along a little faster.

“The biggest challenge facing Langkawi is getting people, government agencies and even the managers of the geopark to understand and appreciate the concept and philosophy of the geopark under Unesco,” Ghani says.

Regardless of the NGOs formed and the political power within them, though, it’s difficult to imagine the authorities in Langkawi cleaning up their act by next June. While LADA cannot be criticised for its planning or report-writing abilities, the archipelago is suffering dismally from a lack of application. Rubbish lines the main island’s roadsides and it’s not difficult to find places where the ancient rainforest has been used as a tip.

At a well-visited bat cave, tourists are firing camera flashes at the sleeping mammals and mauling the million-year-old stalagmites. There is no signage, no warden and no tour-guide control.

“I wish we had a magic wand,” says Mobarak. “I really do.”

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