Landscapes in Limestone
Over two years, a scientist took over 2,000 drone photos of limestone hills in Peninsular Malaysia. The stories they tell are fascinating. A photo essay.
Text by SL Wong. Images by Foon Junn Kitt/ ‘Conservation of Limestone Ecosystems of Malaysia’ (2021).
Published: January 25, 202
Nobody knew how many limestone hills there were in Malaysia until a team of scientists decided to count them. They used different methods, and for Peninsular Malaysia, also sent up drones to photograph the hills. Travelling a whopping 22,000 km over two years in the peninsula, they confirmed the presence of 911 outcrops. Their photos reveal the astounding variety and beauty of these hills’ shapes and landscapes.
The drone photos were taken by team member Foon Junn Kitt, who documented 89% of the 911 hills. His most adventurous journey was to mykarst-064 in Ulu Keniyam, Pahang, deep in Taman Negara. “We trekked for 16 km, took a boat ride and ‘overnight’ there. We were there during fruiting season and encountered elephants, saw tiger marks, seladang marks … The last time researchers were there was in the 1950s!” (photographer’s composite photo)
In Tasik Temenggor, Perak, the karsts had been partially drowned to create the lake for the hydro-electric dam. Foon waited till the water level dropped to see the exposed rocks on the ‘islands’. He then boated to the rocks to scrape off pieces. He dropped these in acid to confirm the outcrops were indeed limestone. As it was the rainy season, he also had only 5 minutes to find a beach to launch the drone and take photographs before the heavens opened. (inset photo by Mary-Ruth Low)
Some of Malaysia’s hills hold spiritual and historical meaning for indigenous people. The Batek Orang Asli of Kampung Tom Ki Ying in Pahang, have several beliefs tied to their surrounding outcrops (pictured above and in the main photo). One belief says that the outcrops are the bones of the ancient naga, underworld serpents which emerged during the time of creation. Another is that they are petrified figures associated with the creator-being Senti (Tacey, 2018).
The plains around karst outcrops are often used for agriculture, whether plantations or small farms and orchards. What saves the outcrops is that they are too steep and the soil less fertile. Still, farmers often plant right up to the base of the karst. When they burn land for replanting or to get rid of rubbish, the fire could easily creep up the hill, destroying fragile limestone vegetation, as with mykarst-1079 in Kelantan.
In Ipoh, desirable real estate is set against the serene backdrop of the town’s famed Chinese-watercolour-type limestone hills. However, that beauty is due to the rock being highly soluble by rainwater. This also makes rockfall a real threat. A study of 7 hills close to roads and houses, found them all to be susceptible to rockfalls; 2 were highly susceptible. Yet homes – and other infrastructure – continue to be built very close to outcrops.
Despite being surrounded by development, such as generations-old rice paddies in Perlis, many of the 911 hills verified “are still intact,” says Foon. “I think there is a lot of potential for them to be allocated to different uses, whether conservation, resource use, recreation, tourism… Of course, it needs a lot of collaboration and understanding between all the stakeholders (so they can) be managed sustainably.”
A prime example where different stakeholders came together for sustainable use of limestone landscapes is Langkawi’s Kilim Karst Geoforest Park. With stunning gray walls contrasting with the blue water and sky, it is protected as permanent forest reserves, designated a UNESCO global geopark, and community-managed by the Koperasi Komuniti Kampung Kilim Langkawi for tourism and conservation.
Conversely, Bukit Panching near Sungai Lembing in Pahang has the dubious honour of being the site of extinction. Now a lake, the hill was completely quarried in 2007, says Foon, a snail researcher. It used to be the only place in the world where the land snail Plectostoma sciaphilum was found. Like the hill, the snail species is now gone. Neighbouring hills also house endemic snails and are currently being quarried.
Like Bukit Chabang in Perlis, opinions on how to use limestone are split and Foon understands that. “My hometown is Ipoh. I grew up seeing the [limestone] landscape changing before my eyes… ‘Why are the hills changing, quarried?’ Now when I put on my scientist’s hat, I see the bigger picture. Some things are inevitable. It’s a matter of how to manage the landscape better, in a well-informed way…Not all hope is lost.”
Note on the hill names: this essay uses the names as appear in ‘Conservation of Limestone Ecosystems of Malaysia’ (2021).
About the photographer: Foon Junn Kitt is a malacologist. He was part of the’ Conservation of Limestone Ecosystems of Malaysia’ team and its primary drone photographer.
[Edited by Law Yao Hua]