LANGKAWI, Malaysia – In the UNESCO-listed Kilim Karst Geopark in Langkawi, a man in T-shirt and shorts laughs with his friends as one of the long-tailed macaques that are ubiquitous across the Malaysian island leaps onto their boat to snatch a bag of chips from his hands. The gray-furred mugger joins the rest of its troop on the twisted roots and branches of the mangrove trees along the bank, thrusts its paw into the crackly bag and gobbles up the food. Beneath the monkeys’ feet, evidence of past raids is only partly concealed in the mud.
The boat resumes its journey with the men still joking about their close encounter with the local wildlife. The macaques, which will eat almost anything, idly groom each other while keeping watch on the passing humans in the hope of another snack. In addition to the macaques waiting for handouts, white-bellied eagles, usually solitary hunters, gather en masse in the treetops to swoop down on meat thrown from tourist boats.
“It’s a problem,” sighs Atika, the young guide with a degree in biodiversity who’s leading a tour of the area for JungleWalla, a company that prides itself on its commitment to conservation and environmental best practice. The animals “develop a dependence and see humans as an easy source of food,” she says.
In addition to altering wildlife behavior, human presence is having other effects on Langkawi’s delicate environment. Waves caused by speeding boats are eroding the shores of the mangrove forest, and in some of the narrower parts of the cove, diesel fumes hang in the humid air as boats line up.
The Langkawi archipelago off Malaysia’s northwest coast is made up of more than 100 islands (depending on the tide) including the main island, the country’s third largest. For years a well-kept secret of pristine beaches, unspoiled rainforest and unique limestone outcrops, tourism began to take off in the 1990s after the island was declared duty-free and luxury resorts began to open. Some 3.6 million people visited Langkawi in 2016, according to the Langkawi Development Authority (LADA).
Now the authorities want even more — 5.5 million by 2020 — and have ambitious plans to transform the island, marketed under the slogan “Naturally Langkawi,” with high-rise hotels and apartments, coastal roads on reclaimed land, and other trappings of a 21st-century tourist destination. A clutch of swanky hotels has opened in recent years, and an expansion of the airport terminal will be completed this year. But critics say little has been done to upgrade the island’s basic infrastructure — sewage systems, water supply and waste management — adding to the strain on an already fragile environment.
“There’s a lot of frustration about what’s promoted and the reality,” says Eric Sinnaya, the chairman of the local branch of the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS), who also operates his own tourism business. “They should stop any development on Langkawi. Stop completely. Soon the island will lose its luster and tourists will go to other islands. Langkawi is 90 percent dependent on tourism so they are killing the goose that lays the golden egg.”
Mountains of waste
Langkawi’s only landfill site borders the Kilim Karst Geoforest Park, and local conservationists worry it may be putting the mangrove’s delicate ecosystem at risk. Occupying coastal estuaries, mangroves act as a “life support system” along tropical coasts, according to Aldrie Amir from the Institute for Environment and Development at the National University of Malaysia. They prevent erosion of shoreline, create sheltered breeding grounds for fish and other aquatic life, and provide protection from floods and tsunamis.
The limestone karsts that give Langkawi’s mangrove its unique landscape — trees and orchids clinging to rocky crags and crevices — are thought to be hundreds of millions of years old.
Contaminants from the growing pile of garbage have already leached into the water, according to MNS. Every day, workers pick their way through the ever-growing mountain of plastic water bottles, shopping bags, diapers and other remnants of daily life, looking for anything of value. Data compiled by the organization show 100 metric tons of rubbish is produced every day by tourists and the 120,000 people who currently make Langkawi their home, rising to 150 tons in the high season. Like many tourist islands, the disposal of that waste is not only a major headache, but also a huge environmental problem.
“There are lots of people and [the island] doesn’t have the capacity to manage solid waste,” says Fairul Izmal Jamal Hisne, a marine biologist who co-founded Marecet, a Malaysian NGO that studies dolphins in Malaysia and has worked in the archipelago since 2010. “Sending [the waste] to the mainland costs a lot and even if it does get there the whole country has a problem with waste management so there are two issues: finding land and the increasing pressure from tourist arrivals and lots more businesses.”
Armed with bin bags, Ulrika Player and her friend Zuraidah Zainal Abidin have been leading weekly clean-ups of the archipelago for the past two years as part of a group called Trash Heroes. Assisted by visitors and local residents who sign up for the clean-ups on social media, they say they’ve collected some 26,000 kilograms of waste, mostly plastic bottles.
Trash Heroes also educates residents about recycling and is currently working with schools, but the landfill is still where most garbage ends up. The local authorities’ promises to ban plastic bags have come to nothing, according to Player.
Player, who is married to an islander, worries large-scale development will only add to Langkawi’s problems.
“If the development is done without any thought to the environment, we are going to self-destruct,” she says over coffee at one of the beachfront cafes in Pantai Cenang, the island’s busiest beach. “Tourists don’t want dirty water, and they don’t want to walk over smelly sewers. Not taking care of Langkawi’s environment means fewer returning tourists.”
The authorities are trying to contain any environmental contamination from the landfill by dumping soil on top of the waste mountain. An incinerator that was supposed to provide an alternative to the landfill, itself a controversial approach, has proved a costly white elephant. Built at the foot of the garbage hill, its buildings lie abandoned, doors hanging open and weeds and grass poking up through the concrete.
The 68 million ringgit ($17.4 million) plant was supposed to process about 100 metric tons of waste a day, but it failed to be commissioned in 2011 as planned, and the authorities have not been able to get it working. Meanwhile, garbage continues to pile up.
“Definitely, we need to manage this solid waste,” says Ahmad Zaini Zaba’ai, deputy chief executive for planning and development at LADA, a central government body (Malaysia has a federal system of government) that is supposed to coordinate development on the island. “If we cannot do that, it’s a problem.”
UNESCO declared Langkawi the region’s first Geopark in 2007 and raised concerns about development and the environment on its first site status evaluation in 2011, calling for better regulation of the park areas, an end to wildlife feeding, and strictly enforced boat speed limits near the mangrove.
To guide tourism development, LADA unveiled a five-year Tourism Blueprint that same year that also acknowledged the problems facing the archipelago. “The very assets that made Langkawi unique are at risk,” the report states. “The deteriorating environmental quality of major sites such as Kilim and Cenang, due to erosion and pollution respectively, were highlighted as warning signs of a prevailing lackadaisical attitude towards conservation and preservation.”
Seven years on, the day is winding down in Cenang, and the cooler evening air as well as the promise of a spectacular sunset have lured holidaymakers onto the sand. The more adventurous are still out on their paragliders or jet skis, while children build sandcastles and paddle about in the shallows.
But despite the warnings in the blueprint, water pollution issues have still not been resolved. E. coli readings reach “dangerous” levels several times per year — at least 600 parts per million (ppm), compared with an allowable reading of 100 ppm, according to MNS, which monitors water quality. The organization says neighboring Pantai Tengah, as well as the water around the main town of Kuah, are also polluted.
In February, the government announced it would spend 1.3 billion ringgit ($332 million) on new infrastructure for the island, including a water supply project, and LADA says steps are being taken to address the sewage problem. The first phase of a central sewage system has been completed, and authorities are trying to convince hoteliers, some of whom pump wastewater directly into the sea, to connect to the network. They insist development will not come at the expense of the environment.
“We must have a long-term approach not short-term gain,” Zaini says. “We have to strike a balance on this issue.”
For years, the convention in Langkawi was that no building could be taller than a coconut tree. In Cenang, bars and low-rise hotels jostle for space along the seafront, obscuring the view of the beach, and while local authorities have indicated they want to bring some order to the chaos with a boardwalk and other improvements, newer plans suggest a more ambitious approach. The Draft Local Development Plan 2030 envisages turning what was once a seaside village into Cenang Beachfront City, with a Gold Coast-style strip of high-rise hotels and apartments rising up to 25 stories.
Cenang, along with Tengah, are already a hive of construction activity, despite concerns about the scale and pace of development. Lampposts along the beachfront road are festooned with banners promising a tropical property dream: luxury apartments overlooking white sand beaches and azure seas.
The hotel is also trying to address the sewage problem by creating its own three-step natural wetland to naturally filter the wastewater that collects in its septic tanks. Plants like Heliconia and water hyacinth help clean and filter the water before it collects in the third and final pond. The hotel tests the treated water every six months for quality before it is reused for flushing toilets, cleaning outdoor areas and watering the garden. The hotel has also introduced its own flood management system after Langkawi experienced a spate of flash floods last year.
Back in Kilim, the diversity of the mangroves slowly reveals itself.
At low tide, the patient and sharp-eyed get to see tiny fiddler crabs with their single outsize claw skit to and fro. Bulbous-eyed mudskippers emerge from their burrows to glean tiny invertebrates marooned in the muck. Pit vipers, almost perfectly camouflaged, lie in wait in the mangrove trees’ tangled roots.
Atika directs the boatman closer to the trees, and plucks a leaf. The surface is coated in a patina of salt – a physical sign of mangroves’ crucial role in regulating this delicate environment between land and sea.
“You don’t have to travel very far and you are right into nature,” says Irshad Mobarak, founder of JungleWalla and Langkawi’s (and perhaps Malaysia’s) best-known naturalist. He’s lived on the island for nearly 30 years and estimates about 50 percent of the its natural heritage has been lost in that time.
“We can’t compete with other places in shopping and nightlife, but one area we are ahead is natural heritage. If we continue to lose it, that’s it.”