Imbak Bird-Watching

Photo: John and Jemi Holmes

The idea of a bird-watching trip to Imbak began in 2004 when Peter Stevens and I were working there with Raleigh International. Significantly this was also the occasion when I realised I was on the slippery slope to becoming a bird-watcher.

I remember we were barely 50 paces out of the Raleigh camp when Pete paused between the buttresses of an enormous Mengaris Tree.

‘Did you hear that?’ It was an instruction more than a question. I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about but waited patiently clutching my tiny binoculars. Presently I heard a delicate whistle and couldn’t believe that any self-respecting bird would be fooled by Pete’s clumsy imitation. I was very impressed therefore when Pete pointed at a tiny black shape bobbing towards us on the forest floor. With difficulty I located the bird in my binoculars and was astonished that it was not black at all but rich in lustrous purple and red with the most improbable electric blue stripe on its head. It was marvellous that something so beautiful should emerge from the dank forest floor. I was hooked immediately.

As we were working with Raleigh at that time, we had the welfare of 15 young volunteers to consider and they were not much inclined to the patience and silence necessary for bird-watching. Nonetheless, during the three weeks of our stay Pete observed over 100 species of birds and made only the second record of the avifauna of Imbak Canyon. The first was made during the inaugural scientific expedition of 2000. We vowed to return to do a more thorough job.

Imbak Canyon was and still is categorised as Class II production forest, meaning that the Sabah State Government regards it as a logging resource. Luckily this 30,000ha of lowland rainforest is part of the Yayasan Sabah Sustainable Forest Management License Agreement (SFMLA). With commendable courage and foresight, Yayasan Sabah has voluntarily designated Imbak a Conservation Area.

The significance of Imbak is that it is the only large contiguous area of Class II forest in Sabah that remains undisturbed. This is largely due to its isolated location in the heart of the State, where it is protected on three sides by precipitous ridges up to 1500m high. The lost valley of Imbak is an area of outstanding beauty and biodiversity. Through some mystery of nature the lowland forest retains a higher density of enormous trees than nearby Danum Valley and Maliau Basin. To walk in the cool under-storey beneath the canopies of these giants is a humbling and uplifting experience. However unlike Danum and Maliau, Imbak is not safe from logging until it has been formally gazetted by the Government as a Class I Conservation Area.

For our trip in 2007 there was Pete and Myself plus John and Jemi Holmes from Hong Kong. We also managed to rope in for one day only our secret weapon; Robert Chong from Kinabatangan Jungle Camp. The purpose of this trip (apart from our own enjoyment) was to gather more evidence of the biological wealth of Imbak and hence help the case for its protection. Our noble objectives were soon to receive a bitter reality check. Just before we left for Imbak I learned from some NGO friends that although Imbak Canyon is safe for the time being, the surrounding area is due to be logged imminently. Unfortunately this logging will start at exactly the best spot for bird-watching – the Tampoi Basecamp.

The heart of Imbak Canyon remains inaccessible except by foot so Yayasan Sabah have set up the Tampoi Basecamp and research station in logged over forest on the periphery of the Conservation Area. It is in this mixed habitat that we did most of our bird-watching both in 2004 and in 2007, taking advantage of old logging roads to provide vantage points on the forest canopy.

During our 2007 trip the reality of the proposed logging became clear when we saw contractors marking out the 30m riparian reserve along the Imbak River right up to the Basecamp and beyond. I found it depressing to be surveying an area where our data may just become a record of what used to exist. In this context I’m not sure whether it is better to find more species or less. Of course it’s better to find more but every memorable observation leaves a bittersweet taste. We recorded over 140 species in the mixed habitat around Tampoi, over 50 of which are classified on the IUCN Redlist of endangered species as ‘Near Threatened’ and a further 3 are classified ‘Vulnerable’ to extinction[1]. A couple of the highlights here were fabulous close up views of Chestnut Necklaced Partridge and the shy Bornean Wren Babbler, the latter more often recorded by it’s haunting pitta like whistle.

Chestnut Necklaced Partridge
John and Jemi Holmes

In addition to surveying logged over forest we also spent 16 man days at two sites in virgin rainforest. Bukit Beruang is a sub-montane ecosystem at over 1000m on the northern rim of the canyon. It is more memorable for its fabulous views over mist filled valleys than for abundant birdlife. In the early morning Gunung Kinabalu floats intangibly on the horizon over 50km distant.

The highlight of any trip to Imbak however, is to get into The Canyon itself. This is most easily achieved by a 1 hour trek to the BBC Camp at the confluence of the Imbak and Kangkawat Rivers. BBC camp is named after either the Big Belian tree nearby or the British Broadcasting Corporation who stayed there for one month in 2006 while filming their wonderful documentary ‘Expedition Borneo’.

It was fitting that on a solo walk not far from the Big Belian Tree I was rewarded by a close up encounter with a male Blue Headed Pitta second only in my memory to that Black Headed Pitta with Pete back in 2004. Other highlights (in addition to those awe inspiring trees) were a prolonged display by a group of Bornean Bristleheads, an elusive covey of Crested Wood Partridge plus an extraordinary density of Trogons. Giant Pitta has also been recorded in this undisturbed forest although we only heard it’s call.

Thanks to the efforts of only a handful of observers the total Imbak bird checklist now stands at a whisker over 200 species. The credibility of this list owes much to Dennis Yong et al[2] who during a brief visit in early 2007 corroborated many earlier sightings and added 60 new records. We were able to further corroborate many of Dennis’ observations and add 10 more species records of our own.

Striped Wren Babbler
John and Jemi Holmes

This data however is far from complete and more surveying is likely to reveal greater biodiversity, especially in the primary forest at the heart of The Canyon. Despite these possible gains there is also a risk that as a consequence of logging operations in secondary forest, the overall avifauna biodiversity of Imbak may decrease. Regardless of other factors the existence of a high number of rare, endangered and endemic species on the border of Imbak is proof of the high conservation value of that secondary forest.

With this in mind it is imperative that re-logging, especially around conservation areas such as Imbak, should proceed only according to strict management guidelines or better still not at all. Unfortunately the precedent established in other areas of the YS concession illustrates widespread disregard of legally binding procedures to minimise environmental impact of logging.

One glimmer of hope is that conservation value of forests is rising in response to dawning understanding of the importance of ecosystem services. While many of these services can not yet be capitalised, there are two economic incentives available immediately. These are nature tourism and carbon credits through avoided deforestation.

While we may be too late to prevent environmental degradation around Tampoi Basecamp, there may yet be time to persuade policy makers to switch to non extractive uses of the rainforest in other areas. Environmentalists, nature lovers and the public can all play their part in pushing this agenda.

Sunrise from Bukit Beruang

[1] VU classified species: Large Green Pigeon, Short-toed Coucal, Blue-headed Pitta, Bornean Wren Babbler
[2] Dennis Yong, Glenda Noramly and Benedict Butit – 30th March to 4th April 2007

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One Response to Imbak Bird-Watching

  1. Pingback: Crested Partridge - Rollulus rouloul | Birds of the World

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