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Royal Geographical Society (with IBG): the heart of geography

Mulu Sarawak Expedition 1977-1978

Organised by the Royal Geographical Society in association with the Sarawak Government, Malaysia

A study and survey of the newly gazetted Gunung Mulu National Park, Sarawak to make recommendations for the future management and development of this tropical forest reserve.

In 1977/78 the RGS sent out one of the largest expeditions it has ever mounted to Sarawak to study and survey the newly gazetted Gunung Mulu National Park. The expedition was carried out with the full co-operation of the Sarawak Government, particularly the Forest Department, under whose care the National Parks in Sarawak reside. Over a period of 15 months, 115 scientists spent 10,000 man-days in this wonderfully rich tropical forest. From the logistic headquarters, a traditional long-house built especially for the project, scientists moved around the 52,864-hectare park to five subcamps in a variety of habitats. A small administrative team, headed by Robin Hanbury-Tenison and Nigel Winser, provided the necessary back-up for the scientists to maximise their time in the field.

The research involved 50 separate projects within five programmes: forest ecology and nutrient cycling; geomorphology/hydrology and cave survey; botanical and zoological inventories; vegetation survey; and management plan studies. What the survey showed above all was the remarkable diversity and richness of the Park, large areas of which were penetrated and surveyed for the first time.

Gunung (Mount) Mulu, a much dissected sandstone and shale block, is the second highest mountain in Sarawak. Two adjacent mountains, Gunung Api and Gunung Benarat form the highest limestone ridge between North Thailand and New Guinea, and have spectacular pinnacle karst formations with some of the largest underground caverns and cave systems so far discovered anywhere in the world. The vegetation ranges from lowland dipterocarp through to upper montane forest and ericaceous shrubs. The alluvial floodplains of the Melinau, Terikan and Medalam rivers, the tropical heath forest or kerangas in the north-west of the Park, and the peat swamp forest between the Terikan and Medalam rivers all have their own special characteristics. Over 2500 plants were identified including many fruiting trees, 60 mammals including the tiny Savi's pygmy shrew, over 260 birds including all of Borneo's hornbill species and 320 fish. Insects may number 12,000 species and fungi over 8000.

This work provided the base line surveys which contributed to the Management Plan and future work within the Park. The plan was formally adopted by the Sarawak Government and is a model for South-east Asian rainforest management. The speleologists have since extended their underground explorations within the Park, making it one of the most significant cave sites in the world. A tourist centre is now open close to the site of the original base camp, and future research is being encouraged by the Head of the National Parks and Wildlife section and under the guidance of the Park Warden and his staff. The whole of the eastern end of the Park, hardly visited by the expedition, is to remain a wilderness area for scientific research; although a formal reconnaissance with a team from the Forest Department, the NHM and RBG Edinburgh including members of the earlier Mulu expedition was made in 1990.

Leader and Field Director: Robin Hanbury-Tenison

Scientific Co-ordinator: Clive Jermy, British Museum (Natural History)

Sarawak Scientific Liaison Officer: Dr Paul K K Chai, Forest Department, Kuching

Scientific Programme Directors:
Forest Survey: Dr J A R Anderson, WWF-funded consultant
Forest Ecology Project: Dr John Proctor, University of Stirling
Faunistic Survey: The Earl of Cranbrook (Lord Medway)
Speleological Survey: Dr A C Waltham, Trent Polytechnic
Soil Survey: Dr Ian Baillie, Polytechnic of North London
Landform and Hydrology Survey: Dr Marjorie M Sweeting, University of Oxford
Human Ecology Survey of the Penan: Peter Kedit, Government Ethnologist, Sarawak Museum, Kuching.

Deputy Field Director: Nigel Winser

Number of members: 145

Duration: June 1977-September 1978

Major sponsors included:

Shell (Sarawak) Bhd.; Algy Cluff; Royal Air Force; Cathay Pacific; Royal Malaysian Air Force; Royal Society; the National Geographic Society.