Mount Kinabalu is the only glacial landscape in the tropical region. Glacial erosion from melting ice 10,000 years ago formed these parallel grooves. (Felix Tongkul)

Geopark Not Just Another Label for Kinabalu

Though already a World Heritage Site, Kinabalu needs geopark status to conserve oft overlooked natural values, argues geologist Felix Tongkul.

MOUNT Kinabalu, Malaysia’s tallest mountain, is now being assessed for UNESCO Global Geopark status. The proposed geopark encompasses not just the mountain, but the park in which it sits as well as the surrounding districts of Kota Belud, Kota Marudu and Ranau, an area of 4,750 square kilometres.

Kinabalu Park has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000.

Why is there a need for more recognition for Kinabalu Park from UNESCO? Is the Global Geopark status more superior to the World Heritage Site status? What is so interesting about geoparks? These are valid questions I often hear from my friends.

(Photo: Mount Kinabalu is the only glacial landscape in the tropical region. Glacial erosion from melting ice 10,000 years ago formed these parallel grooves. – Pic by Felix Tongkul.)

I will try to answer these queries by relating my involvement in conservation geology and in the establishment of the Kinabalu Global Geopark.    

My involvement in conservation geology started in 1996 when – as a member of a larger research team – I was assigned to map geological heritage sites in Sabah and Labuan. During this time, the concept of conservation geology was still very new in Malaysia.

Briefly, conservation geology involves conserving  geological diversity and using geological heritage resources (such as rocks, minerals, fossils) without destroying them.

Heritage values

Heritage values refer to four values: scientific (important for the geological records or history of the development of the Earth); aesthetic (landscape which is breath-taking or unusual); recreational (suitable for various nature-based recreation); and cultural (usually associated with utilisation, local beliefs, and historic and archaeological values).

Because the field was so new then, our research team was basically making up and improving our research methodologies as we mapped the geological heritage sites.

We were fortunate as there were many geological heritage sites from other countries that we could learn from and information on them was easily accessible on the web.

What’s this?

In the beginning, not many geologists, including those from the Mineral and Geoscience Department of Malaysia, were keen on this new field. It appeared to be at loggerheads with the conventional use of geological resource, such as mining and quarrying.

However, in 1998, local geologists interested in conservation geology established the Malaysian Geological Heritage Group to explain and promote the concepts of geological heritage resources and geotourism.

This led to more aggressive and systematic mapping of geological heritage sites throughout Malaysia.

Much later, around 2010, the Minerals and Geoscience Department of Malaysia themselves initiated a new geoscience activity dedicated to mapping geological heritage resources.

Tight folded very thin red chert layers (130 million years old) sitting on pillow basalt (greyish blue) exposed on a narrow gorge along Sungai Baliojong River in Tandek, Kota Marudu. This rock sequence represents an ancient oceanic crust from the proto-South China Sea lithosphere. (Felix Tongkul)

Tight folded very thin red chert layers (130 million years old) sitting on pillow basalt (greyish blue) exposed on a narrow gorge along Sungai Baliojong River in Tandek, Kota Marudu. This rock sequence represents an ancient oceanic crust from the proto-South China Sea lithosphere. (Felix Tongkul)

To illustrate the need for conservation geology, I will use as example a site that is close to my heart.

This site is an ancient oceanic crust of about 130 million years old, located along the river of Sungai Baliojong in Tandek, in the district of Kota Marudu, Sabah.

Sungai Baliojong is one of the last pristine rivers located near the town.

High-value features

I mapped this site in 1988. The ancient oceanic crust protrudes for several kilometres and comprises interesting high-value features like pillow basalts, gabbros and cherts along the riverbank.

Due to its accessibility and high geological heritage values, Sungai Baliojong is an excursion site for our Geology Programme at Universiti Malaysia Sabah.

It is where we teach undergraduate students to map rocks along rivers. I have visited this site almost every year with my students to carry out the mapping exercise. 

Scrap metal?

 There used to be a metal huge rail bucket by the river, which along with the abandoned mines at the site, is a remnant of the manganese mining there in 1905 — 1910.

Unfortunately, in 2012, the historical metal rail bucket along Sungai Baliojong disappeared. Apparently, it has been taken apart and used as scrap metal. 

Uncontrolled clearing of land for oil palm plantations has also become more intense along Sungai Baliojong.

Unfit for drinking

This has not only affected the aesthetic of the riverbank and the rock outcrop but has also made the river prone to flooding and drastically reduced its water quality.

During one of our fieldwork sessions in this river, the river water turned muddy after just a light rain; for the first time there, we had to buy bottled drinking water.

A close-up of the pillow basalt, showing a radial fracture. This pillow structure developed during the abrupt cooling of magma as it meets sea water. Note the camera lens cap for scale. (Felix Tongkul)

In my work across Sabah and Labuan, I realise that most of the significant geological heritage sites are located outside of conserved areas. They are therefore exposed to uncontrolled development activities, which may cause their destruction.

In fact, since 2005, some limestone sites in Kudat which were important for fossils, have already been lost to quarrying.

Two years later, a proposed quarry threatened the limestone rocks in Pulau Balambangan, also in Kudat, which possess beautiful cave features. Fortunately, the quarrying did not proceed due to strong objections from environmentalists in Sabah.

Halting destruction

To effectively stop the destruction of important geological heritage sites, the Malaysian Geological Heritage Group mooted protected geological sites.

And geoparks offered one of the best ways to generate revenue from sustainable tourism on geological heritage resources while conserving them and promoting public awareness of them.

Thus, the first geopark in Malaysia, located in Langkawi, was finally formalised as the Langkawi UNESCO Global Geopark in 2007.

A decade of delays

Following Langkawi, the Kinabalu geopark was proposed. I was assigned to assist in the preparation of a dossier for application, first as a national geopark and later as a UNESCO Global Geopark.

A draft dossier was prepared in 2008. Unfortunately this was not followed up on, as the relevant stakeholders, such as Sabah Parks and the Minerals and Geosciences Department in Sabah, were apparently not ready.

It was not until after 10 years in 2018, that the Kinabalu geopark dossier preparation was reactivated. It was finally completed and submitted in 2019. The area became a national geopark the following year.

If everything goes well, the evaluation of the aspiring Kinabalu UNESCO Global Geopark will be held in July or August this year and the assessment results known in early 2022.

Carved by glaciers

The main geological heritage of the geopark is the presence of Mount Kinabalu, the youngest granite rock in Southeast Asia (formed 7—8 million years ago).

Rising over 4,000 metres above the present-day sea level, it is a mountainous landscape of outstanding beauty, carved by the last glaciation activity (10,000 years ago). It is the only glacial landscape in the tropical region.

Another main geological heritage is the presence of an ancient oceanic crust (130 million years old), which records the oldest rock in Sabah.

Presently, 46 geological sites have been established in the Kinabalu Global Geopark which tell its geological history and landscape evolution.

Geopark status will provide more economic opportunities for locals such as this highland vegetable farmer at Kg Mesilou located at the foot of Mount Kinabalu. (Felix Tongkul)
Geopark status will provide more economic opportunities for locals such as this highland vegetable farmer at Kg Mesilou located at the foot of Mount Kinabalu. (Felix Tongkul)

I like the geopark concept because it advances the protection and use of geological heritage in a sustainable way and promotes the economic well-being of the people who live there.

This is different from the concept of a park or a World Heritage Site, which focus purely on the conservation of biodiversity and the ecology of an area.

By raising awareness of the importance of the area’s geological heritage, the geopark gives local people a sense of pride in their region and strengthens their identification with the area.

Jobs and protection

The creation of innovative local enterprises, new jobs and high-quality training courses is stimulated as new sources of revenue are generated through geotourism, while the geological resources of the area are protected.

My hope is that with the establishment of the Kinabalu UNESCO Global Geopark, the communities around Mount Kinabalu will benefit from the numerous geological heritage resources located outside the Kinabalu Park area.

[Edited by SL Wong]


Dr Felix Tongkul is a geologist with the Faculty of Science and Natural Resources, Universiti Malaysia Sabah and Kinabalu Global Geopark Advisor.

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