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A Semai community has set up an organization to preserve one of the largest flowers on earth, a Rafflesia, in a new nature sanctuary.

The Semai villagers in Kampong Ulu Gerok, Perak, Malaysia, used to gather the giant buds in the forest near their homes and sell them to collectors in Gopeng, about 12 km away. The buds were then processed into a Malay folk medicine used by women after they give birth to children. The Semai also gathered specimens of a spectacular butterfly, the Rajah Brooke Birdwing, to sell to the international butterfly market.

Two articles in The Star from Kuala Lumpur on January 1, 2005, describe the success of the Semai so far in establishing their new nature tourism infrastructure. An earlier piece in the same paper (Feb. 17, 2004) also described the development of the project. The Semai villagers founded a cooperative group named the Sahabat Eko-pelancongan dan Memulihara Alam Indah (SEMAI), which will run the project with the assistance of the Forestry and the Orang Asli Affairs Departments of Perak plus the Malaysian Nature Society. The goals of the new group are to preserve the forest habitat of the plant and the butterfly, and to promote non-disruptive eco-tourism to the area. SEMAI has 21 members, of whom seven are women. Members of the group serve as guides for the tourists.

There are 20 species of Rafflesia, growing only in Southeast Asia, eight of which are found in Malaysia. They have gained worldwide fame since articles have appeared in such international media as the New York Times, The Guardian, Time, and Natural History, all of which have emphasized the fact that the Rafflesia flowers are the largest in the world. The giant flower buds develop quite slowly, for months, on the forest floor, but only some of those buds then open into blossoms that last for only a few days. Some of the flowers measure over a meter across. Despite the size of the blossoms, unfortunately, the plants are quite fragile—even the impact of tourists trampling around them can harm or kill the rare plants. Given the international press coverage of the Raffflesia, it is little wonder that eco-tourism may be a successful development in places where the plants are protected and can be seen easily.

The Rafflesia site in Ulu Geroh is well protected now, and it is just a 30 minute walk from the Semai village. As an added feature, large numbers of the Rajah Brooke Birdwing butterflies tend to regularly congregate at special moist spots in the forest, one of which is also accessible to the tourists and their Semai guides. The third item on the tourist agenda out of Kampong Ulu Gerok is a trek to the Damak waterfall. The guides were given special training in guiding techniques by the MNS, plus they had tours of other Malaysian preserves.

The Semai women who are involved seem to be particularly enthusiastic about their endeavor. One woman quoted by The Star clearly recognizes that their local Rafflesia site needed protection, since it might otherwise be threatened by logging or ill-advised development. A widow with six children, she used to work in a furniture factory but no longer—she prefers harvesting produce and fruits in the forest and her new role as a guide. She is obviously an enthusiastic one. “We have been undergoing training as tour guides,” she told The Star. “We learn how to greet guests and brief them about the flower and its habitat before leading them on a hike to the identified habitat. Along the way, we will share our knowledge of the jungle plants, herbs and flowers.” She indicates that she will warn tourists to not step on the Rafflesia vines or its buds; they will only be permitted to take photographs—carefully.

One of the articles in The Star describes a nearby tourist resort where visitors can stay, plus the costs for the accommodations and tours. It also mentions the downsides of trekking in the Southeast Asian forests—the thorny plants and the leeches. In contrast to some types of tourist developments that harm the local environments and tend to displace the indigenous peoples, such as the golf courses that Malaysia has promoted in the past (see Dentan et al 1997, p.103-106), this kind of ecotourism appears to be beneficial for the local people and for their environment. The Rafflesia project should preserve the forest for the Semai as well as for the tourists, and it should provide considerably more income than gathering and selling the blossoms and the butterflies did in the past.

While often not a perfect solution for the poverty of rural communities, ecotourism may offer one of the least harmful ways of providing income for the Semai while continuing to preserve at least one patch of the forest that they have traditionally used.