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Blooming Rafflesia of Sabah
by S.S. Yoga, The Star (Malaysia)
 

FROM time to time, a sign appears by the main road that runs through the highland village of Ranau, Sabah, bearing a picture of a huge flower labelled Rafflesia.


Farmer Kundong Ransigi is part of a unique conservation project in Ranau that gets members of the public involved in saving the Rafflesia. The scheme puts locals in charge of tending the blooms and safeguarding them from being cleared.

This is the unique way 48-year-old Kundong Ransigi lets the world know there is a Rafflesia blooming. Many people, from tourists to locals, want that precious information for they clamour for a rare sight of the world's largest flower. As it blooms unpredictably, Kundong has to resort to the sign to inform people; he also alerts travel and tour companies in Kota Kinabalu, slightly more than two hours away.

Kundong is part of a unique conservation project that gets ordinary members of the public involved in saving this strange flower that draws so many tourists to Sabah. He came to know of the project through his son who works with Sabah Parks Assistant Director (Research and Education) Dr Jamili Nais, the man spearheading this effort.

The villager joined the project in September 1995 and began informing people of the flowers blooming behind his house at Kampung Kokob, a 10-minute drive away from Ranau. His site gets lots of visitors because the Rafflesia is accessible and easy to tend.

There are four other sites which are also part of Sabah Parks' Rafflesia Conservation Incentive Scheme, though they are not as accessible. The scheme puts locals in charge of tending the blooms and safeguarding them from being cleared. In return, the caretakers charge visitors a small fee. Kundong, for instance, charges adults RM5 and children RM2 to view his blooms.

He could probably charge a lot more and people would still come, for this is one fascinating flower. There were tourists at Kundong's site the day I visited and they, too, were amazed by the sight of this magnificent specimen.

It was a single bloom, an arm's length in width. The huge flower was perched precariously on a slope so Kundong warned us not to get too close. The famous putrid stench the Rafflesia keithii, the largest of the species, gives off wasn't as bad as it was made out to be--thanks, perhaps, to an opportune bout of flu!

Unlike any other plant, the flower is a total parasite--devoid of any leaves or stem--and depends solely on its host plant for water and nutrients. Just two species of the wild vine Tetrastigma play host to all Rafflesia species in Sabah.

"If we take care, then we can preserve nature but also people can appreciate their beauty and at the same time educate them (sic). This way you can also make a little to support your family,'' says the pragmatic Dusun farmer.

"Entrance'' fees can amount to RM1,000 a year for him and the village fund to which he contributes; a site in Kiau-Yapi some 7km from Kinabalu Park made about RM4,200 in 1996. But it's not income site caretakers can depend on: since he joined the project in 1995, Kundong's site has had 10 blooms, an average of two a year. Yes, they really are rare!

Many of the known Rafflesia sites are vulnerable to development or already wiped out, says Sabah Parks' Jamili. This fact, coupled with the flower's natural difficulty in propagating, means that the flower is a gravely threatened species.

The plant is a protected species in Sabah under the state's Wildlief Conservation Enactment 1997. And, sensibly for once, the authorities also protect the flower's host vine, Tetrastigma.

However, as of last year, there were 83 known Rafflesia sites of which 44 were outside designated conservation areas and, therefore, not protected.

This means, of course, that they are subject to the whims of the land owners and are potentially at risk from modifications to land use. According to Jamili, 20 unprotected Rafflesia sites have been destroyed between 1988 and 1996 in Sabah, due mostly to forest clearance for cultivation.

Jamili says it's hard to conjecture how many more sites are lost through clearing of forests for plantations and logging. That's because no one wants to report finding Rafflesia in such areas, of course.

This is one reason Sabah Parks decided to be the first to cultivate this wild bloom. Purists might insist that the best form of conservation would be to protect the flower's habitat but at the rate forests are being cleared in Sabah, it's just as well to have something to fall back on.

Jamili is quick to add that Sabah Parks' approach to conservation has always been to begin with total habitat protection. But in cases when a particular plant or animal species is extremely threatened, then species targeted conservation is employed. Hence the importance of the incentive scheme as well as cultivating the Rafflesia.

The incentive scheme began with a pilot site in 1994 before being launched in 1995. But Sabah Parks has been working on Rafflesia conservation way before then. Its efforts include mapping and monitoring all known Rafflesia sites and locating new ones. It also researches the flower's reproductive ecology, including pollination, production of fruits and seeds, and its dispersal mechanism.

All this costs money, of course. So far, funding for the project has come from government grants. There is also a grant from conservation group World Wide Fund for Nature under its People and Plants initiative.

The funding isn't enough to pay the caretakers of the sites, which is why appreciative visitors are so important to this conservation effort. The more people visit, the more ordinary people like Kundong will be moved to report Rafflesia sites and protect them.

Kundong Ransigi can be contacted at 088-875 114; alternatively, try contacting the Sabah Tourism Promotion Corporation at 088-212 121 or e-mail sabah@po.jaring.my.