A lush mangrove forest digs in its heels literaly in the backyard of Kota Kinabalu city, thanks to the city folks’ commitment to conservation and the wetland birds that inspired it.
Sheltered well away from the hustle and bustle of the city, the scenic sanctuary is all that remains of Kota Kinabalu’s once extensive mangrove forests that fringed the intertidal mudflats and coastlines of the city.
A mere ten minutes’ drive from downtown Kota Kinabalu, the reserve offers visitors a window to the mangrove ecosystem, home to a wide variety of birds, insects and fish species unique to the mangrove habitat.
Formerly known as the Kota Kinabalu City Bird Park, the wetland reserve covers more than 24 hectares (60 acres) of mangrove forest which was gazetted as protected reserve by the state government in 1996.
Visitors can walk comfortably along the network of boardwalks(1.5km) traversing the mangrove forest while keeping an eye for the brilliant collared-kingfishers, white egrets combing the lagoon for a meal, the eagles and the elusive night heron on the treetops. One can also see the shy iguanas, mud crabs and occasional snakes under the stilt roots of the mangrove trees.
Over the years large tracts of mangrove forests have given way to human habitation. Much of the city of Kota Kinabalu occupies land that was once under mangrove forests.
Mangrove forests resembling the one in the Kota Kinabalu Wetland Centre are native to the saline coastal areas, particularly in intertidal mudflats and sandbars. The ebb and flow of the tide washes the tidal woodland twice a day and replenishes the mangrove trees with oxygenated salt water and a fresh supply of nutrients.
The unique wetland habitat attracts not just the birds but also human visitors, some from very far away. Among them were Len Matheson from New Zealand who came to catch a glimpse of the birds and wildlife that frequent the reserve.
While there are nine major mangrove species in the reserve, the most commonly found include the Api-Api Putih, Bakau Minyak and Pedada, to name three. Api-api putih(Avicenna Alba) can be readily recognised by its leaves which appear glossy green on top and paler on the underside, and distinctive pencil-shaped roots protruding above the ground or water which enable the plant to breathe. Bakau Minyak (Rhizophorbia apiculata) has arching, stilt root system, and spear-shaped fruits, while the Pedada (Sonneratia alba) has typically broad, oval shaped leaves as well as cone-shaped roots that stick out straight out of the water.
The mangrove forest dominates the wetland ecosystem owing to its unique ability to withstand the rigors of highly saline and brackish inter-tidal water along estuaries, coastlines including saltwater and freshwater marshes. The trees provide the building blocks of a complex, interwoven food chain by producing large amounts of leaf litter, fruits and other organic materials. They also supply nutrients for animals at the lower end of the food chain such as worms, snails, mussels, oysters and mollusks. In turn, these detritus eaters become a source of protein for larger predators including barramundi, mangrove jacks, herons and mud crabs and, high up on the food chain, other animals, including humans.
"The best time to visit the mangrove forest is early morning when resident birds and other wildlife in the park go out looking for food," said KKWC Conservation Science Officer Siti Joanni Matlan.
The lush mangroves of the KKWC play an important role in minimising pollution by absorbing nutrients.
They also offer protection against storms, including tsunami, as well as common wave actions that cause coastal erosion. Its tangled labyrinth of roots forms an ideal refuge and nursery ground that harbours many species of juvenile ocean fish, including lobsters, crabs and prawns.
High in the mangrove canopy, a cacophony of cicadas make their presence felt, adding to the rich luxuriant splendor of the tropical mangrove forest.
For avid nature lover, Fung Sai Hou, the mangrove park provides a rare attraction in the urban heart of Kota Kinabalu.
"The mangrove center is an idyllic retreat not far from the city center, it’s a great place for bird-watchers and anyone who enjoys connecting with nature," he said. -Insight Sabah