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The participants of the TM Earth Camp posing for a group photo after the mangrove planting programme. Pictures by Munira Abdul Ghani
Cruising along Santubong River to catch sight of some elusive creatures.
A student carrying mangrove seedlings to be planted.
Up close with the formidable crocodile.

Students in Sarawak get valuable lessons on the importance of mangroves at a special earth camp, writes Zuliantie Dzul

IT’S starting to rain at the Kuching Wetlands National Park (KWNP). The 105 students from 10 schools in Sarawak don’t look like they’re in any rush to run and find shelter. Instead, they put on their raincoats and march on, each carrying two to three mangrove seedlings in their hands. The mission: To plant 500 mangrove trees.

The ground is now muddy and slippery following the rain, so we carefully make our way to the planting line prepared by the State Forest Department earlier.

The students begin digging and planting the seedlings. They’re not bothered by the pouring rain, but instead, are intent on completing their respective tasks. Some use the occasional breaks that they get to play with small crabs that can be found swarming the muddy area while some take photos and selfies as proof of their hard work.

These students are the lively participants of the final TM Earth Camp for this year. The camp, in collaboration with Malaysian Nature Society, is already entering its sixth year. The participants comprise students nationwide, mainly members of Kelab Pencinta Alam at their respective schools. Here in Sarawak, they’re learning all about the imminent threat of climate change and how important it is to conserve our mangrove forests.

“We’re facing climate change. It’s important for these students to save the environment and to protect it for the future generation,” says Izad Ismail, head of TM Corporate Responsibility & External Relations Management and Group Brand & Communication. “I hope this programme will make them realise how important it is to care for our mangrove forest.”

“No matter how many mangrove trees you plant, be it three, five or even just one, you’re making a change,” chips in I.S. Shanmugaraj, the executive director of Malaysian Nature Society.

IMPORTANCE OF MANGROVES

Located just 15km from Kuching and approximately 5km from Damai Beach, the KWNP covers an area of 6,610ha. It is dominated by mangrove species — Avecennia, Rhizophora, Sonneratia and Bruguiera.

Mangroves have the root of all goodness. They provide support in unstable soils as well as offer protection and shelter against extreme weather. These trees are also natural filters that will keep the rivers clean.

“In recent years, increasing areas of mangrove have been cleared and converted to aquaculture, housing and industrial development, threatening the ecological functions of this important coastal ecosystem. It took the recent tsunami disaster for the people to realise and appreciate its value,” says Dr Paul Chai P.K, a researcher from the International Tropical Timber Organisation (ITTO).

Due to the flood mitigation project in recent years, a big area of mangrove forest was destroyed and the land became degraded.

“It’s important to rehabilitate this area. Mangrove trees can control the climate as well as erosion along the shorelines,” explains Irmadiana Ardi, executive forester at the Sarawak Forest Department, who gave a briefing earlier to the students on how to plant the trees. “So far, we have rehabilitated 58.2ha of the forest, with 57,000 trees planted since 2012.”

PLAYING SCIENTISTS

Apart from the replanting exercise, the students also play scientists for the day, by monitoring the water along the beach.

The students swarm Damai Beach near the Permai Rainforest Resort where we’re lodged to complete the task given. They analyse the temperature, pH level and salinity as well as the organisms living in the water.

“It’s early exposure for the students on how to check the quality of water just by using simple equipment,” explains Mohamad Zaid Hamzah, the project manager for MNS.

It is from this activity that I too learn something new: about how a small creature plays a crucial role in indicating climate change. The knobbly periwinkle, a snail with thin shell with tiny knobs in a spiral pattern, inhabit the rocks on our many shores. They’re able to withstand high temperature but, if it’s unusually too hot, they will release mucus and expand their broad foot as if they’re tiptoeing, akin to what we do when we step on hot rocks with our bare feet.

FUN ACTIVITIES

With many inland rivers in the state, it’s hardly surprising that a boat ride has been factored into the agenda.

On our very first day in Kuching, we cruise along Santubong River to try and catch a sight of Irrawaddy dolphins, crocodiles, monkeys and fireflies. But dolphin sightings are not guaranteed, our tour guide reminds us.

Sure enough, there are no signs of dolphins that day. We do, however, get to see a crocodile up close. Our boat driver manoeuvres the boat as close as possible to the river bank where a big crocodile is resting.

My heart pumps with fear and excitement. It’s really surreal to see this impressive reptile in its natural habitat.

As darkness descends, we make our way deeper into the mangrove forest area. Here we stop by the river bank and watch the trees glow with fireflies. These tiny bugs routinely synchronise their flashes among large groups. We watch for about 10 minutes before we head back to the jetty.

A visit to Kuching isn’t complete without a visit to the award-winning Sarawak Cultural Village, the venue for the renowned Rainforest World Music Festival. The village is home to some 150 people who showcase traditional daily activities from the many diverse tribes who reside in the Land of the Hornbills such as Bidayuh, Iban, Melanau, Orang Ulu and other minor tribes as well as Malays and Chinese.

As the final part of TM’s Earth Camp this year, the Sarawak leg of the programme has been truly memorable. Suffice to say the children have much to take home with them.

Sarbini Hamdan, the general manager of TM Sarawak had some parting words: “The camp has done its job in raising awareness about our role as human beings towards the environment. I hope the students can share the knowledge through social media.

“Share how beautiful Sarawak is and how important it is to protect the environment. What we save today can be an asset to Sarawak and Malaysia in the future.”

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