When I was younger (actually it wasn't that long ago), I used to imagine that the great discoveries of new species were often made in remote, unexplored areas of the Bornean hinterland. Usually the explorers were bearded, machete-wielding, men that exclaimed "By Jove!" or "Good God!!", as they marvelled, peering over the shoulders of their troop of porters, the native landscape and its wonders. Although hardly a remote locality, our new begonia was found modestly enough near Sandakan, close to a small riverside village called Buang Sayang on the Kinabatangan river.
Buang Sayang lies several miles upriver from Bukit Garam. Between 1994 and 1995, I had been making botanical collections of useful plants known to communities in the area. On one occasion, whilst collecting useful plants from the nearby forest areas, I had been accompanied by two elders from the village. We had followed an old tractor path, and came across a peculiar looking shrub-like plant, with distinctive white-spots on the upper leaf surface. I had never seen this before (this was not an uncommon reaction at that time, for when you were as naive of the local flora as I was, even the bayam could be mistaken for an exotic vegetable!), but one of my guides told me his wife often uses these leaves as a vegetable. So a collection was made, and was later shown to my guide's wife. She told me that this plant was known as riang and leaves are cooked with chillies and dried prawns to make a very tasty vegetable dish.
The identity of this 'tasty' vegetable remained unknown to me until I was back in the herbarium in Sandakan, where I learnt that this vegetable was a begonia. However, it wasn't until some time later that I was able to show my collection to Dr Ruth Kiew who specialises in this plant group. It didn't take long for her to deduce that, indeed, this was a new species! So there you are, who would have thought of discovering a unique plant to science in a tractor-trodden degraded landscape. We eventually named the species Begonia lazat Kiew & Reza Azmi (Garden's Bulletin Singapore 50 (1998) 43-48) - the species epithet reflecting its use as a delicious and tasty vegetable (lazat malay for delicious).
Begonia L. of the family Begoniaceae is a large tropical genus, with over several hundred species known in the South East Asian region alone. Sabah, a mere 73 750 sq. km2 is but a small portion of Borneo, but yet harbours at least 60 species of begonias! Most of these are herbs or shrub-like, and many of them occur commonly in the lower and mid-montane rainforest. Begonia lazat or riang, is a cane-like shrubby begonia. The stems are reddish and can extend to about 100 cm tall. The leaves are borne on long, dark red, leaf-stalks. The mature leaves are glossy, dark green with large and small silvery-white blotches. In this respect, its leaves resemble another Sabah begonia, B. malachostica Sands, an endemic to limestone and apparently only known to one limestone outcrop in eastern Sabah. Another striking feature of riang is the relatively large size of its fruits (about 3-4 cm long) - few Bornean begonias possess such large fruits. The closest known allies of riang are B. erythrogyna Sands (known from Poring) and B. tawaensis Merr. (also from eastern Sabah), which are both cane-like begonias with large fruits. Riang however is unique from all other Bornean begonias, by a combination of characters: its habit, leaf-structure, fruit-size and inflorescence. Riang was discovered on a low river terrace of the Kinabatangan river, in a disturbed periodically flooded area. It grew along the path of an old-logging trail, on the fringe of shrubby-secondary vegetation. Despite the species being known to some local residents, we were unable to relocate any more specimens of riang. Furthermore, riang appears to be intolerant of either prolonged flooding or competition, as we were unable to locate this species again a year later.
In the shadow of this new discovery, there lies a sombre tale. Riang, although rare, was at least known to some local older members of Buang Sayang. If efforts in documenting such local knowledge had not been initiated, regardless of the thrill of new discoveries, a small but significant part of the heritage of the people of Kinabatangan would have been loss. Such knowledge even in Kinabatangan villages are sadly neglected - youths growing up in these areas have no need for their forest, they find little opportunities here for earning a livelihood and the attraction for life in towns and cities is too strong. As rural life no longer centres on the use of native forest, rural communities are inadvertently loosing touch of their local knowledge of the forest. However, the decline of forest use amongst local communities are unavoidable as there has been a dramatic loss of natural forest in the region and of the forested areas remaining, most are badly degraded. Large tracts of forest in the last decade has been lost forest due to forest conversion to oil-palm. Recent estimates in the Kinabatangan region show that there has been at least a 50% loss of natural forest in the last two decades! The only remaining native forest are found largely within protected areas (i.e., Forest Reserves, the SAFODA rattan plantation or the proposed Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary). These forest remnants of the Kinabatangan are important refuges for biological diversity, but are also an important part of Sabahs' heritage. We must seriously consider conservation, not only for the protection of biological diversity, but also efforts needs to be directed for the conservation of local knowledge. The forest, and the elders that still know of its value, are Sabah's living heritage. Once they are lost, they may be lost forever.