Sabah s eco fixers at work
An orphan orang-utan at Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort / Picture: Mogens Johansen

The orphan orang-utans come swinging through the trees towards our viewing platform, their lunch laid out on a wooden platform.

These very fortunate orphans are staying at a 25ha nature reserve at the five-star Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort near Kota Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo. There are four orphans at the resort, two boys and two girls ranging in age from three to six.

They are part of a program run in collaboration between Rasa Ria Resort and Sabah Wildlife that was established in 1996 and has successfully rehabilitated 38 orang-utans.

I am part of a small group of visitors from the resort which has made a short trip into the jungle to watch a feeding session. Visitors are allowed to watch for one hour but there is strictly no touching because of the risk of passing on diseases and because the idea is to gradually reduce their dependence on humans, so they are able to fend for themselves when they are released into the wild.

We watch quietly as they feed and play. Only three of the orang-utans have shown up for lunch on this occasion and the youngest is clearly still fairly dependent. She doesn't venture far from the platform and often looks towards her keeper for reassurance. The other two are male and much more adventurous. They climb right to the top of the trees where they practise making nests, then swing from side to side on branches when they want to get to another tree.

Each orang-utan is different but generally they are ready to be released into the wild after three to four years.

Another example of corporate social responsibility is at Gayana Eco-Resort, on a peaceful lagoon at Gayana Island, a short boat trip from Kota Kinabalu.

The resort has three full-time marine biologists involved in marine-based rehabilitation projects. The Marine Ecology Research Centre known as MERC is based at the resort and has several projects it is working on but the original and main one is propagating giant clams.

Malaysia is home to seven of the eight species of giant clams and MERC has successfully grown and relocated many since its inception.

As well as being a marketing tool it is also a passion of the local Chinese businessman who owns the resort, says Lizio Mosigil, speaking for the resort when asked how it became involved in the project.

Inevitably there was some environmental damage when the resort was built and he was keen to re-establish it to its original condition. Guests can go snorkelling straight from their villa and see the giant clams and coral grown at the resort. At MERC guests and visitors can see the work being done as well as watch aquarium displays showing the different ecosystems such as coral reef systems, mangrove forests and sea grass beds. There is a large touch pool where children can feel various marine animals.

Marine biologist Kristen Soong shows me around MERC and explains the process of propagating giant clams and that it takes four years before they are ready to be transplanted on to the reef. The have successfully propagated all seven species found in Malaysian waters. The giant clams and coral from the nursery are relocated into 6-7m water at the lagoon where they are monitored by the marine biologists.

The Saracen Reef World pontoon based at the other side of Gayana Island is also involved in marine research. It has two marine biologists working on board who, as well as educating visitors about marine life, are conducting research.

The sky ignites during sunset at the beachside bar / Picture: Mogens Johansen

Marine biologist Ivy Milani Chin is particularly interested in fish profiling, which involves identifying all the fish in the area while her senior colleague Tulasiramanan Ramachandran is conducting research into the deadly box jellyfish.

"It is a fascinating job and I want to educate people and make them love what I love," Ms Chin says.

Later when she and dive master Lionel Lingam accompany me on a dive they point out some of the fish and coral. Unfortunately due to stormy weather a few days earlier the visibility is only about 5m, which is quite poor for this area. As we ascend for our safety stop we watch large schools of juvenile barracuda and yellowtail snapper which gather under the pontoon. Ms Chin later explains they weren't seen in the area before the pontoon anchored there about a year ago.

The pontoon was built in Cairns and can cater for up to 500 people. It has an underwater observatory where non-swimmers can see the marine life swim past at a depth of 4m. If you feel a little more adventurous you can try an Ocean Walk where you are fitted with a diving helmet that rests on your shoulders then all you do is walk down a few steps to a platform 4m below where you can stand and watch the fish and a small coral garden display at one end complete with anemones and clownfish. Air is pumped into the helmet, so when you walk underwater you can breathe perfectly normally, all you hear is the hissing air being pumped into the helmet.

Other activities include scuba diving, jet skiing and banana boat rides and there are plenty of in- between activities with drinks and a barbecue buffet lunch.

All three projects are positive examples of the synergy between running a successful tourism venture while at the same time educating visitors and helping to preserve the very environment that makes their business an attractive one. They also have local schoolchildren visit the projects to learn about the importance of looking after the environment. Perhaps if more tourism businesses realise the link between caring for the environment and running a successful business, it'll be done.

To finish my visit I'm invited to watch the sunset from the beachside bar at another Shangri- La resort at Tanjung Aru. It's been a cloudy day so I'm not expecting anything too dramatic but am very pleasantly surprised when the overcast sky ignites into a fiery sunset providing a fitting end to a great trip.

FACT FILE

Mogens Johansen was a guest of Tourism Malaysia and Malaysia Airlines.

For Shangri-La Rasa Ria, go to shangri-la.com/kotakinabalu/ rasariaresort.

The West Australian

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