• Journecology

The History and Importance of Maliau Basin

Updated: Jan 27, 2018

Maliau Basin, also known as ‘Sabah’s Lost World’ is a 58,840 hectare bowl of pristine tropical forest in Malaysian Borneo. The unique geology of this area has left flora and fauna cut-off from the outside forest for thousands of years, making this remarkable environment a haven for biologists and explorers. Consequently it has been designated a conservation area and Class 1 Protection Forest Reserve, with protected buffer zones around the perimeter.

Formation and Discovery

From the air, Maliau basin looks like the remnants of a super volcano, but covered in thick forest. With a diameter of 25km, the ‘rim’ of the basin reaches up to 1,600m, and the entire bowl is drained into one river, which drains to the south east. The ground comprises of 5000 metre thick mixed mudstone and sandstone layers, sitting on a 2000 metre thick primarily mudstone base.

The formation of Maliau occurred mainly between 9 – 15 million years ago, through tectonic movement, when such of Sabah was underwater. Accumulated stressed from the three surrounding plates (Eurasian, Philippine – Pacific, Indian – Australian) and major NE-SW and SW-SE fault lines, resulted in the extension and compression of the region where we now see the basin. The central dish then gradually eroded through the slipping of sedimentary rock, and gradually the basin was uplifted above sea level by continuous compression in eastern Sabah.

Left – The geological stratification of the Maliau Basin, Right – Physical geography of MBCA

The resulting basin had a slight tilt to the south east, and is thus drained by one river at the region. The fractures left after tectonic compression act as excellent waterways, adding to the efficacy of this single catchment drainage system.

It is important to note that Maliau Basin has been known to indigenous communities for centuries. Although there is no evidence that these communities were based within the basin, they may have often ventured inside. These communities protected and respected the surrounding environment, however the increasing tide of oil palm may threaten these ancient lands.

The first evidence of the basin to the non-indigenous communities appeared remarkably late, in 1947, when a pilot nearly crashed into the outer rim. An expedition in 1960 reached the outside edge, and another in 1980 reached the rim but was thwarted due to illness and lack of supplies. The first people to enter the basin were a team of four to demarcate a basic trail in 1986. A larger scientific led expedition followed in 1988, another in 1996, and finally the studies centre was constructed in 2002 at the south eastern ‘entrance’.


Being separated from human interference has resulted in a huge area of untouched forest, comprising of 12 different forest types. Lowland dipterocarp forests (fruit bearing) give way to montane moss forest and kerangas (heath forest). The overlap in these environments is known as ecotone – interesting and often new species can be found in these zones. There are approximately 2,000 species of plant currently known in Maliau, but this number is due to rapidly rise as more land is surveyed. Interesting plants such as pitcher plants, orchid species and rafflesia are all found within Maliau.

Apart from this, there are over 80 species of mammal present, many endangered such as the pygmy elephant, orangutan and clouded leopard. There are also 300 bird species including all 8 of Borneo’s hornbills and some species only found on Mt. Kinabalu outside of the basin.

There are current efforts to make Maliau a UNESCO World Heritage Site in order to further protect this complex and vast display of biodiversity. This would also increase the amount of positive eco-tourism to the area, and helpful scientific research.

Maliau Basin Studies Centre

The Studies Centre lies at the south east of the basin, a short distance from the Maliau river. There is one road which winds from the Tawau -Keningan highway at the Maliau gatehouse complex, 40 minutes through the jungle, to the studies centre. This centre provides a base for tourists and scientists with tours and trails dispersing into the basin, whilst causing minimal effect to the adjacent forest. For it’s isolated location, MBSC is extremely well equipped, featuring the following on-site facilities:

  • Resthouse Complex (Dining Hall, Kitchen, T.V. Lounge, Accommodation – 14 rooms)

  • 4 Hostel Dormitories

  • Office Complex (Office, Library, Reception Hall, Souvenir Shop, Lecture Hall, Conference Room)

  • Researcher Annex

  • 3 Luxury Flats

  • Staff Houses

  • School classroom and laboratory

  • Research Complex (laboratories, office spaces)

  • Nature Gallery

  • Mosque

Off-site, and at various distances from MBSC, are an array of satellite camps and suspension bridges, camping grounds – these provide access and overnight shelter for those venturing far out into the jungle. Excursions to these camps must be well planned, and for some, may take many days to reach.

Research and Eco-Tourism

On-going research in MBCA ranges across all disciplines of forest ecology, working alongside local indigenous communities. The unique nature of Maliau provides ample research opportunity, be it weather, geological, botanical or animal study. To work in Maliau, there are stringent guidelines and requirements that must be fulfilled in order to ensure facilitation of only the most useful and non-intrusive study techniques. This must be completed with the guidance of a local Malaysian collaborator, and the help of research assistants.

As well as new research providing fascinating insights into Maliau Basin itself, the pristine forest is an excellent site in which to conduct control experiments when comparing with disrupted habitat. Much of the Bornean rainforest is being deforested for plantation, in particular oil palm. Maliau is so well protected and buffered, it is a perfect example of ‘how forest should be’, completely untouched by man. By looking at the differences between facets of pristine and damaged forest, ecologists can begin to understand what problems habitat damage has caused, and model how this might continue.

A large source of funding used to upkeep MBSC and the research here comes from eco-tourism. Eco-tourism is an incredibly important and beneficial process globally, which contributes to the continued survival of good causes whilst increasing awareness of those who partake, resulting in positive feedback of research, discovery and funding. Many travel companies work alongside MBCA to offer tourists a unique opportunity to see one of the world’s most bio diverse and untouched ecosystems. As well as this, MBSC has facilities for school and university groups, as well as a nature gallery and information centre. Communicating the beauty and importance of Maliau is essential in continuing it’s protection and the survival of this one of a kind ecosystem.


TONGKUL F, CHANG FK (2003) Structural geology of the Neogene Maliau Basin School of Science and Technology, Universiti Malaysia Sabah, Malaysia

TONGKUL F (2002) Structural geology of Maliau Basin and Surrounding Areas School of Science and Technology, Universiti Malaysia Sabah, Malaysia


http://www.maliaubasin.org http://www.mysabah.com/wordpress/maliau-basin-sabah-lost-world

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