MALAYSIA’S Tasik Chini is a poster-worthy example of the need to balance the pursuit of socio-economic development with environmental care and conservation. (File pix)

MALAYSIA’S Tasik Chini is a poster-worthy example of the need to balance the pursuit of socio-economic development with environmental care and conservation.

Nine years ago this month, Unesco conferred World Biosphere Reserve status on Tasik Chini, in Pekan district, Pahang, underlining the lake’s rich biodiversity, including “species characteristic of the extreme lowlands ... of considerable conservation interest due to their diminishing low land habitats elsewhere within Peninsular Malaysia”.

Tasik Chini became the first site in the country to be given such prestigious international recognition under Unesco’s Man and the Biosphere Programme. The other is Crocker Range in Sabah, which received the same status in 2014.

A biosphere is a region of land, water and atmosphere where living organisms and the results of their activities create a single, self-sustaining ecosystem. Up to 2016, there were 669 biosphere reserves in 120 countries.

Tasik Chini is formed from a string of 12 connected water bodies covering over 200 hectares, surrounded by 700 hectares of freshwater swamp and swamp forest.

Usually between August and September, the lake is transformed into a floating garden with thousands of white and pink lotus flowers covering the surface. These iconic lotus plants (Nelumbo nucifera) and fishing are the main ecotourist attractions.

The lake is endowed with a rich diversity of flora and fauna — home to 87 species of freshwater fish, 189 species of birds, 51 low forest species, 15 freshwater swamp forest species, and 25 aquatic plants.

Studies have shown that many habitats are endemic or unique to Tasik Chini.

About 800 Orang Asli from the Jakun tribe, and also some Semai, live on its shores, and they depend on the lake for livelihood and water supply.

For Tasik Chini, the Unesco recognition is already special enough. But the fabled lake has more. Among the famous myths and Orang Asli legends, the lake is home to a dragon, the Naga Seri Gumum (Malaysia’s answer to Scotland’s Loch Ness Monster.) As well, an ancient Khmer city is said to rest at the bottom of the lake.

Those two attributes alone are part of the “wow factor” that makes this legendary lake a top attraction for both local and foreign tourists. And it would be gratifying if we could point to Tasik Chini as a case study of Malaysia’s success in balancing development and the environment.

In awarding its designation, Unesco said that “the government and local communities are integrally involved in all resource planning and management initiatives in the region. Forest management occurs within the context of the most stringent government-sponsored guidelines in Malaysia, under the guidance of a joint government-local community and government management board; ongoing ecosystem health is the primary consideration in all development decisions."

Alas, recent reports suggest the lake is in danger of becoming a “dead lake” due to pollution from rampant logging, iron ore mining and agricultural activities from the surrounding FELDA schemes. Such unabated activities in the vicinity of the lake could eventually cause the biosphere to collapse.

This is indeed disconcerting as the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve status of Tasik Chini will be up for review next year, and it would be embarrassing to say the least if we lose this international recognition.

We have always taken pride in punching well above our weight in sustainability issues.

We are one of the first countries to have hosted the highly visible Unesco Global Geoparks in Langkawi and the World Heritage Sites at Kinabalu Park and Gunung Mulu National Park, respectively.

Malaysia is still fondly recognised and valued as a champion of biodiversity in the international arena. This was due to our pro-active role, championing the cause of developing countries in the negotiations of the UN Biodiversity Treaty in the early 1990s – formally known as the Convention on Biological Diversity and our steadfast stance during the Earth Summit in 1992. At that meeting, then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad declared that Malaysia would continue pursuing its development policies but assured the world that we would keep at least 50 per cent of our landmass under forests. According to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, as of 2014, we still retain 55.3 per cent or 18.8 million hectares of our terrestrial areas under forests.

A concerted effort is needed to check harmful activities in order to preserve Tasik Chini. Several institutions and agencies such as Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Forest Research Institute Malaysia, Forestry Department, East Cost Economic Region Development Council and relevant Pahang State departments are working hard to find a long term solution to ensure the lake’s survival.

There have been suggestions in the past to establish a body that would be fully in charge of managing Tasik Chini. With or without such a body, maintaining the lake’s biosphere reserve status is critical to our continued high standing in the eyes of the world.

The writer is a 2017 Asean
Biodiversity Hero and a joint
recipient of the 2015 Merdeka
Award (Environment)