Balambangan Island is located some 20 kilometres off the
northern tip of Sabah (Tanjung
Simpang Mengayau), and it is part of the
Kudat Division. About three kilometres to its east lies
Pulau Banggi, Malaysia’s largest island. Balambangan Island
was amongst the first locations in Sabah where British
traders set up trading posts. In 1761 (or 1773 according to
other sources) Alexander Dalrymple, a British East India
Company officer concluded an agreement with the Sultan of
Sulu to allow him occupation of the island. A free port was
established, important for the interest of the British in
the East Asia region, namely trade with China. The port,
however, failed to become a long term success due to
constant pirate attacks as well as for other reasons, and
was abandoned after a couple of years.
Banggi and Balambangan Islands are two places
in Sabah where I have not yet been, and very unfortunately so. Not
only was Balambangan the first foothold of the English in what was
to become, almost exactly two hundred years later, Malaysia as we
know it to-day, but the two islands are still very little developed
and the islanders there live an age old life-style that has little
changed since the first Brits saw it. As such Balambangan and Banggi
are of great value for those interested in local culture and
customs, languages and traditions, but equally so for botanists and
nature lovers. Balambangan has also some interesting archaeological
sites – something I was unawares of until I read an article about
the “Caves of Balambangan Island” by ‘Tadpole’
in our popular newspaper ‘Sabah
Times.’ The caves are virtually unheard of, and
reading the article in Sabah Times one can only guess some of the
reasons why the island, with its ancient history, its people and
natural beauty are not promoted as tourism destinations to the world
at large. Here is the article, as it appeared in the newspaper,
followed by an older article in
Balambangan Island -
by Tadpole, New Sabah Times; Thursday, 23 March 2009
Island is located approximately 21 km north of Kudat and
3 km west of Pulau Banggi. This island was one of the first
establishments in Sabah in which British East India Company
set up a trading post in 1761. It was abandoned after
repeated pirate attacks.
Over 20 limestone caves, all without a name, exist on
Balambangan Island, but only four are studied, The rest are
unexplored and undocumented. Archaeological findings of
three prehistoric human bones and 36 artefacts, from the
Pleistocene era (the Ice Age – between 1.75 million to
11,000 years ago) were discovered there by researchers in
1997. The locals say the Japanese also used Balambangan
caves as the base during the World War II.
Despite its value as a historical and ecotourism site,
Balambangan Island is not protected as a national park.
Instead, the government has been proposing developers to
build clinker plant to mine limestone, which is an important
ingredient in the manufacturing of cement. The 65.3 million
metric tonnes of limestone on the island could last about 52
years of quarrying operations, but it will destroy the
beautiful caves that have taken million years to form.
Therefore, before the caves are gone forever, I want to show
you the photos [visit
"Tadpole's" Blog for photos] of their
intriguing limestone formations, consisting of stalactites,
stalagmites, flow stone, straw and many other speleotems
[sic], in hopes that people will protect these caves when
they come to know and love the extraordinary sights of these
stones. I worry that every piece of unique formation, which
takes thousands of years to form, would become cement that
worth just a few cents.
On April 12, the Sabah Society organised a trip to explore
one of the caves. We landed next to the water which full of
aggressive salt-water crocodiles. After 15 minutes of jungle
trekking, we reached the cave entrance, a place where
Palaeolithic community once called home about 20,000 years
Limestone caves are created by erosion of rock by rainwater
that diluted with carbon dioxide and form a weak acid. When
acid reacts with limestone, it dissolves the limestone and
gradually creates a cave. The space inside this Balambangan
cave is vast and it is about 150 m in length. We heard
chirping of alerted swiftlets and bats, the cave dwellers.
Probably due to a few big cave opening on top, the smell of
guano is not as strong as other normal caves.
Because of low accessibility, the cave is very well
preserved. We saw many pointy stalactites hang from the
ceilings of the caves like icicle, and stalagmites look as
if they’re emerging from the ground. When both of these
formations grow and join into one, a column is formed.
Abundance of stalactites and stalagmites making the cave
looks like the mouth of a giant monster with sharp teeth.
These dripstones (stalactites + stalagmites) only grow about
˝ inch for every 100 years. The visibility in the cave was
low, and one wrong step would crush a hundred-year-old
infant stalagmite under our feet.
I heard water dripping and found a small pond with a lot of
“cave pearls”. Cave pearl is created by droplets dissolved
with limestone. The droplets fall into the pond, rotated by
the water and mix with sand grain or rock fragment, and
slowly turned into a round ball with size ranging from a
marble to a tennis ball. When it is taken out of water and
left dry, it will become powder.
Balambangan caves are the natural, historical and scientific
heritages that we should conserve for our future generations
to study and appreciate. Limestone mining is definitively
not a sustainable way of managing our resources. I had seen
many cases when copper was mined, timber was cleared, then
the only things left behind were pollution and flood, and
the local people still remain poor. I wish it will be
developed as a geo-tourism site that will attract tourists
and benefit the local economy in a long run.”
Sabah’s regular dilemma when
it comes to her astonishing biodiversity and natural beauty:
destroy for fast profits for a few who will get even richer,
or conserve for long term profits for many, first and
foremost the local population? This article in the Daily Express
(Independent National Newspaper of East Malaysia) succinctly
extrapolates the issue:
Daily Express, Saturday, November 24 2007
Kinabalu: Balambangan Island situated approximately 21km
north of the Tip of Borneo in Kudat has tremendous potential
to be developed for eco-tourism.
WWF-Malaysia Executive Director Dr Dionysius S.K Sharma said
a study by Sabah Parks on four of the more than 20 limestone
caves on the island revealed unique formations consisting of
stalactites, stalagmites, flow stone, straw and many other
speleotems, all contributing to the aesthetic value of the
And the caves constitute only one aspect of the island's
significant biodiversity, he said, adding that endemic
species like snail species and slipper orchid,
critically-endangered tree species like seraya, rare species
of pandan and orchids of horticultural importance are among
the unique features of the island.
Apart from its bio-diversity, Balambangan Island has much
historical value, grounded in the establishment of an East
India Company post by the British traders in the late 18th
Used as a trading settlement, the interests of the British
traders in Sabah steadily grew from this outpost, he said.
He said archaeological findings from the Pleistocene era
(the Ice Age - between 1.75 million to 11,000 years ago)
discovered by researchers from the Malaysian Archaeological
Research Centre (PPAM) at Universiti Sains Malaysia in
August 1997 have established human existence dating even
The discovery included three prehistoric human bones and 36
artefacts made out of animal bones that may have been likely
used as tools, he said.
However, he said the fate of Balambangan Island lies on the
clinker and grinding plant of cement as part of the State
Government's aim of setting up an integrated Clinker Plant
Project to meet the cement demand in Sabah.
Clinker is the main material used in the production of
cement, while limestone constitutes the major raw ingredient
or approximately 70 per cent of the production of clinker.
According to an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report
that prepared in September 2005 by Paduwangsa Sdn Bhd, on
behalf of Sedco, Balambangan Island has an estimated quarry
reserve of 65.3 million metric tonnes, equivalent to over 52
years of clinker plant operation (Sinoh Environmental Sdn
Bhd, 2005). Local communities would benefit from employment
"But what happens after 52 years? Once the quarrying begins,
so do the accompanying long-term effects. With human life
span today averaging at 76 years, our posterity will not
experience any benefits from this project at all," he said.
Dr Sharma said quarrying despoils the environment and rock
blasting could lead to the destruction of coral reefs, which
would be of no help to the tourism industry.
"But let's be honest, the reefs off Balambangan Island are
currently not on the priority list of diving enthusiasts,
local or foreign. On the other hand, the current fish
landings in the Kudat region represent the highest
concentration in Sabah," he said.
Dr Sharma said to the fishing industry, destroyed coral
reefs mean no fish. Adding to problem, he said was the
proposed construction of two jetties on the island to allow
barges to transport the limestone to Sepanggar Bay, which
would damage the coral reefs.
"The evidence is there and so are the options," he said,
adding that while preservation is costly its rewards are
long in the making.
He noted renowned limestone caves like the Mulu Caves in
Sarawak and Ngilgi Caves in Western Australia to be the
proof of its ability to provide income to the local
communities for a period spanning much longer than half a
"It is up to our government to uphold the preservation of
Sabah's rich natural resources," said Dr Sharma.