The Semai village of Ulu Geroh in Malaysia has been much noted by the press, as recently as last week, for its community approach to promoting ecotourism in the nearby forests. Nearly a decade ago, the villagers realized that saltlicks in their region were quite important to the rare Rajah Brooke birdwing butterflies. They also understood that the huge blossoms of the Rafflesia flowers were unique. They started taking visitors to see these sights. In recent years, the villagers have added other attractions that tourists might want to see. They have gained training as guides, secured the cooperation of outside NGOs, and gotten grants from sponsoring organizations to further expand and protect their operations.
It appears from news reports late last week as if the enterprise may be in danger. The major saltlick used by the butterflies has been destroyed. One report indicated that workers who were digging up a large pipeline that had been used to take water to a mining operation in the nearby town of Gopeng had destroyed the largest saltlick. All that remained of the saltlick, according to the report, was muddy ground. The village organization, SEMAI, and its friends in higher places in Malaysia, immediately raised a storm of protest.
The chair of the tourist management organization in the village, Ahha Bah Udal, said that the workers “bulldozed” the saltlick located next to the route of the pipeline, which was being torn up for the scrap metal. “The ground is flattened and there is mud everywhere,” Ahha said. He indicated that the workers left the pipes next to the road, which is near the saltlick, and that they keep the butterflies away. The online press reports include photos of the pipes and the devastation.
Ahha said that his organization was considering taking legal action against the contractor. It had permission to remove the pipeline, but it should have consulted with the village, especially since the saltlick had been gazetted as a protected area. “The butterflies have flown away. They can’t be seen on the ground anymore,” he said. “Now, everything is destroyed and it is impossible to create another site. You cannot recreate nature,” he added.
Phon Chooi Khim, an entomologist for the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia, said on Thursday that only an immediate halt to the salvage work could save the large patch of butterfly habitat. “I was made to understand that the pipeline removal works would go on for three to six months but I’m afraid that by then, the Rajah Brooke Birdwing, an endangered species, would never return again,” she said. “Should they find another spot nearby, they may puddle there but if not, they may fly elsewhere.” She added the obvious: that the destruction of the saltlick, and its affect on the butterflies, will have a very significant impact on the livelihood of the Semai people in the village.
Phon spent several days in the village immediately following the first reports about the devastation. She pointed out that the birdwing males needed to puddle at the saltlick in order to mate with the female butterflies. The males transfer minerals from the water to the females during the process of mating. She observed butterflies trying to land at the remnants of the saltlick but they were unable to. Exhaust fumes and noise from the machinery appeared to the scientist to be keeping the butterflies away from their normal puddling spot. She also noted that the trauma seems to inhibit the butterflies from approaching the tourists in the area.
By Friday, the state of Perak, which had authorized the removal of the pipeline, was taking a defensive stance. Shabrina Shariff, director of the Perak Wildlife and National Parks Department, told the press that the contractor had promised that it would not get near the saltlick where the butterflies had congregated, and that they would remove the pipes. “My officers were at the site to speak to the contractor on Thursday,” she said.
The official contradicted reports about the destruction of the saltlick from the village, the scientist, and the press. She denied that the saltlick was destroyed—some of it could be salvaged. The contractor promised that the mud would be cleared and the stones washed. She added that her agency intended to monitor the site to ensure that the contractor did the job correctly.
Mr. Ahha responded that the terms of the permit issued to the contractor had specifically forbid the company from using heavy machinery in the area for removing the pipes. He said that the contractor had held a meeting with the villagers a few days prior to moving in their machinery, and the village had not given permission to begin the work. A follow-up meeting was supposed to have been held. He alleged that the company went ahead with the removal anyway.