Fond recollections of an ex-Sabah forester

Datuk Seri Rahim Ismail

Datuk Seri Rahim Ismail is probably one of the few Malaysian politicians who have a sound knowledge of forestry matters and are passionate about forest conservation, having served 22 years with the Sabah Forestry Department (SFD).

Even after joining Umno in 1991 and participating actively in politics, this former state Agriculture and Food Industry minister (2002 to 2007) continued his engagement with forestry affairs by taking part in forest management workshops organised by SFD in collaboration with Malaysian and international forestry agencies.

Rahim, 71, who is still active in politics, was a circle forest officer (equivalent to regional forest officer) at SFD Kota Kinabalu before he left in 1991.

In an interview with Bernama here recently, Rahim, who hails from Papar, said he had initially never considered a career in forestry but became interested in it after attending a lecture in Kota Kinabalu by a European scholar on the importance of preserving natural forests.

A year after completing his Overseas School Certificate examination in 1968, he found a job as a junior agricultural assistant with the Sabah State Agricultural Department. After eight months, he was offered a post as a forest ranger at SFD which he, of course, accepted.

Reporting for duty

Reminiscing the early days of his career, Rahim said his first posting was in Lamag, located in Kinabatangan in Sandakan division.

He took a flight from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan to report to the SFD headquarters in Sandakan. Then, the next day he had to make his way to Lamag, which is a long and arduous 17-hour journey by boat from Sandakan.

From Sandakan harbour, he boarded an SFD-owned boat fitted with a 25-horsepower engine, known locally as jongkong, with him as the lone passenger.

The boat travelled on the sea for almost two hours to reach Kampung Memiang which is located near Kuala Kinabatangan, the estuary of Malaysia’s second-longest river Sungai Kinabatangan, and then onward to Lamag in the same boat.

“The boat ride was quite slow as we had to make several stops for meals and rest. We also went past several settlement areas situated along the river, namely Sukau, Batu Putih, Tenegang Besar, Tenegang Kecil and Sungai Piau. By the time we reached Lamag, it was already midnight,” he said.

The next morning, he presented himself to the then Lamag district forest officer M.P Udarbe. After a few weeks in Lamag, he was deployed to the SFD office at Sungai Pin, situated in the upper Kinabatangan river, as a range forest officer (RFO).

Range forest officer

As an RFO, Rahim’s duties included assisting the district forest officer in the basic management of the forest, as well as monitoring the activities of one particular logging company Nabahu Sdn Bhd.

“The company was given a concession area of some 7,000 acres (about 2,833 hectares) in Bukit Kopi and Sg Koyah II (two settlement areas under the jurisdiction of the Sungai Pin forest district office), situated about 12.9 kilometres inland in the Kinabatangan forest reserve.

“Besides Nabahu’s logging activities, I was also responsible for overseeing the activities of four sawmills that got their log supplies from Nabahu and other concessionaires,” he said.

Rahim said Nabahu used tractors to haul the logs from the forest where a rail-based log train – a light steam locomotive – would carry a load of four to six logs at a time to a collecting centre located 11 km away at the Kinabatangan riverside.

He said there was no issue of uncontrolled logging at that time because “extraction of logs was based on a selective system, whereby only the larger diameter logs were harvested”.

Barely a week in Sungai Pin and Bukit Kopi, Rahim encountered a frightening event when a big flood swept the wooden quarters where he and several SFD staff were staying. Although there were no casualties, he lost all his possessions, including several important documents.

New assignment

To enhance his knowledge and expertise in forestry, Rahim left for the Forest Research Institute and Colleges at New Forest in Dehradun, India, in October 1969 to pursue a three-year diploma course in forestry.

Upon his return to Sabah in 1972, he reported for work at the SFD headquarters in Sandakan and was given a new assignment as co-field supervisor of a statewide forest inventory project, a joint-venture initiative between the Malaysian government and Canada.

The scope of the project included identifying and enumerating forest areas in accordance with the type of forest and preparing reports on the different types of forests that were identified.

“As part of the project, we also managed to visit the Gunung Rara, Kalumpang and Maliau Basin forest reserves in Tawau district, including some mangroves reserves.

“To carry out the forest inventory works, we used various modes of transportation such as helicopter, four-wheel-drive vehicles, vessels and boat, sometimes with the involvement of private bodies. Besides maps, compasses and binoculars, we also carried guns for protection but we had permits for them,” he said.

Relating an interesting impromptu jungle trekking experience whilst undertaking the forest inventory project, Rahim said he was leading a team of 24 SFD staff who were airlifted from Sandakan to a base camp inside Kinabatangan forest area, about six kilometres from Lamag.

According to Rahim, their fieldwork almost ended in misadventure due to bad weather and also because they had to cross over to a forest area in the neighbouring Pensiangan district.

“We were supposed to return to Sandakan by helicopter (after completing their fieldwork) but the landing pad at the base camp was flooded as the area was a low-lying ground located adjacent to a river. For us to go back to Sandakan on foot was totally out of the question because of the long distance.

“We identified through a map that Kampung Pandewan in Pensiangan district was the nearest settlement area so we informed SFD headquarters in Sandakan, using a very high-frequency two-way radio, about our plan to trek to Kampung Pandewan and also requested them to send transport to Pandewan to take us back to Sandakan,” he said.

Since no one in the team had gone to Kampung Pandewan by way of jungle trekking, they relied on a compass and map but most of the time found themselves moving on a zigzag course and crossing mountains and rivers.

“Along the way we encountered many wildlife species, namely tembadau (a wild ox species), barking deer, lesser deer, orang utan, wild boar and snakes. While the leeches never stopped attacking us, we were also not fully confident that we would find Pandewan village.

“But we were very lucky because we managed to reach Pandewan after two days and two nights of trekking in the jungle. Not only that, we also found out that the very spot where we camped on our final night was a Murut graveyard!”


Fortunately, a van despatched by SFD was waiting for them in Kampung Pandewan but since it could not accommodate the entire team, they had to rent a second vehicle to take them all to Sandakan.

Rahim recalled that the condition of the road from Pandewan to Keningau was “simply beyond explanation”.

“It was horrendous and we could feel the bumps in every corner of our body.

“After reaching Keningau, we went for a medical check at the district hospital. We rested a day in Keningau before continuing our journey to Sandakan via the Keningau-Tambunan road and then from Tambunan to Ranau and onward to Tulid, which is the gateway to Sandakan.

“The Ranau-Tulid-Sandakan road was equally tough as road constructions to connect the three districts were still in progress then,” he added.

Rahim also said his stint as a range forest officer in Sungai Pin and Sungai Koyah was particularly memorable and that he has vivid memories of the crocodiles, Bornean elephants and proboscis monkeys he encountered whenever, in the course of his work, he travelled by boat along the Kinabatangan river.

“But most important of all, I want to dedicate my memories in the forestry service to the late Mohamad Kamdi Arawon @ Bukah Arawon (who was a forest ranger in Sandakan) who taught me almost everything about the forest. He also taught me how to use a compass and read maps,” he added.

Rahim served at the SFD headquarters in Sandakan until he was transferred to the Keningau SFD office in 1984. In 1988, he was transferred to the SFD office in Kota Kinabalu. 

Following his entry into politics in 1991, he was fielded as a Umno-BN candidate in the Buang Sayang (later known as Pantai Manis) state constituency during the 1994 Sabah state election. He won the seat and retained it for five terms. – Bernama