STW Sundays #6: Hymeir Kamarudin, on Establishing the Ulu Muda Forest Protection Area

Save-The-World Sundays is a series of interviews conducted with remarkable individuals who are engaged in environmental initiatives and movements. This Sunday, we feature Hymeir Kamarudin, a natural resource manager who runs Earth Lodge Field Research Centre in Ulu Muda, among other conservation projects.

Tell us about yourself.

I am 51 this year and my passion lies in caves/limestone, birds and Ulu Muda. I have a degree in business administration and a Masters in protected area management. I have been caving and birding for over 20 years and been working on Ulu Muda for over 15 years. I previously worked for WWF Malaysia (1991-2004) and I’m currently running several conservation-related businesses. They are the Dark Cave at Batu Caves, KL (http://www.darkcavemalaysia.com), Earth Lodge at Ulu Muda, Kedah (Earthlodgemalaysia.com) and soon I will be managing a show cave at Gunung Keriang near Alor Star, Kedah. I also do consultancy work related to ecotourism, resource management and protected areas.

What is your Save-the-world project?

At the moment, that would be the establishment of a protected area at Ulu Muda, Kedah. Ulu Muda is a nationally important swath of forest covering approximately 160,000ha. It is an important site for large mammals and is a crucial water catchment for three dams that supply water for irrigation and drinking. The water irrigates the vast coastal plains of Kedah and Southern Perlis, an area known as Malaysia’s Rice Bowl. This area supplies 40% of the nation’s paddy.

Currently the Ulu Muda area is threatened by logging. Although the logging is legal and sustainable methods are practised, NO forest within critical water catchment areas should be disturbed, much less logged. Additionally, illegal hunting / poaching, collection of forest products and unsustainable tourism activities also threaten the area.

What inspired you to start the project?

I have been working in the area since 1997 and have been bringing people here for camping trips since 2005. I was in the team that made 2 major discoveries in the area: a new limestone hill with caves and the presence of large numbers of the globally threatened Plain-pouched Hornbills. The second discovery makes Ulu Muda the second site in Malaysia and the world where these hornbills congregate in large numbers.

Plain-pouched-Hornbill

Plain-pouched Hornbill

How did you start the project?

Establishing a protected area is a very slow process. First, one must show strong justification for the area’s protection. This is usually done via scientific research to determine what is there, i.e. creating an inventory of the area’s biodiversity. Ulu Muda for example has 303 species of birds recorded. Second, there would be lots of discussions with the land owners, usually the state government, to convince them that it’s an important area, that the area deserves better protection, that it is in the state (and nation’s) interest to protect the area.

This is followed by recommending the most suitable legislation for the gazettement, drawing up a management plan, recommending the management structure for this new protected area, and lastly, drawing up a comprehensive management plan. Even after establishment, the area must be properly managed with proper staff and budgets. The effort for this project is being jointly undertaken by my company, Earth Lodge Sdn Bhd (which is running a lodge in the Ulu Muda forest) together with a coalition of concerned organizations in an entity called Friends of Ulu Muda. The coalition members include WWF Malaysia, Malaysian Nature Society, Sahabat Alam Malaysia, Consumer Association of Penang, Water Watch Penang and others.

At what stage of your project are you right now?

At the moment, the state has agreed in principle to the establishment of a protected area, albeit a much much smaller area of about 30,000 ha (out of the 160,000ha proposed). But that’s a start, so we are assisting the state government in any way we can.

What difficulties did you face while working on the project?

Apathy among decision makers. Land is a state matter and any decision to gazette a site as a protected area is made by the state government. There is a need to educate the state government on the reasons why the area is important, how the state can benefit from the gazettement and finally, what the state needs to do to gazette the area.

What is rewarding about your project?

I guess the thought that I have contributed to the establishment of a protected area at Ulu Muda is motivating enough! Of course, knowing that the area plus all the biodiversity it contains will be protected and conserved in perpetuity makes me have a warm feeling inside. By the way, I was also one of the people involved in the establishment of the Perlis State Park several years ago.

What are the lessons that you have learnt from your project?

That one has to be patient and be passionate about the area that one is working on. Not to give up easily. Like I mentioned, establishing a protected area takes a long long time. There will be successes but there are usually more setbacks, so being persistent is crucial.

Would you be willing to talk to (and share resources possibly with) people who are interested to start a project similar to yours?

Yes, by all means!

Any advice that you would like to give to someone else who wants to make a difference?

If you are passionate and committed, just do it. There is not a right or wrong way to do it and one must always be prepared to learn from one’s mistakes and move forward. Lastly, be prepared for the long haul!

For more information, check out the homepage of Ulu Muda Earth Lodge and its Facebook Page.

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