Court interpreter, Lily Liew Siaw Sze, is an amateur naturalist, who has captured some of Sarawak’s most spectacular flora and fauna
AIRASIA flight AK5210 from Kuala Lumpur began its descent over the South China Sea just a short while before entering the air space of Lundu – a seafront district in the northwest of Sarawak.
As the A320 banked to the left and to the right, the verdant topography of the Borneo state flitted across in zippy succession. Perched on my regular 27A window seat, it seemed to me like I was watching a National Geographic documentary in super fast cuts.
Green rainforests, murky-brown rivers, more green jungles, swathes of reddish bare land, more greenery and isolated kampungs, more brownish meandering rivers and just before the captain said: “Cabin crew, please be seated for landing”, multi coloured hues of the cityscape came into view in a gala flash.
After a gentle thud, a 150mph dash across the runway, AK5210 slows down and rolls to a stop as the chief stewardess announced: “Ladies and gentlemen, we have arrived at Kuching International Airport.”
I could not agree more with her as I could already sense the inimitable essence of Sarawak even before deplaning.
Fellow passengers, mostly Sarawakians on board, made me feel at home with their placid mannerisms and more than adequate smiles going all around.
This mild-mannered, good-natured body language of East Malaysian folks would be a trademark feature that I would constantly encounter in this Borneo state.
A young girl carrying a locally handcrafted tote bag with an image of the iconic hornbill was another pleasant nudge to remind me that I was in ‘The Land of The Hornbills’.
Rich in its indigenous heritage, its cultures and festivals, colourful native rituals and rubrics as well as in its opulent tropical biodiversity, Sarawak is variedly described in kaleidoscopic perspectives, so whimsical and sometimes impulsively bizarre.
To most people, Sarawak is ‘The Land of the Head-hunters’, a quaint and legendary signature label hard to be erased from memory and even harder to be jettisoned from holiday brochures in the present.
But yet to others it is ‘The Land of Pepper and Honey’ and more lately to the proud Bidayuhs it is ‘The Land of Pandalela Rinong’, a native diving enthusiast who won the Olympic bronze in the women’s 10m platform plunge at the London 2012 games.
Sarawak is this and that and a bit of everything to one and all.
For me, it is also the world of Lily Liew, a nature lover and photography enthusiast who has a compelling fellow-feeling for animals including street strays and the big outdoors.
‘Lily of the Valley’
A native of the Borneo state and of Chinese-Bidayuh stock, Lily counts herself fortunate to live right where nature beckons. It is here where the dilettante naturalist encounters plant and animal species upfront.
“Sarawak has such a large trove of animal and plant species. There are some species that are endemic to Sarawak only. My ancestors from my maternal side who lived in longhouses before would have certainly relished the native plant species as vegetables, especially sayur midin.
“These can be anything from buah kepayang (Pangium edule) to rebung buluh madu (Gigantochloa albociliata) and midin (Stenochlaena palustries) a wild jungle herb popularly consumed as a stir-fried dish cooked with shrimp paste.
“And of course, the jungle hosts many species of medicinal plants which we use as kitchen remedies and there are those that are still waiting to be discovered,” says Lily.
Borneo is estimated to be home to around 222 mammals, including 44 species that are native to Borneo island – meaning they are not found anywhere else in the world.
The island also hosts 420 bird species, with 37 of them being endemic, and 100 amphibians and 394 fish species of which 19 are endemic.
At least 15,000 plants, of which 6,000 are found nowhere else in the world but only exist in the swamps, mangroves, and lowland and mountain forests of Borneo.
The Heart of Borneo with Sarawak occupying 124,450 sq km is also home to around 10,000 of these plant species.
Not everyone gets the opportunity, especially the average city person to get upfront with exotic owl species such as the Barred Eagle Owl (Bubo sumatranus). But Lily was blessed to encounter this pretty bird when it went on a tailspin during flight and crashed into a durian plantation near her house in Kampung Quop.
“The owl was hurt from the hard crash landing. I transported it to the Matang Wildlife Centre where it received veterinary attention and it survived,” says Lily.
“My second encounter was with a Scops Owl (Otus scops). For some reason it flew into my father’s car through the open driver’s window and struck the opposite window which was closed. This incident happened along the densely forested Serian-Sibu road.
“My father brought it home and we tried to nurse it back to health but failed. I took it to the same wildlife centre hoping it would survive, but it died.”
Beyond encounters with owls, Lily’s acquaintance with the natural world can be anything as bizarre as the Wagler’s Pit Viper (Tropidolaemus wagleri); the magnificent Noctuid Moth (Asota Plana); the adorable Prevost’s Squirrel (Callosciurus prevosti); an orphaned pangolin (Manis javanica); a little lost praying mantis; a frog that has hopped away from its lair; a green garden lizard (Bronchcela cristatella) and a host of stray cats and dogs, some of which she rescued from the streets.
Lily is also a volunteer with two animal societies in Sarawak – the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA) and the SOS Save our Strays Kuching.
It is in these two shelters that she had picked up interests in animal welfare, animal rescue and a bit of veterinary medicine.
Weekends will see her busy at these animal shelters, where she joins other volunteers to clean, feed and attend to sick animals.
Her soft spot for animals knows no limits. Even when overseas, nothing can stop her from saying hello to a three-legged dog in Phuket or to give a ‘good boy’ pat to a water buffalo in Cambodia.
Lily rues deforestation
The rainforests of Borneo are believed to be around 140 million years old – twice as old as their antipodal cousins in the Amazon. This makes them the oldest forests on the planet, a fact that might explain why such a staggering array of biodiversity can still be found in Sarawak.
Not meaning to cavil nor engage in activism in the style of Bruno Manser, Lily rues the denigration of the state’s tropical forests.
“Building mega dams that obliterate huge swathes of land area is ‘horrible’,” she says, adding, “such projects affect not only destroy the biodiversity but deplete the ozone layer, causing global warming and climate change.”
Lily is also concerned with animal poaching.
“Many species have become extinct, some will soon be lost forever due to this illegal activity. We have laws to discourage animal poaching but enforcement is difficult because Sarawak is a huge state. Public cooperation is important to stop this menace,” she laments.
It has been said that “the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its citizens treat their animals”.
Lily may not know it, that with her compulsive love for animals she is actually displaying a ‘patriotic sentiment’.
That ‘unseen greatness’ will forever be etched in the core essence of her soul.