This month, EcoKnights Spotlight pays special and close attention to conservationist and speleologist (in laymanâ€™s term, this means â€ścave expertâ€ť), Hymeir Kamaruddin. Based in Penang, Hymeir is an old friend of EcoKnights and despite his business administration background is an avid environmentalist, with a knack for exploring caves. He started his first taste of conservation while he was working with the World Wide Fund for Nature Malaysia as a fundraiser. During this stint there, Hymeir found his calling and was willing to take a salary cut back to pursue his passion as a conservationist.
EcoKnights follows his trail over the course of the last decade and finds out more about his efforts in cave conservation,
Who says a conservationist canâ€™t come from a business background? Read more about Hymeir, his inspirations and his take on forest and cave conservation. As inspiring as he is, Hymeir epitomizes and reinforces our philosophy that one does not need to have an academic background in science or environment to be an environmentalist. All you need is love and passion for nature.
EK: Can you please tell us a bit more about yourself (academic, work experiences, career) and how you became the cave expert/lover, birder, and environmentalist that you are today?
HK: I have always had an interest in nature but I think that interest was never cultivated when I was young. It was only in college that that the interest started. I was visiting nature parks around the area I was studying but never really got into it since I didn't have the kaki (company). I did however have kakis for golf. A seemingly odd activity for a future conservationist but that was the most direct path I had at that time! We have to remember that many golf courses in the US are part of parklands and are open to the public. Many animals do take refuge in these parklands..... if they don't get hit by that stray golf ball!
I even remember choosing to do some projects related to the environment as part of my course work although I was studying Business Administration. I also remember watching TV and being very intrigued seeing cavers squeezing through small passages. At that moment I remember having that feeling of wanting to try that. All this was during my college years in the US.
After graduating with a degree in Business Administration (Marketing) I returned to KL and was quickly persuaded by my older brother to join him caving at the Dark Caves at Batu Caves. I was hooked! I was doing exactly what I was watching on TV several years before. Soon I was signing up to be a member of Malaysian Nature Society's caving group, buying the equipment needed and started to explore other caves. But the Dark Caves stayed close to my heart. I started to assist in leading tours into the Dark Caves on weekend. Soon I graduated to leading the tours myself. I also started buying books and reading about all aspects of caves and caving. There was no internet then so you can imagine.
I have always been interested in maps so I learnt how to survey and produce maps of caves. I think this was an important step at my being a caver. Being able to map a cave and seeing how they were laid out I suspect spurred my interest in their conservation.
I was working with my family company then and later joined Samsung putting my business degree to use. In 1991 I applied for a job with WWF Malaysia and got a fundraising position - a position where my knowledge in business administration was of benefit. It was in 1995 that an opportunity to do conservation full-time arose. WWF Malaysia needed someone to explore caves in Perlis and I was offered to do it. Got a pay cut to switch from a fundraiser to a conservationist (no regrets!) and found myself running a conservation project in Perlis, exploring and mapping caves full-time!
EK: Can you share some scary/memorable/out-of-this-world experience during any of your caving expeditions?
HK: As for some memorable experiences, I have to say that exploring and mapping Gua Baba and Gua Loposang among the most memorable. Both the caves actually form one cave system of about 3km long located at the Perlis State Park (PSP) which we "connected". Both these caves are natural caves that have been extensively mined for tin many decades ago. We were only re-exploring and remapping these caves. Loposang is about 150m deep. Thatâ€™s the vertical depth. So it was a very difficult cave to explore and even harder to survey. The entrance of the cave is located up in the hills so access was difficult particularly when one has to carry a heavy load of climbing gear and ropes. Like most caves at PSP, this one had a small stream running through it. We had to negotiate waterfalls, steep slopes, unstable rocks, tight passages while surveying and carrying equipment. Needless to say, we had to make several trips some lasting more than 20 hours before reaching the larger bottom passages. (Picture right: Hymeir is also an avid birder).
We started exploring a more horizontal cave known as Gua Baba. This cave is easily accessible. We can park the car nearby and since itâ€™s not a vertical cave, we didn't have to carry much gear. However, this is a very, very wet cave with a larger stream flowing through it. Many passages in Gua Baba are constantly flooded up to waist level. Some places we had to go swim through very deep dark black lakes. Although the water was crystal clear, we couldn't see the bottom using our most powerful torch light! Swimming through these lakes and surveying at the same time is difficult. Being in water all the time also means we were always soaked and having a constant breeze passing through the passages made us shiver with cold sometimes. Not a good idea to stop too long. In addition, we had to worry about the weather outside. It can be very dangerous if it rains heavy outside, the water level in Baba can raise very quickly! Seeing debris stuck to the ceilings of some low passages is a constant reminder that the passages can and will flood! We were always thinking ahead and remembering where the high level areas are just in case we needed to find safe secure place fast to wait out the flood if it ever happens. Baba was a very daunting cave to explore. We had to make several trips to finish exploring and surveying Baba. It was the dark black lakes that usually makes us turn back and to return another day after psyching ourselves up for the crossing.
Eventually we connected these two caves. That was the most gratifying part of exploring Loposang and Baba. However, to this day, Baba will always remain a difficult cave to mentally prepare for. But thatâ€™s the challenge!
EK: You were also the ex-president of the Malaysia Karst Society. What were your roles there and how is the society helping in terms of protecting karsts and karsts systems in the country?
HK: My term as its president ended a couple of years ago. However, I still continue playing an active role in the conservation of caves and karst in Malaysia. Caves and karst remains among the least appreciated and known of the entire important Malaysian habitat. For a resource that covers a very tiny part of the country, it has a disproportionately large amount of biodiversity.
EK: In your opinion, what are some of the threats to caves and cave systems in the country? And how can a remote urban person, (most likely the reader of this article), help to lend some support to protect caves in Malaysia?
HK: The main threats to caves and karst is the lack of proper management of this resource. Like oil, limestone is finite. Someday we will run out of limestone and with it the very rich biodiversity it contains. As I mentioned above, limestone and cave supports a large amount of biodiversity. Many plants and animals found on limestone are endemic or only found on limestone. It is not unusual to find species confined to one hill and found nowhere else in the world. Although protecting species for its own sake is important, whatâ€™s more important is we are also protecting their potential to help humans. Some of these biological organisms may harbor cures for some debilitating disease. We will never know if they were extinct.
EK: What are some of the shocking statistics about caves or caves systems in Malaysia? Why do caves play such a big role in maintaining balance of the ecosystem?
HK: Many people see limestone hills as just a large rock and caves as just a dark hole in the ground. Limestone only constitute of less than 1% of Malaysiaâ€™s land area. Actually itâ€™s even less than that at half of a percent. A very small piece of Malaysian real estate. However, about 15% of Malaysian endemic plants are found on limestone. 50-70% of Malaysian land snail species are only found on limestone. The point is, for a very tiny piece of real estate, limestone and caves holds a disproportionately large amount of biodiversity. As a habitat, limestone and caves are not well studied at all. Who knows what other biological treasures that has yet to be discovered!
EK: Of all the caves (local and international) you have explored before, which cave or passage is your favorite and why?
HK: I am a small person and prefer small caves. From the first time I saw someone crawling out of a small hole while watching TV in my living room in the US; I have always been fascinated with small holes. My favorite cave is a small 400m long cave located on an island off our Malaysian coast. Sorry but I have to keep its location secret so ensure that it is not over visited and damaged. Itâ€™s got a small stream flowing through, got many small waterfalls, very tight passages and I love it because it is a very sporting cave. Meaning it gives one a good challenge traversing though it. Climbing, crawling and walking through it. Unfortunately, I have never found the source of the stream as it simply gets too small for any humans to explore.
EK: The biodiversity in caves are simple magical and almost alien-like, especially for many of us who have not had the chance or bravery to explore these complex systems. What are some of the most fascinating life forms you can find in cave systems and which intrigues you the most and why?
HK: I have always found a group of spiders called trap-door spiders or its scientific name liphistius spp to be fascinating! They are living fossils as they have not changed much in form. Most species found at a site are usually endemic to that site only. The liphistius batuensis is only found in the Selangor limestone and nowhere else. Same goes with the kanthanensi and tempurungensis where they are restricted to Gunung Kanthan and Gunung Tempurung respectively. They will build a trapdoor above a hole or depression with delicate trip-wires using their webbings radiating out from the trapdoor. They will sit underneath their trapdoor with their legs on the ends of the trip-wire. When they feel an insect walking pass the trip-wires, they will rush out, grab their victims and return to their trapdoor where they will consume their prey. I have found quite a few trapdoor spiders and I am quite sure most are undescribed and new to science! Unfortunately, nobody in Malaysia is studying these creatures.
EK: How long have you been working on the environmental issues in the Ulu Muda Forest Reserve? What are some of the key threats that are taking place there? What are you working on in terms of protection or even policy? And what are some of the steps the government or responsible authorities have taken to protect this area?
HK: I have been working in the Ulu Muda area since the late 1990s. WWF Malaysia identified Ulu Muda to be an important landscape for conservation and at that time wanted to start engaging with the state with the aim of affording the area better protection. After I left WWFM, I continued keeping tabs on the area by organizing regular ecotours to the area. In the 2000s under the then Barisan National government, there were serious plans to log the area. With the intervention of the Federal Government, these plans were scrapped. Plans to log the area were again hatched but this time by the current Pakistan Rakyat government. Fortunately this latest plan to log Ulu Muda was also canceled.
Ulu Muda is a very important catchment area for three man-made lakes; Ahning, Pedu and Muda. These reservoirs help supply water for irrigation of the vast Muda paddy fields. This area is known as Malaysiaâ€™s rice bowl. The reservoirs also supply drinking and industrial water to three states namely Perlis, Kedah and Penang. Even the island of Langkawi gets its water from Ulu Muda. Many people donâ€™t know this. (Picture leftt: Gua Labu)
In addition to its importance as a water catchment area, Ulu Muda is an important site for large mammals like elephants, tigers, tapirs, seladang or guars, panther. It is also rich in biodiversity. All 10 species of hornbills found in Malaysia are found here including the rare plain-pouched hornbill. About 270 species of birds have been recorded here too.
Currently, I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to manage an ecolodge called Earth Lodge located smack in the jungles of Ulu Muda. My partners and I like to think that apart from running it as a business; we are also contributing to increasing knowledge of the area by promoting scientific research, raising awareness and directly contributing to the better management of Ulu Muda. Our aim is to have all or parts of Ulu Muda protected under a more secure legislation as protected areas.
EK: You also have a company that provides educational tours to caves and cave systems and more. Can you tell us how the responses have been like from the general public? What sort of eco tours do you cater and whom should the reader contact if they are keen to participate?
HK: Apart from Earth Lodge, I also have a company called Cave Management Group that was appointed by MNS to run tours into the Dark Cave at Batu Cave. My brother, who is my partner in this venture, and I aim to raise the level of awareness of the Dark Cave and the whole hill, that is Batu Caves. In addition, we are also promoting scientific research work in the cave and on the hill and engaging with the relevant government agencies to better protect the Dark Cave and Batu Caves.
I am also providing consultancy services on anything related to caves and karst and protected areas management. Among the work we have done are show cave development projects, cave exploration and mapping, cave tourism and interpretation plans, cave guiding training, courses on caving and management plans for protected areas. Usually my clients are government agencies and nongovernmental organizations.
HK: Itâ€™s difficult because of the low level of awareness among decision makers but I would like to see our caves and karst resources better managed and protected. Having a central database on all things related to caves and karst would be ideal as this would help tremendously in their management. Iâ€™d like to see more systematic scientific research conducted to have more information and better understanding of this important resource.
EK: Why should we be taking cave protection more seriously now?
HK: As I mentioned just now, caves and karst in Malaysia is under a lot of pressure at the moment. They are being needlessly quarried, flora, fauna and physical resources are being stripped away and unsustainable tourism activities are negatively impacting on caves and karst. Caves and karst resources in Malaysia is finite and itâ€™s about time we recognize this and start to properly manage them. At the moment we, as a nation, we are doing a lousy job!