Toby Smith

Limestone Karst

Limestone is a sedimentary rock formed principally of the minerals calcite and aragonite, them- selves different crystal shapes of calcium carbonate (CaCO3). It is built up from deposited fragments of the skeletons of marine organisms such as coral and molluscs which are compressed into sediment layers.

Limestone is soluble in water but has good structural strength. When eroded it can produce incredible ‘karst’ landscapes with their characteristic fissures, towers and incredible cave systems complete with stalagmites and stalactites.

‘Cathedral Cave’ is found in the southern tip of Gunung Kanthan in the north-west of peninsular Malaysia. Lafarge Malaysia owns the extraction lease for the hill and thus controls the future of the site, its caves and endemic species. One of these, the archaeic Kanthan Trapdoor Spider, lives in Cathedral Cave and nowhere else. Lafarge Malaysia has declared that it will not quarry the cave or the area around it in order to save the spider from extinction.

Historically, limestone hills with their vertical faces and precipitous access were held to be aesthetically pleasing but provided very little value to local government and were therefore easily offered up as quarry concessions.

Gunung Kanthan, an enormous deposit of high quality Limestone in Malaysia, lies terraced, carved, blasted and reduced after almost 50 years of quarrying. A network of trucks and conveyor belts transport the crushed rock to a kiln where it is fired with clinker and coal at temperatures ex- ceeding 1500°C. The end-product, Portland Cement, supplies the building industry and helps sus- tain economic growth across the Malaysian Peninsula.

The green northern peak of Gunung Kanthan remains intact after successful campaigning by a local village to reduce the effect of dust contamination and face blasting. An adjacent peak, to the south of this image, was recently quietly explored by conservationists eager to mitigate and quantify the damage that Lafarge was causing to Gunung Kanthan.

A tiny, unique and endemic snail has been discovered amongst the fissures of limestone and was controversially named Charopa lafargei. This ironic and direct message to Lafarge’s directorship in Paris bestowed the name, ownership and responsibility of a species continuation to their activities.

Unsurprisingly it created a small sensation in the press and promoted dialogue with the corporation. A small area of the quarry concession has since been identified and set aside for conserva tion. Scientists and journalists who once needed to hop fences to complete their work here are now being invited on site and into dialogue.

The Lost World of Tambun is a private development by Sunway Industries that mixes a large theme park, gated residential development and hot springs area. Set in and amongst the region’s most dramatic limestone karst towers and valleys, the beautiful rock formations offer shade, seclusion, aesthetic beauty and interest to the thousands of annual visitors from across the country.

As the visual heart of some of the region’s most desirable real-estate, the karst formations are protected from any further damage or extractive industries. With the majority of architectural developments by the theme-park occurring only at ground level, the development has unwittingly become the long-term economic protectorate of the important ecosystems overhead.

As more caves are developed into temples or tourist attractions across South-East Asia there is however a genuine cause for optimism that the biodiversity and human interest can co-exist. A key driver of cave ecosystems is bats and the organic matter that their guano contains. Rather coincidentally, bats are active nocturnally, long after temples are closed to the public. Cave managers and perhaps the core-values of the Buddhist belief system are sympathetic and keen to utilise en-vironmentally-sensitive means of development.

Malaysian families enjoy the modified hot-springs, pools and waterfalls at the base of a limestone tower in the Lost World of Tambun. Malaysia is multi-ethnic and multi-cultural, which plays a large role in politics and daily life. Since its independence, Malaysia has shown steady economic growth within Asia, with a continually-growing GDP for almost 50 years. The Malaysian economy is fuelled by its natural resources, but is expanding in the sectors of science, tourism, education and com- merce.

The Lost World of Tambun occupies a site that was historically used for tin mining and is surrounded by as-yet undocumented but relatively pristine karst landscapes. Sunway Group prides itself on its architecture, quality exhibits and learning areas. However, these attractions feature captive animals and science exhibits from across Africa and Asia without being specific to Malaysia.

Ironically, the very karst landscape that the theme park protects is not featured or profiled within the exhibits despite literally forming the physical backdrop. With Sunway Group also now operating a new world-class university in Kuala Lumpur there is perhaps great opportunity to fuse new conservation research and a public engagement agenda.


An un-named limestone hill in Perak, Malaysia, has been decimated for marble and limestone for the construction industry by a Chinese owned company. In South-East Asia, karst areas cover around 400,000 square kilometres yet they are being erased and damaged rapidly – often before any research into their unique habitats can be conducted.

This destruction is driven economically with zero regard for environmental impact assessments. A cement company in Malaysia, which owned limestone quarries totalling 1.3 square kilometres, historically generated about US$150 million in revenue from just one year of cement production.

Quarrying is now regarded as the primary threat to the survival of karst-associated species, and it will certainly exacerbate the biodiversity crisis in South-East Asia.

The karst crisis can be reduced by better land-use planning to prevent limestone ecosystems from being damaged and improve legislation where it exists. It is also important to realise and quantify the biological value of karst areas whilst raising the public awareness of their existence.

Limestone karst outcrops are dynamited into loose slopes before workers break them into construction aggregate and road materials. Limestone is also a key raw material for the cement industry. With Myanmar’s rapid economic growth and the growing demand for cement to feed all manner of construction projects, the informal and international development of quarries and cement companies is only expected to accelerate.

The environmental impact of quarrying limestone on limestone-restricted biodiversity has rarely been adequately assessed, not only in Myanmar, but across the world. Quarrying and destroying these unique isolated habitats without appropriate environmental assessment can cause species’ global extinction before they are even discovered.

Fauna & Flora International has been holding workshops to convene forestry, environmental, mining and heavy industry departments, cement companies and civil society organisations in Myanmar which have been warmly received and acted upon. This ensures that environmental regulations can be successfully implemented alongside improvements to employment, health and safety regulation.

A Burmese family approaches a beam of natural light deep with Saddan Cave. At over 800m long, Saddan contains an impressive reclining Buddha and numerous pagodas hidden amongst the sta- lagmites. As tourism and Buddhism pilgrimages increase across Myanmar, many caves such as Saddan are ‘improved’ haphazardly with piecemeal investments in their accessibility, flooring and the installation of electric lighting.

These cave systems are key habitats for the huge diversity of bats in the area. An adjacent cave includes the rare and extraordinary bumblebee bat which, at 2 grams, is the smallest bat in the world. Large colonies of bats provide nocturnal services to local agriculture by feasting on the insect pests that can devastate the surrounding farmland and crops. Bats also drop their guano deep into cave systems which becomes the ‘fuel’ that drives the ecosystems of specialised inverte- brates.

Fauna & Flora international, in partnership with local government, religious leaders and cave care- takers have been conducting bat and invertebrate surveys in Saddan and other caves in Kayin State. Consultation and subtle modifications to the artificial lighting, minimal use of concrete and, critically, zoning of caves ensures that the increase in visitors and existing biodiversity remains in harmony.

Pindaya Cave is one of Myanmar’s most important religious sites, popularised by Buddhist pilgrims and domestic and foreign tourists. It contains over 8,000 images of Buddha with the earliest dating back to 1773. The cave is situated high on a limestone ridge in the Myelat Region which forms part of the seam of limestone karst that extends through Myanmar up to and beyond the border into China and Thailand.

Limestone karst formations and ridges are often ancient geological islands or ‘arks’ – the final remnants of much wider limestone deposits that have long since eroded away. They therefore contain high-levels of plant and animal micro-endemism (restricted to a single small site) both on the surface and also beneath the surface in cave systems.

Limestone karst systems are relatively understudied ecosystems that have huge potential to yield significant numbers of species new to science – especially invertebrates. They offer value to humanity as sites of religious significance, temples and places of worship. However, they are also under threat as limestone itself is mined for cement, aggregate and hundreds of other industrial processes.

As one of Myanmar’s most important anthropological sites, the entire area is on the tentative UNESCO Heritage List which will certainly protect the entire area from any incursion by industry or development. Visitor levels and their impact are controlled by an on-site guardian.

Dr Lee Grismer of La Sierra University scours the hollow limestone flutes of Padah-Lin cave in Shan State, Myanmar, for evidence of endemic reptiles. Situated in an isolated rural location the cave contains three incredible natural chambers all punctuated by shafts of natural light. Adjacent to the cave entrance is a limestone rock shelter decorated with ancient red ochre paintings and markings.

As one of Myanmar’s most important anthropological sites, the entire area is on the UNESCO Ten- tative List of Sites for World Heritage nomination, which will certainly protect the entire area from any incursion by industry or development. Visitor levels and impact are monitored and controlled by an on-site guardian.

Local authorities usually locate damaging extractive industries where a landscape contains the minerals they seek, but other ‘values’ are rarely considered. Landscapes such as Padoh-Lin are protected by their cultural and historical value. Solid conservation research can quantify biodiversity ‘treasures’ or unnoticed environmental services and help local authorities to identify sites where a limestone quarry would have minimal impact to culture, people, and biodiversity.

New to science and as yet un-described, this Bent-Toed Gecko of the genus Cyrtodactylus is truly a limestone specialist. Its toe geometry has evolved to facilitate effortless grip and access to rock- faces at all angles and orientations providing advantages to both finding prey and avoiding predators.

Mount Zwegabin overlooks the sleepy town of Hpa’an in Kayin State. Standing over 700m tall above the surrounding rice paddies it shadows and is capped by numerous Buddhist monasteries. The near vertical sides and summit contain thousands of crevices and caves – each with a unique micro habitat, ecology and hydrology.

Karst outcrops such as Mount Zwegabin contain species that are adapted to cope with the highly alkaline environment and exceedingly dry, seasonal and minimal soil conditions. Many species are confined to (or found primarily inside) caves and cracks with stable humidity and temperature.

Remarkably, some animal and plant species are entirely restricted to single hills or cave systems. If the caves are deep enough, the sheer absence of light and therefore plants, results in incredible ecosystems that are self-sufficient from simply bat guano.

The biodiversity of Mount Zwegabin has yet to be comprehensively researched or documented. The sheer size of its land-mass, its relative isolation and also variation in altitude and humidity makes it an exciting prospect. Zwegabin’s iconic, cultural and religious significance guarantees its protection from extractive industries in the long term.