The Maliau Basin by Herman (March 2003)

Short: The Maliau Basin is some 190 km / 5 hours from Kota Kinabalu or Tawau and was gazetted as a Class I Forest Reserve in 1997. It covers an area of 588.4 km² of which only very little has been surveyed - it is a true 'Lost World'. 


Sabah's Lost World

The The Maliau Basin is located in the heart of Sabah and is also known as ‘Sabah’s Lost World’ due to its relative late ‘discovery.’

The Maliau Basin Conservation Area is adjacent to the Yayasan Sabah (Sabah Foundation) Concession Area, about 190 km from the town of Tawau (on the southeast coast) and some 40 km north of the Kalimantan (Indonesian) border at between 116º 44' - 117° 3' E and 4° 41' - 4° 56' N. Access to the basin remains difficult and to get to its seven-tiers waterfall one has to trek through impenetrable jungles for three days; alternatively one can take a helicopter ride…

The basin is characterised by its dens lowland rainforest with complex river systems and beautiful waterfalls. More than 50% of the basin remains unvisited by humans. The estimated number of species in the Maliau Basin approximates 240,000. This accounts for 38% of the total number of species in Borneo. Many of the species are endemic or are listed in Red Data Book of IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources).


The 588.4 km² (58,840 hectares) Maliau Basin Conservation Area encompasses the whole of the Maliau Basin itself (390 km²), plus an additional 198.4 km² of forested land to the east and north of the rim, including the fabled Lake Linumunsut, Sabah's only true lake, formed by a landslide blocking a small tributary of the Pinangah River.

While the entire region is rugged, the saucer-shaped Maliau Basin is distinguished by its almost circular perimeter, sharply delimited on all sides by cliffs or very steep slopes, making it insurmountable on foot from most directions. The highest point is on the north rim, at over 1,675 m in elevation, but has yet to be accurately surveyed. Resembling a volcanic caldera, the 25 km diameter Basin is in fact a sedimentary formation comprised mainly of gently inclined beds of sandstone and mudstone.

The Basin represents a single massive water catchment area and is drained by a set of radiating tributaries of the Maliau River, one of which descends a magnificent series of waterfalls, known as the Maliau Falls. Numerous smaller waterfalls have also been discovered throughout the Basin. The Maliau River then drains through a gorge through the southeast of the basin into the Kuamut River, which in turn feeds into the Kinabatangan, the longest river in Sabah.


The local Pensiangan Murut have for times immemorial conducted yearly hunting expeditions into the Maliau Basin, and according to Lantir from Tataluan even reached the seven-tiers waterfalls within the basin. However, it was not a ‘discovered’ area until 1947, when a WWII pilot almost crashed into the cliffs of the Maliau Basin escarpment. According to the pilot the cliffs ‘might be higher than Mt Kinabaloo,’ which of course turned out not to be true but only much later: in 1960 a first expedition by the Geological Survey Department team of North Borneo reached Kuala Maliau outside the basin but did not enter. Sensibly, in 1970 the Maliau Basin was as part of the Gunung Rara Class II Commercial Forest Reserve incorporated into Yayasan Sabah Concession Area. Then, in 1976 the Forestry Department's Botanical Survey team attempted to ascend the north escarpment but failed to reach the rim. The basin held fast to its reputation as ‘Lost World’ even in 1980, when a Sabah Museum team ascended the north rim but was forced to turn back because of illness and lack of supplies. In 1981 Yayasan Sabah voluntarily designated the area as a Conservation Area to be set aside for research, education and training purposes. First Yayasan Sabah survey parties dropped off by helicopter on the north rim to demarcate the Conservation Area boundary, cut a trail and construct three helipads. The first organised reconnaissance trip into the basin was undertaken by Yayasan Sabah in 1982 to draw a preliminary visit to plan a 1988 scientific expedition. In the meantime, in 1984 Yayasan Sabah designated the Maliau Basin a Conservation Area, with the approval of the Sabah State Cabinet, and in 1986 an expedition team of four entered the Basin from the south-west rim and trekked to Kuala Maliau. The 'Jalan Babi' (Wild Pigs' Trail) was laid out during this expedition. And in 1987 the BHP Minerals Company undertook extensive geological survey work throughout the Maliau Basin and surrounding areas to assess the likely extent, depth and quality of coal seam resources.

In 1988 finally came the first major scientific expedition to Maliau Basin, jointly organised by Yayasan Sabah and WWF-Malaysia. The report resulting from the expedition outlined findings related to geology, soil, hydrology, geomorphology, climate, plant studies, animal studies and human impact. From this expedition it was brought to light that Maliau Basin was unique, with several new species for Sabah discovered in that expedition alone. Besides its research output, this expedition resulted in a widely screened documentary film entitled "The Lost World of Sabah".

In 1991 the Sabah State Government commissioned a Preliminary Environmental Impact Assessment of the proposed coal development in Maliau Basin. The study, undertaken by a Canadian consulting company, included significant inventory work on plants and vertebrates in the hitherto unstudied eastern side of the basin. The findings disclosed that if mining is to be taken even with stringent environmental guidelines, related activities would still have serious impact on the basin, through increased access to prospectors, hunters, gaharu and rattan collectors, besides wider effects on the Ulu Kinabatangan generally.

In 1992 Raleigh International prepared a research field station inclusive station building and a helipad on the south plateau, and in 1993 Camel Trophy constructed the ‘Camel Trophy Camp with the assistance of the Camel Trophy participants. In 1994 Raleigh International surveyed and explored the south plateau and discovered the Takob-akob, Giluk and Mempersona Waterfalls.

In 1996 the second Maliau Basin Scientific Expedition was jointly organised by Yayasan Sabah, University Malaysia Sabah and the Ministry of Tourism and Environmental Development, Sabah, carrying out a more detailed study of the south-western part of the Basin, making up approximately 10-20% of the total Basin area.

In 1997 the State Assembly of Sabah elevated the Maliau Basin Conservation Area into a Class I Protection Forest Reserve and increased its size from 39,000 to 58,840 hectares to include the outer northern and eastern escarpments and Lake Linumunsut. In the same year a preliminary camp (the Agathis Camp) was set up near the southern rim of the Basin, and the following year the Inter-Agency Maliau Basin Management Committee was set up.

Only in 1999 a security gate and access road were constructed, and work started by Yayasan Sabah and DANCED (Danish Cooperation for Environment & Development) on a three-year preparation of the Maliau Basin Conservation Area Management Plan. At the same time a new camp near the mouth of the Maliau River was constructed, the Belian Camp.

Intensive field surveys started in 2000, as part of the preparation of the Maliau Basin Conservation Area Management Plan, and in 2001 a first major expedition reached Lake Linumunsut in the northern part of the basin.

2002 saw the ground breaking for the Maliau Basin Studies Centre site by HRH Prince Henrik of Denmark and Tan Sri Datu Khalil bin Datu Haji Jamalul, the Director of Yayasan Sabah. In 2003 the Belian Camping ground was officially opened by the Sow-A-Seed Foundation (IKEA), Yayasan Sabah and Trekforce Expedition.
Flora & Fauna

The Maliau Basin Conservation Area encompasses a diverse assemblage of forest types, comprising mainly of lower montane forests, rare montane heath forests and lowland and hill dipterocarp forests. Dominated by majestic Agathis trees, the lower montane forests, which also contains oaks, laurels and conifers such as Dacrydium species, grades into mossy cloud forests on the northern rim.

A distinctive feature of the lower montane forest are the many Dipteris ferns, lining the river banks. The water here is tea-coloured and acidic, due to the tannins leaching out of the peaty leaf litter. The stunted montane heath forests occur on flatter areas of the basin on nutrient poor, acidic soils. Ant plants, rhododendrons and pitcher plants are common.

Dipterocarp forests are found mostly on the basin’s outer flanks and in the interior valley bottoms. They are rich in fruit trees and attract many animals, some of them exceedingly rare and even on the brink of extinction in other parts of Sabah.

Over 1800 species of plants have so far been identified, including six species of pitcher plants and at least 80 kinds of orchids, several of which are new records for Sabah. The rare Rafflesia tengku-adlinii has also been found in the Maliau Basin, one of only two known localities in Sabah, the other being near Trus Madi.

Although much of the terrain remains to be explored, the Maliau Basin Conservation Area has already revealed itself to be the home of some of Sabah’s most rare and endangered species, including Pigmy Elephants, Orang Utans and Proboscis Monkeys. Others amongst the 82 mammal species so far confirmed include Clouded Leopards and Malayan Sunbears, while on the fringes of the Conservation Area, Banteng (tembadau) and the elusive Bay Cat have been seen.

An impressive list comprising some 270 bird species has been recorded, including Bulwer’s Pheasant, Giant Pitta, Bathawk, Bornean Bristlehead and all eight in Borneo living species of hornbills, together with several rare montane birds, otherwise found only on Mount Kinabalu and Trus Madi.

While the acidic waters of Maliau Basin are proving to support relatively few fish species (only three to date), more than 30 species of amphibians have been found, including a frog which makes its home in pitcher plants!

Amongst the multitude of invertebrates discovered are at least two species that are new to science: a water beetle baptized Neptosternus thiambooni and a crab Thelphusula hulu.

How to Get to the Maliau Basin & Accommodation

Access is restricted and it is recommended that the tour is organised through a tour operator in Sabah; there is basic accommodation at the camps, but for those exploring the core area they have to camp. 


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Note: while every care has been taken in compiling the above information the Flying Dusun Sdn Bhd, its authors and associates cannot be held responsible for any inaccuracy, omission or alteration that may occur. Please contact us or the respective authors for further details and confirmation of facts and figures. © The Flying Dusun Sdn Bhd, 2005-2006; all rights reserved; reproduction in whole or in part without written permission strictly prohibited. 


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